Dehumanization is a feature of gig work, not a bug

Of course, Friskies Shreds wet cat food was on the bottom shelf of the last aisle I checked. It was just that kind of day. As I knelt down to inspect the inventory, I scanned the customer’s order coming back to me on my smartphone: “All seafood pieces with and without cheese. Twenty cans of various flavors. But doesn’t the “variety of flavors” contradict the more specific request for “seafood shreds with and without cheese”? Or maybe the seafood category includes multiple flavors? Am I overthinking this?

As a business school professor—and, more importantly, not a cat owner—my experience that day was atypical. As a driver for Postmates, however, this was just one of 238 deliveries I made for the popular food delivery platform as part of an immersive 18-month research project to better understand the strategies that drivers use to create a meaningful work identity. During my time as a Postmate, I drove 130 hours, interviewed other drivers who had collectively made 170,000 rides and deliveries on similar platforms (Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Grubhub, Instacart, etc.), assisted in-person and virtual company meetings, and reviewed and contributed to pilot forums on Facebook, Reddit, and other websites.

In a sense, my recently published findings are not surprising. Like many enforcement workers in the gig economy, I too have had clients who chastised me for not having a foresighted understanding of their building’s layout, parking restrictions, or door access codes. I too have barely managed to earn more than minimum wage, despite selectively driving in some of the most lucrative markets in the country and employing the most effective strategies I know of (like resisting the urge to chasing notoriously quick-to-cool “hotspots” across the city, avoiding neighborhoods with too many maze-like apartment buildings and prioritizing multiple deliveries in a single transaction over single orders ).

However, my findings also point to something deeper and perhaps more concerning about the changing nature of work and our relationship to it, which transcends app labor in the gig economy. What I have observed and experienced is a system that suppresses workers’ uniqueness, experiences and future aspirations. It was a system that treated people as lines of code to deploy instead of humans to develop. This is problematic because work is not simply the translation of physical and intellectual effort into money. What we do daily for work is part of our larger life story that makes us who we are.

Historically, organizations have played a crucial role in defining these evolving stories for employees by providing them with the physical, social, and psychological space to process and deal with confusing, disturbing, or anxiety-provoking work situations. For example, traditional organizations provide their employees with the appropriate framework and resources to receive or provide advice, encouragement, feedback and training; to help a colleague solve a problem or overcome a negative result; to cultivate social connections through a secure and predictable network of colleagues, supervisors and mentors. Collectively, these characteristics of traditional organizations help employees answer the question “Who am I?” as part of their work.

Many on-demand economy engines, I have found, have struggled to answer this question. A driver I interviewed explained, “I try to bring my personality, but the app itself doesn’t really offer that…the app sets a precedent for dehumanizing…if you don’t try to ‘inject your personality, it just washes it away… I feel like a robot at the end of the day. Another driver put it more bluntly: “The driver is invisible [to customers]… the driver doesn’t exist… it’s as if you weren’t really there.

It wasn’t until I drove over 40 hours in a week in Las Vegas that I finally felt this reality myself. As I wrote in my research paper, what I experienced, and what many riders I interviewed described, was akin to working on a stationary bike that is literally suspended, unable to win traction on the path, any path, below – pedaling frantically, but in vain; technically unattached, but uninspired; both dynamic and static.

This stands in stark contrast to the messages platforms use to entice drivers: you can “move without limits” (GrubHub) while “driving towards what matters” (Lyft). “From aspirations to relationships” (GrubHub) “whatever your goal” (Amazon Flex), you can “achieve your… long-term dreams” (DoorDash) because “you move the world” (Uber). At the end of the day, “you’re the boss!” ” (Waiter). Yet these possibilities seemed elusive, even insulting to drivers, many of whom felt “stuck in the cycle [of driving]… doesn’t go anywhere and it’s month after month after month,” one driver told me.

Frustrated with the platforms’ unfulfilled promises, many drivers described the exploitation of a fundamental irony of on-demand work: the same characteristics that drivers felt were threatening and depersonalizing (exposure to algorithmic management, no access to colleagues, few legal protections) have also reduced personal liability. concerns. “You’re in a car, in a private setting…you’ll never see that person again, you have no obligation to them,” one driver said. Another driver added: “If you’re in the corporate world and you’re sitting with your boss…you have to be careful what you say and how you react…But while driving…if I say that I like blue, and you don’t like blue, I don’t care, you know… because my manager won’t look at me.

Outside of the scrutiny of co-workers, supervisors, and regular customers, some drivers have successfully clung to uncontrolled fantasies about a more desirable future. (“Every day you meet a lot of people [while driving], one of them can change your life! Others rationalized the most common negative experiences they encountered while driving (one driver claimed to have “a pretty good track record” having “one barfer and one person peeing in my car”). In addition to internally shaping or even distorting their experiences, many drivers retreated into private online driver groups on Facebook and other platforms to swap stories of good and bad; the absurd and the hilarious – seeking to negotiate their personal stories by connecting and comparing themselves to other drivers. These identity management tactics provided drivers with just enough psychological relief to continue driving.

When I decided to end my voluntary immersion in the driver community, I couldn’t help but think that app worker depersonalization is a feature, not a bug, of a economic model born and reinforced by the transformations underway in the global economy. . This includes increasingly prevalent work arrangements characterized by weak employer-worker relationships (independent contracts), heavy reliance on technology (algorithmic management, platform communication), and social isolation (no co-workers and social interactions). limited with customers).

It is important to note that the effects of these transformations go far beyond the type of low-wage workers I have studied; independents more broadly face similar existential questions and challenges. As the crowning glory of agile workforces and customer-centric philosophies nears completion, the psychological contract – the unwritten expectations and obligations between workers and organizations – is in danger of being rewritten before our eyes. Indeed, the three Cs underlying strong psychological contracts – a career that provides personal growth and upward mobility, a community that fosters social connection and belonging, and a cause that gives meaning and purpose to his work – are practically absent for the self-employed of all stripes.

At the heart of the problem are shifting preferences and practices for “renting” rather than “purchasing” talent to achieve organizational goals. For example, a survey of C-suite executives and senior executives found that over 90% think tapping into digital freelancing markets is either “very important” or “somewhat important” and over 50% % said that their expected use of digital talent platforms in the future will “significantly increase”.

From this perspective, the 40 million Americans who have hired their services from technology platforms like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash could be canaries in the coal mine of the new world of work. What they are experiencing today, millions more are likely to experience in one form or another in the future.

Of course, there are no easy solutions to these problems; many of them are existential and will require a calculation involving values ​​and priorities at the societal level. In the meantime, familiar ways of becoming and expressing oneself at work may no longer hold. As the forces continue to erode traditional forms of identity support, meaningful self-definition at work will increasingly depend on how we collectively use and abuse innovative technologies and business models.

For example, how can companies deploy algorithmic management without threatening or depersonalizing workers? How can focusing on the narratives that underpin and drive identities help workers reimagine what they truly want and deserve from a career emerging from the pandemic and the Great Resignation? Will increasingly immersive and realistic digital environments like the metaverse function tomorrow as identity playgrounds for workers? How will Web3 in general, and the emergence of new forms of organization in particular (eg Decentralized Autonomous Organizations or DAOs), affect the careers, relationships and causes that are so important to workers? What role can social media platforms, online chat rooms and other types of virtual water coolers play in helping freelancers create and maintain a desirable professional identity? In short, how do you keep people in the face of increasingly judicious resource management tactics?

Now is the time for us to seriously address these issues – from those who design, direct and regulate these technologies and business models (software engineers, CEOs and politicians, respectively) to those who study, teach and help others to do facing their implications (researchers, educators, clinical psychologists, respectively).

The well-being of freelancers around the world is at stake, many of whom struggle to answer the question “Who am I?” as part of their work.

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