How Workers Create Meaning in the Gig Economy

management professor at Wharton Lindsey Cameron was so committed to her research on gig workers that she became one, driving part-time for Uber for three years as she studied how people in the sharing economy made sense of their lives. work.

Her time spent as both a driver and a passenger helped Cameron forge a deeper understanding with the 63 drivers she interviewed over five years for her formal study. By interviewing them, she gleaned intimate details about their experiences and learned the mental games they play to find satisfaction in transactional, temporary, and sometimes downright lonely jobs.

“There’s a cultural narrative that the gig economy is so terrible and so exploitative,” Cameron said. “Honestly, I went into the search thinking it was true, but that’s not what a lot of riders told me. They really liked it.

His article, “Kissing at the wheel: interpersonal and efficiency games in the Gig Economy”, recently published in the journal Organizational sciences, adds to a growing body of research on what is quickly becoming the new norm for many – workplaces without walls, bosses, colleagues or any other traditional structure that keeps employees engaged and socially connected. As much as 55 million Americans were working on demand in 2017, a figure that has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. And political debates continue over whether these workers should be classified as employees deserving of benefits.

“We are entering a world where organization and professional socialization mechanisms are weaker. You can be hired by a company and work there without ever speaking to a single person face to face,” Cameron said. “It raises the question of what keeps people in the work game? I hope this document helps you understand what it’s like to literally be in the driver’s seat.

“I hope this document helps you understand what it’s like to literally be in the driver’s seat.” –Lindsey Cameron

In his analysis, Cameron found that rideshare drivers were playing two different games to stay engaged. She categorized them as follows:

  • The relationship game — Drivers bond with their passengers and provide excellent customer service to earn a great review on the company’s app, which uses an algorithm-based rating system. They develop a mutually beneficial and friendly relationship with the app as they constantly track their ratings and get positive feedback.
  • The efficiency game — Drivers complete their work promptly at the highest rate of pay and manage passengers with minimal personal contact. Unable to accurately track their efforts through the app, drivers develop an adversarial relationship with it. They often create their own tracking tools and sometimes resort to manipulating the platform’s algorithm to “win”.

The study is filled with eye-opening anecdotes from Cameron’s interviews that show how drivers are playing the relationship game by going the extra mile to engage their customers. One spoke of consoling a discouraged, suicidal passenger until the man felt calm (“It was a good ride for me”). Another described how providing free water and snacks to hungry runners after a football game made them so grateful they called him the greatest driver of all time (“It made their day”). Others decorated their car interiors with unicorn decals or played music that would deliberately spark friendly conversation with their passengers.

These drivers did not report receiving more tips for their efforts, Cameron said. Instead, what motivated them to provide a superior level of service was a sense of professionalism and purpose. Many relationship game drivers described themselves as tour guides, advisers and sounding boards for passengers who just needed a friendly ear. Sometimes their actions have paid off in non-monetary ways, leading them to new friends, hobbies, or professional contacts.

Cameron noted that these drivers often whipped out their smartphones while she interviewed them to show her the positive comments left by grateful passengers. For them, the app was a “benevolent algorithm” that offered support and advice, much like a good colleague.

“The app is a tangible reminder of a job well done…allowing for an instant emotional boost,” she wrote in the journal. “Many drivers reported constantly checking their apps, even outside of shifts.”

In contrast, drivers who played the efficiency game had no interest in anything other than getting their fares from one destination to another. They imposed social barriers by not offering to help with luggage, for example, or complying with requests for a quick detour to McDonald’s (“I don’t want to make 17 cents a minute and… make you sit down, eat fries, make my car smell like fries”).

“The app is a tangible reminder of a job well done…allowing for an instant emotional boost.” –Lindsey Cameron

Many efficiency game pilots were wary and distrustful of customers. Thus, they did not offer additional services, such as luggage transport, to protect against liability – for example, being charged with theft. This mistrust extended to the algorithm, which they considered useless in matching them to the best rates, imprecise in calculating their salary, and even unholy. A driver told Cameron, “I know exactly who is behind the algorithm’s decisions, and it’s not God.”

Unsurprisingly, drivers of efficiency games were more likely to view gig work as a low-paying trap they wanted to escape from. One even compared carpooling to prostitution, where the business is the “pimp” and the passengers are “the customers.”

“Overall, when playing the efficiency game, drivers were unable to see themselves as skilled or efficient at the job, as they were painfully aware of the control wielded by [the company] and its algorithms,” Cameron wrote. “This led drivers to describe their relationship with [the company] as antagonistic and, at times, even destructive.

An important takeaway from the study is that not all gig workers have always played one game or another; some have changed their approach depending on the circumstances. Another takeaway, although not explicit in the study, is the need for technology-based companies to pay more attention to their applications, which are the only link between the site worker and the organization. wider, she said.

“This tool is releasing globally, so the user interaction experience is very important,” Cameron said. “What’s more important is recognizing that people will have different motivations, so how do you create the right technology infrastructure and give them enough scaffolding to play the game they want to play?”

Cameron said what surprised her most about her study was the contrasting perspectives she found among taxi drivers.

“I didn’t like driving because of traffic jams. I thought not everyone was going to like it too. Lo and behold, a lot of people like it,” she said. “This article aims to make sense of that, and it shows the value of qualitative research. One of the characteristics of good qualitative research is that you can put yourself in the participants’ shoes.

Donald E. Patel