Starting a Small Experiment in the Sharing/ Gig/ Collaborative Economy…

Is this really the future of work?

The Background

Among the things that led me to embark on The Work Project, was a talk on the future of work by Oliver Baxter of Herman Miller’s Insights team. In it, he spoke of the ‘Hollywood model’ of work where independent professionals freelance on specific projects that utilise their skills, before moving on to work on the next well-suited project. It’s the antithesis of a permanent contract of employment that requires working with the same people constantly for the same employer. The idea excited me a lot.

Part of what eventually drew me to start The Work Project was my own and others’ experiences of work. The well-mooted stories of being stuck in unfulfilling jobs just to pay the bills. The kind of thing the Anthropologist David Graeber refers to as ‘bullshit jobs’ — seemingly pointless, unnecessary and soul destroying. As I ventured out to explore the idea of ‘work’ and spend a year trying to find a different way to approach it, I was full of ideas for ensuring my every action was to make the polar opposite of the ‘bullshit job’ available to everyone.

My opinions are still evolving along with the project, but I’m increasingly interested in and concerned by something that’s becoming lumped together under phrases like ‘sharing economy’, ‘gig economy’ and ‘collaborative economy’. Specifically, I’m torn on the way these things affect ‘work’ structurally and how they impact the workers themselves. Six months ago, my starting position was finding a way to make the Hollywood model open to everyone, but as I look more and more at work, I’m starting to understand that it may not be that straightforward.

A few weeks ago I took my first Uber ride across London.

It was crazily early in the morning, but my driver told me he works nights seven days a week as the roads are quieter. He was a married father of three, so this working pattern took some juggling, but as he said — you do what you need to do to feed your family. We discussed his strategies for staying busy with fares, but this moved us on to his experience as a Uber driver. He’s not employed by them, like all of their drivers this guy is self-employed. The way he’s treated and the rules around which he has to operate seem very much like an employment contract though — just without the benefits of sick pay, holiday pay and other protections.

In the eight months since he joined, the rate that drivers receive for each booking has halved and he expects it to drop even further. He told me of the losses it causes him personally when people are sick in his car on a Saturday night, how the vehicle is his responsibility, how he is essentially a freelance driver but tied into one organisation. He laughed knowingly about Uber openly developing driverless cars and even though it’s not imminent, he knows that one day his job will likely not exist and that the company he works with is actively pushing for that.

It was a weird situation that got me thinking.

The thing I like about the Hollywood model is the freedom to work on things you want to work on, develop relationships with the right people and input directly into the direction of the right project for your skills. It represents choice, a choice that benefits the organisation and the workers. It’s the freelancing model and it works really well for skilled professionals who have a niche and go out there to build those relationships.

But what about everyone else?

I’ve been starting to hear more about online freelancing platforms that connect freelancers with projects. Yes, it’s simple, but also there’s the chance that these platforms acting as middle men could detract from the benefit of a freelancer’s input as a valuable independent voice in shaping the project. Here it’s all about responding to an order. There’s a lack of personalisation and potentially fairness — one site I looked at requires freelancers to pay to ‘prioritise’ their pitch for a job.

There are platforms for everything and it seems the lower the skill requirement, the worse the treatment. My discovery of Amazon Mechanical Turk and what it offers in terms of rights and pay for workers was the biggest worry — and I’ll be blogging separately on that as part of this project within a project.

All of this already happens out there in the world — it’s nothing new, but these ‘gig economy’ platforms are being heralded as the disruptors of work, shaping the future of the employee-employer relationship. My developing concern is that this may not be the future at all, but an anachronistic erosion of workers’ rights that were hard fought and won over many years. Could this be a future that isn’t a better one where we all sip cappuccinos in coffee houses, working from tablets while robots do the jobs we don’t want to? What if this future takes us back to the way workers were treated as the industrial revolution emerged? What if this future is actually something many of us hoped we’d left in the past?

I decided to find out and as is increasingly my way, I’ve been developing an experiment to do that.

Sometimes, the gig economy is lumped in under the heading of the ‘sharing economy’. For me they are two different things. Essentially the sharing economy looks for ways for us to share resources — skills, time, possessions, knowledge and more — to earn money, while saving money for the customers. Air BnB is a prime example of this in practice. Removing workers’ rights in return for their efforts is not a two-way sharing relationship.

I know people who have had some amazing adventures via the true sharing economy, proving in the process that there is another way to approach work and life. I’d cite Lloyd Davis and The Sharing Bros as inspirational prime examples. The success of their various projects is proof that there is a real sense of community and sharing in the world, but the spirit that helped these guys succeed isn’t the same as someone sharing their time to do a menial task in return for less than minimum pay with no rights.

There’s so much greyness in this whole area. As with anything, I feel that the only way I can fully understand it and draw conclusions is to immerse myself in it. So I’m starting an experiment within The Work Project to explore what I’ll collectively refer to as the sharing economy.

As a father of four I have responsibilities, so I can’t just up and work my way around the world. This is going to have to be a less outwardly exciting experiment, but perhaps one more in tune with the experience many of us will start to have if this approach to work were to become a big part of the future.

This is purely an introductory post — I don’t want to start predicting or pre-judging. I go into this with a completely open mind, just to see where it takes me.

The Experiment

Given my family circumstances, my monthly outgoings are reasonably high. To comfortably cover my bills and have a bit of contingency for when the car breaks down (which it does increasingly frequently), I need to bring in £4,000. Which makes this an easy question:

What will it take for me to earn £4,000 via the sharing economy?

Of course, there will be sub-questions and I’ll be looking to experiment with as many approaches to earning in this way as possible. There’s also a chance that accessing the true sharing aspect could help me reduce my outgoings, thereby changing what I ‘need’.

I plan to get truly involved, speak to people who have been there and done it, understand their experiences and try to conclude whether the sharing economy could really be a viable way to earn a living. If so, can it improve my life, or will I have to sacrifice?

Once I’m underway, I’ll start listing sites, groups and platforms I’m joining for the experiment, share my actions, how I’m selling myself and my skills and importantly, documenting every penny it earns me. I’ll also share stories of interesting people, places and ideas that move my project forward.

I’m keen to keep it close to the essence of The Work Project and understand how looking at work in this way might lead me to think differently, pursue opportunities that I wouldn’t traditionally see as work — it has a lot to say about the way we structure what we do, how we assign value and much more. I’m actually quite excited about this, whether it turns into a fairy tale or horror story!

For now though, this is a statement of intent. As soon as I publish this I’m going to start signing up and see how the experiment develops. I’ll share occasional longer posts (like this one) via Medium, but I’m also starting a personal blog for the smaller, quicker thoughts, photos, ideas and comments. You can find it here.

In the spirit of the project, I’d love for you to share your views, ideas and input — I’m happy to do the same. And if there’s a way we can work together for mutual benefit in this way, then let’s do it!

Oh and naturally, I’d be really grateful if you could share this…