While the algorithms that do so much to prod and cajole gig workers are undoubtedly important, they are ostensibly without managers in the way that most workers would understand things. Their motivation has to come largely from within, therefore, and fascinating new research from Wharton explores some of the ways in which gig workers strive to do that.
This is especially interesting as not only do gig workers not have a line manager but they also don’t really have colleagues. This sense of independence and autonomy is something often cited as a draw of gig-based work, but the research nonetheless found that gig workers tend to take a couple of core approaches to maintain their motivation and engagement.
The research found that gig drivers can often take great pleasure from the relationships they form with passengers. These relationships are also underpinned by the algorithms that drive the apps themselves, with good reviews a key factor in the driver’s success.
Drivers also took an almost gamified approach to their work, with greater efficiency rewarded with higher pay rates. This created an almost adversarial relationship with the app itself as it often inaccurately tracked their efforts. This often resulted in people developing their own tracking tools and even attempting to game the algorithm in order to get ahead.
The study provides a number of examples of the relationship game in action, with drivers going the extra mile to help, and therefore engage with, their customers. These relationships clearly provide deep meaning to the work. What’s more, these efforts were not done through any desire to earn more in tips, with little evidence of this being the case, but rather the professionalism and purpose such acts exhibit.
Many drivers who strive on the relational aspect of their work would describe themselves in elevated terms, whether as counselors or tour guides for their passengers. This would often provide a range of non-financial benefits for the drivers, such as new friends or job contacts.
“The app is a tangible reminder of a job well done… allowing for an instant emotional boost,” the author explains. “Many drivers reported checking their apps constantly, even outside of work shifts.”
Those with a more efficiency-oriented approach tend to be less inclined to worry about their work outside of work hours. Their primary interest was to get the best bares possible and they would tend to enforce clear social boundaries between themselves and their passengers, such as by not offering to help with luggage.
This created a more distrustful perspective of customers, and so additional, value-add tasks were often avoided for fear of any possible liabilities they may introduce. This general distrust also extends to the algorithm itself, which is generally viewed as unhelpful and not effective in successfully and efficiently matching drivers with fares or calculating their income.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with this mindset tend to view gig work negatively and as a low-paid trap that they’re desperate to get out of.
“Overall, when playing the efficiency game, drivers were not able to see themselves as skillful or successful in the work, as they were painfully aware of the control wielded by [the company] and its algorithms,” the author says. “This led drivers to describe their relationship with [the company] as antagonistic and, at times, even destructive.”
A mixed approach
Suffice to say, few gig drivers adopted one approach or the other in entirety, and it was far more common to mix their approach based upon particular circumstances. Nonetheless, the author believes that their findings should prompt the platform companies to give more consideration to the way their apps are designed, especially as they are the primary link between themselves and the organization.
Of course, a second study, from Harvard Business School, outlines how many low-wage workers are viewed as both expendable and interchangeable, with this attitude contributing to a general lack of investment in people. This contributes to the high churn rate in low-wage roles.
This seems like a problem faced by gig platforms too, with a notable study from 2017 suggesting that just 4% of Uber drivers remain on the platform for longer than a year. Previous studies have strongly suggested that gig work is undertaken less as a career vocation and more as a flexible solution to short-term problems.
While various court cases have made the case for gig drivers to be considered as employees rather than contractors, there seems little real enthusiasm among the platforms themselves to view drivers and other gig workers as anything but disposable. If, as the Wharton study suggests, some drivers like their work, it seems to be no fault of the platforms themselves.