The uberisation of work

By Rachel Cook

uberisationChanges in the pattern of employment will have a significant impact on learning, recent research indicates. In many cases these effects are being felt already. L&D professionals need to make preparations now, so as not to be caught on the back foot.

Seismic changes are shaking the world of work. A shift is seen in the relationship between organisations and the people who work for them, typified by the disruption wrought in the transportation industry by Uber. Uber, a ride sharing app enabled by GPS and mobile technology, is now starting to dominate the US business travel market. According to the Economist and Certify, in the first quarter of 2016, Uber and Lyft accounted for 46% of business ‘ground transportation’ trips in America. Traditional competitors (notably, taxi firms) have been displaced with surprising speed. It is not just the technology that is causing this market disruption, but the business model used by the company. Uber has a permanent employee base which represents its core beliefs and practices but also a huge flexible component.

Flexibility uber alles

This model of peer-to-peer transactions, challenging the traditional pattern of employer/employee relationships, has been seen in other sectors too (e.g. Airbnb, Netflix). ‘Uberisation’ is now a thing. A similar displacement is happening to the world of work in general. External forces are putting businesses under tremendous strain and old ways of doing things are not delivering business results. As companies fight to survive and grow in this changing world, the focus is shifting to enterprise agility as a way of addressing these challenges.

Agility and the ‘gig economy’

Enterprise agility comprises of marketplace, organisational and workforce agility (Dyer, Lee. Professor of Human Resource Studies, Cornell University). Workforce agility refers both to traditional workforce models – i.e. ‘talent comes to the work’ – and non-traditional ways, where
‘work goes to the talent’ – e.g. part-time, temporary employees, freelancers, contractors. This emergence of non-traditional workforce solutions and models is growing rapidly. Increasing numbers are choosing to opt out of full-time working contracts and instead make their living working on multiple jobs or ‘gigs’. This trend has several names including the ‘on demand’ or ‘gig’ economy and is the fastest growing sector of the US economy, currently making up an estimated 1/3. US Senator Mark Warner is urging companies to collaborate and create solutions to the social challenges this model presents, which include lack of benefits packages, pensions and protections that result from a traditional contract of work. The gig economy and associated issues have featured in the presidential race. Hillary Clinton commented on this recently: ‘This on-demand, or so-called gig, economy is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation. But it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future’.

Pushing flexibility up the agenda

The shift indicates an increasing desire for people to have a flexible approach to their working lives. They want to work their own hours, choose where they work and do so without the restrictions of formal direct supervision in an office setting.  Research indicates that 70% of the working population in the UK will be mobile, flexible workers by 2020. Also around this time, 50% of the working population will be millennials, who seem particularly comfortable with this model as do gen D. They see it as a lifestyle choice and research indicates they would rather take a pay cut than compromise on flexibility. Just as the gig economy has risen up the political agenda in the US, it needs to do so in the world of Learning and Development. Organisations need to respond now owing to the accelerated and pervasive nature of this change.

Four ways L&D can prepare for the change

  • In the ‘gig’ economy companies will procure individuals to work on everything from complex high-level work such as data processing services to project-based tasks. L&D’s challenge will become how to provide just enough gig learning to the individual who needs to perform a specific piece of work, e.g. customer insights or culture of organisation. Learning supplied along with the task will be needed, rather than the sort of large-scale induction programmes more usually delivered to full-time employees.
  • The challenge of how to manage self-motivated learners becomes even more pressing when we consider that the gig economy will facilitate a more autonomous, more flexible workforce dispersed around the globe. If personalisation holds the key to engaging self-directed learners, as many wise heads believe, then efforts to personalise will also need to take into account the need to localise; embracing the different cultures around data privacy, learning culture and even attitudes to deference that exist in these dispersed learner populations.
  • Two of the reported benefits of flexible working – according to a study of working families conducted by Cranfield University School of Management – are higher levels of organisational commitment and job satisfaction. Using this logic, companies that create a truly flexible learning approach (where learners can access learning from anywhere, anytime, using multiple devices) may experience higher levels of employee commitment with regards to learning.
  • Managers are one of the key enablers for successful implementation of flexible working and it is those managers with limited experience of flexible working that can play a pivotal role in its successful adoption. In the ILM’s report ‘Flexible working: Goodbye Nine to Five’, 27% of managers in this situation say it wouldn’t benefit their business at all. Culturally there is still a resistance to flexible working; in the ILM report 31% of respondents have heard colleagues make derogatory comments about those working flexibly. Managers can turn this around with training on how to manage flexible working, focusing on outputs rather than hours.

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