The rise of Uber-style start-ups is revolutionising the global economy. Jessica Holland tracks how work habits are transformed by digitally connected microgigs
Just before Christmas 2015, 27-year-old Londoner Sharon Leese gave up her job as a graphic designer for a children’s hospital to pursue a different type of lifestyle, one that emphasised travel, creative fulfilment and variety over the stability of a regular pay cheque. Now she juggles freelance graphic design jobs with photography, working as a creative assistant and running athletic boot camps all over Europe.
“The benefits are great,” she says. “I have more time than before, commute less, choose when I work and what I work on, and I feel proud that I am essentially running my own business.”
With the growth of online mobile communication tools such as Slack and Skype, it’s becoming easier than ever for companies to book freelancers for short-term jobs rather than hiring permanent staff members, and an array of new platforms have sprung up to link workers and employers, so they don’t even need to be in the same country.
The “gig economy” has become a buzzword to describe this new system, and it’s not just Etsy artists, Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts who are making money by providing services and products on an ad-hoc basis. Freelance web developers and user-interface designers have become a regular sight filling up cafe tables with their laptops in Berlin, Brooklyn and Seoul, and everywhere from Dubai to Bangalore to the Philippines workers and companies are discovering the possibilities of remote and on-demand employment.
The gig economy
“We’re just at the beginning of this reshaping,” says Robin Chase, who co-founded Zipcar, a platform allowing city dwellers to share rather than own cars, in 1999, and who published a book last year called Peers Inc: How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism.
“Everything that can become a platform will become one,” she says. “All labour that can be outsourced, will be outsourced.”
Elance-oDesk, the biggest platform linking freelancers with employers, changed its name to Upwork in May 2015, announcing a push to increase annual freelancer revenues on the site from US$1bn to US$10bn within six years.
Muhammad Osman Khan, who was born and raised in Dubai, where he still lives, runs a marketing consultancy firm called blueorange, which was hired to boost the platform’s growth in the MENA region.
“It’s amazing how these platforms are evolving the whole work environment,” he says, “and how businesses in the UAE have been early adopters.”
After the US, UK, Australia and Canada, the UAE was the country that spent the most amount of money on hiring freelancers through Upwork in 2015. On the freelancer side, the US has a huge pool of prospective workers, Khan says, and Europe leads the world in terms of design. The Philippines is strong on customer service skills, and India, Pakistan and the Ukraine provide a large pool of highly trained tech professionals.
Everything that can become a platform will become one. All labour that can be outsourced, will be outsourced
Khan agrees with Robin Chase that the shift towards employing remote workers on short- term contracts is “in its infancy, so there is a massive opportunity going forward”. There’s still a psychological barrier, he says, because employers are uneasy about employing someone that they never get to see, but this is changing, and the rewards of the new system are high, especially for small startups.
Hiring remote workers at the outset allows employers to access a skilled international workforce without the associated costs of hiring full-time, local employees. And, hiring remotely can have added benefits later on.
“We’ve seen companies that started with three people on the ground and two on Upwork end up with 25 people on the ground and 10 on Upwork,” Khan says. “[These platforms] help businesses scale fast.”
What the freelancers gain, he says, is the freedom and economic opportunities of being able to and work wherever they are in the world.
“I have more control over my life than ever before,” says Rahul Rakesh, a 25-year-old freelancer living in Delhi who combines content creation, consultancy, event management and professional blogging. He finds work through his personal website, and through the platform Truelancer, a freelance work marketplace that’s popular in India.
It’s “a great way to connect with potential employers”, he says. “Most of my long-term clients come from platforms like these, because there is a systematic channel for generating feedback and reports, which are beneficial in boosting the rep of a hard-working freelancer.”
There are difficulties for freelancers, too: it’s hard at the beginning, when you haven’t yet built up a reputation as a solid professional. A stellar CV doesn’t instantly earn employers’ trust. Another difficulty, Rakesh says, is that “platforms favour the client side” when it comes to disputes.
“Instant refunds are a characteristic of many of these sites and the freelancers then have to go through complex and time-consuming channels to get their payments back.”
The real winners in this new world are the platforms themselves. From TaskRabbit, a freelancer marketplace that specialises in manual work such as cleaning and furniture assembly, to LinkedIn ProFinder, a new premium service that can suggest a handful of the best digital freelancers for a given task, these platforms can take a chunk out of the pay packet of millions of workers without requiring any physical resources or a large staff of their own. They are merely providing a space for freelancers to tout their services, so rather than providing any regulation or quality guarantee of their own, there is very little to lose and much to gain.
How to get ahead
Robin Chase advises those who want to get ahead in this new economy to think about launching a platform of their own, identifying a market to disrupt in this manner by “examining their entire ecosystem and corporate assets to assess where there is some latent excess capacity just waiting to be tapped”.
For the rest of us, there are pros and cons to the gig economy. “On the one hand,” Chase says, "this new style of work dramatically increases the amount of flexibility and economic agency individuals have. On the other hand, it decouples work from existing social safety nets and workplace rules, which have all been tied to full-time employment.”
Whether frightening or exciting, what is certain is that this shift is happening, and those who will benefit from it the most are the ones who can embrace this new reality.
“I overheard a sentence recently,” Chase says. “My father had one job in his lifetime, I’ll have six jobs in mine and my children will have six jobs at the same time.’ This is happening now.”