Growing pains for the gig economy

Growing pains for the gig economy

I was lucky enough to catch the both hilarious and insightful Dan Lyons when he was passing through London earlier this month, promoting his book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start Up Bubble. Dan is a former tech writer who left journalism and subsequently wrote a book on his experience working as a 52-year-old at a start up in the heart of Silicon Valley.

He painted a picture of an “instaculture” environment, which is “as if college never ended”. There was beer on tap, cool meeting rooms (but uncomfortably no chairs) and all the usual trappings of the start-up environment. You get the picture.

Dan was very funny, but also very serious, in particular where he talked about his (not so complimentary) views on how some Silicon Valley companies hire and manage their people.

It reminded me of the growing pains some of those in our own sharing economy have endured this summer (although whether ‘sharing’ is actually ‘sharing’ is a whole other debate). We saw Uber being challenged over employment status, as well as driver protests outside UberEats. Deliveroo had to back down after a dispute with its riders over a new test pay structure – earning them a put down for appearing to opt out of the minimum wage.

The gig economy is only set to grow. Few doubt the consumer benefits these businesses bring. Let’s face it, we’ve all benefitted from cheap cabs home or a Nando’s delivered at the touch of an app.

So far, so disruptive.

Yet there is a tension in how this plays out. Today’s consumer wants its favourite brand not only to give them a great service, but also to be a good business, to invest in its communities and to treat its people well. They want to feel good when they give them custom, not guilty.

Setting the tone for how a business behaves in the early days is important. I’m not saying we should expect Uber and Deliveroo employee villages to spring up any time soon, but it’s no coincidence that the likes of Lever Brothers and Cadbury evolved into businesses with enduring reputations for responsible business.

And we live in dramatically more transparent times. The next beneficiaries of the digital economy are finding their every move subject to greater scrutiny than the start-up generation before them.

There is a sense we are on the cusp of radical change in terms of how many people may be employed in future. And it’s one our legislators will have to get to grips with, given most of our current employee protection is designed for, well, employees.

And the related issues could yet grow beyond the cool kids. As Dan Lyons also pointed out, all those corporate tourists to Silicon Valley from legacy businesses won’t have failed to spot the efficiencies of the gig economy.

Our newest businesses, with some justification, will argue that they are changing an out-dated model, one that is fit for a more flexible working world. Their innovation and challenge to inefficient and expensive markets is certainly welcome. Yet, in doing so, they need to ensure that people are treated fairly in this brave new world and that they create a more substantive culture that goes beyond beanbags and free beer. And, most importantly, to ensure that others perceive it as such.

Corporate responsibility starts at home. For all the talk of wider social purpose, both from the new and old economies, the buying public and those who hold us to account, will ultimately judge you on how you treat those closest to you.

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