In an excellent podcast episode the venture capitalist Naval Ravikant painted the following picture about a future of work characterised by extreme flexibility and mass self employment:“You will find yourself waking every morning — or every week — to check your smart phone (or whatever the latest device is), and you will receive an alert with various jobs and contracts which you can choose from, and you will look at them, pick the ones which you like based on your social connections and how much they’re offering you…. how much it can build your profile and your future work prospects, and then you will do that work, and afterwards you will be ranked and rated on it. And then if you want to take the next week off you will take the next week off, and if you want to do two jobs at a time you’ll do two jobs at a time.”
There are many reasons why these kind of projections about the future of work trigger highly polarised opinion. How do you feel about this — good or bad?
A concerned and negative view
Those in this corner are likely to point to the uncertainty, lack of rights and atomisation of work in the “gig economy”, zero hours contract and agency working. They might raise other legitimate concerns about having algorithms as bosses in control of their time, or point to one of the various heart-breaking stories exposing the ills of modern labour practices. One such case is that of Don Lane, a 53-year-old father of one, who collapsed and died from diabetes after being fined £150 by the courier company DPD for attending a hospital appointment to treat his disease. Like many other members of the gig economy Don was carrying out his duties wearing corporate uniform, whilst not endowed the rights of an employee.
An optimistic and positive corner
Those in this corner may be motivated by the apparent flexibility to control when, where and how much you work. To rely on one’s work ethic and drive, rather than cutting a deal with, and being reliant on the decisions and successes of an employer. They might be refreshed to think of a decentralised market driven approach to the rating and review of their identity in the labour market, as opposed to the bureaucracy and politicking of many workplaces.
Which corner are you in?
Like most things there's normally a middle way. Perhaps you’d recognise good arguments from both corners, granting the concerned credence in their calls for better rights and restraint on the robotic demands of algorithmic bosses, whilst also supporting the optimist’s enthusiasm for the freedom which accompanies flexible working and the idea that those who choose to work harder are entitled to top up their earnings. You’d recognise, in short, like in all aspects of building a fair and just society — that there is a balance here to be struck between rights and responsibility.
The tragic story of Don Lane — and others who’ve been fined, fired or fearful of missing gigs due to illness or other commitments — are clear examples that the correct balance is currently out of kilter in that part of the labour market which is growing the fastest. Self employment in the UK increased by 26% between 2007 and 2017, and the number of agency workers (rarely entitled to employee rights) by 30% according to the Resolution Foundation. A survey by the software company Intuit found that by 2020, in just two years, 40% of the US workforce will be so-called contingent workers. That's 60 million people.
So how might we start steer the “future of work" in a direction that appropriately balances rights and responsibilities, flexibility and security?
1. An accurate understanding of the situation on the ground
With all the press coverage of zero hours contracts and the conditions of gig economy workers it is sometimes easy for those disconnected from the frontline of low wage work (such as the media and political elite) to jump on the barricades in defence of a new “precariat”. But as Matthew Taylor’s extensive review of modern working practices reveals (a great step forward on these matters by the UK government), 68% of those on zero hours contracts don’t actually want more hours. Like Uber drivers, of whom 80% say they would like to remain as independent contractors, they appreciate the benefits of flexible working.
There is also an important difference between the kind of flexible working offered by the ‘next economy’ platform companies (e.g. Uber & Deliveroo) and that offered by traditional top down employers. As Tim O'Reilly describes, the way traditional employers use technology is often a demonstration of “the wrong way to manage variable workloads: pervasive workplace monitoring, algorithmic shift assignment with minimal affordances for worker input, and programmed limits on hours that limit employees to part-time work limits to avoid triggering expensive health benefits.” In such a scenario, one might rather work for this employer on a self employed or agency contract basis and be free to top up their hours with other jobs.
In other words, it's important to unpack assumptions about the gig economy providing a bad deal for workers, or full employment always providing a good deal for workers. Just as most people are now seeing through the Silicon Valley spin of the “sharing economy”, we must also be squinty eyed about terms like the gig economy, and instead focus on where the evidence suggests that flexibility is really good for workers, and when it only benefits the business.
2. The slow death of 20th century trade unionism
Trade unions formed in an era when the workplace fostered face to face organisation, and when people held down the same jobs for decades, not days. Whilst trade unions still play a role — 6.5 million employees are today members of trade unions in the UK — this is well below peak membership of 13 million in 1979. Less than 6% of the u30’s in the workforce are members of a trade union, often turning to Facebook or Whatsapp to communicate and organise about issues at work. And this is also at a time where trade unions are winning arguments, not losing them. Mcdonalds, Sports Direct and Amazon are just a few high profile examples where staff have won the debate in the last 12 months. In two of those cases their campaigns were started with technology (the Organise Platform), not trade unions. But if trade unions are helping staff to win arguments whilst losing members, surely that is a sign that they need to be updated, die or replaced. Not surprisingly, technology is likely to determine what happens next.
3. The promise of “Worker Tech”
We’ve already seen that the flexibility provided by the platforms is appreciated by the majority of workers. As Tim O’Reilly explains, thats because aspects of their practices focus on providing “data to both managers and workers”, which gives workers agency, rather than “providing data and control solely to managers”.
Whilst creating some benefits for workers, much of the relevant tech innovation has predominantly been motivated to benefit customers and shareholders, with relatively few tech companies setting out with a clear mission to empower workers. Therefore another interesting outcome of the Taylor Review has been the governments promise to form a WorkerTech catalyst, to help stimulate the development of a range of WorkerTech models and platforms in the UK.
It's also a reason why the ‘Future of Fair Work Challenge’ organised by Bethnal Green Ventures, and which I was fortunate enough to attend last weekend, was so refreshing. Together with some of my colleagues from Zaptic I got the chance to collaborate with and pitch against other founders of worker tech ventures, ranging from wage check apps, a “platform co-op” to compete with Uber, on-demand legal advice via chatbot, a fairer call centre and an app to help workers benefit from the Governments apprenticeship levy.
Whilst there is a growing market to take technology direct to the workers, business will likely embrace those innovations which offer a win/win/win to business, worker and customer. Shift sharing apps may be one example, helping retail and hospitality workers with their spare time top up their hours by taking the shifts of those who would otherwise miss them, because they have hospital appointments of caring commitments for example. Zaptic is working with Labourxchange — aiming to be the largest and fairest provider of temporary staff and work in the UK — to remove barriers to low paid work for everyone by combining our intelligent coaching platform with their automated shift placement.
What about technology as the enabler of organisation and collective power to reverse the decay in 20th century trade unionism? Well this seems to be a topic which is wide open and an area for real impact and social innovation in the future. Perhaps if we revisit Ravikants scenario we find a possible direction of travel. Amidst the billions of self employed workers with online identities, its not difficult to imagine large scale, social media style organisation and networking between like minded workers with similar ratings, reviews and job prospects.
In a similar way to how young hopeful house buyers are pooling their wages in “Stepladder Circles”, it's also not difficult to imagine those worker groups pooling their wages and schedules in order to gain shift flexibility and bargaining power with regard to insurance, health and other aspects of traditional benefits.
In such a world, where a combination of collective organisation and individual incentive ensures a full rota on the shop floor unmediated via middle managers, the role of the employer really could become obsolete for both worker and customer.
Let us know which corner you are in in the comments!