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Knowledge Workers in the Gig Economy during COVID-19

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Abstract

Change is very real and businesses - large or small, formal or informal - are acting at the speed of insight to steer change. The gig or sharing economy initially claimed to able to redefine white-collar jobs and transformed the way we perceived the very existence of professional service firms. For example, why would you need to outsource a data analytics firm for a project when you have easy and quick access to experts, connected by a digital platform with global reach. Such a stance, e.g., was made by the popular Netflix million-dollar challenge in 2009 that was looking for someone who could develop the best recommendation algorithm. It was won by a team that didn’t belong to a single firm and they were not working remotely across lands. This short comm explores the plight of knowledge workers within the gig economy striving through the pandemic.
Published Version
North-East Colours, Post-editorial (28th July, 2020)
Knowledge Workers in the Gig Economy during COVID-19
Dr. Boidurjo Rick Mukhopadhyay and Prof Dr. Bibhas K Mukhopadhyay
Change is very real and businesses - large
or small, formal or informal - are acting at
the speed of insight to steer change. The gig
or sharing economy initially claimed to able
to redefine white-collar jobs and
transformed the way we perceived the very
existence of professional service firms. For
example, why would you need to outsource
a data analytics firm for a project when you
have an easy and quick access to experts,
connected by a digital platform with global
reach. Such a stance, e.g., was made by the
popular Netflix million-dollar challenge in
2009 that was looking for someone who
could develop the best recommendation
algorithm. It was won by a team that didn’t
belong to a single firm and they were not
working remotely across lands.
While the concepts of ‘sharing economy’ or
‘collaborative consumption’ or ‘freelancer
economy’ are not now, Tina Brown from the
New Yorker first coined the term gig
economy” in 2009. It described how workers
in the knowledge economy increasingly
were pursuing “a bunch of free-floating
projects, consultancies, and part-time bits
and pieces while they transacted in a digital
marketplace.”
Over the years, both the nature and
structure of gig economy have changed
dramatically. With the dot com boom, and
of course the emergence of ‘mediator’ or the
connecting platforms made things easier
than the conventional ‘word of mouth’
recommendation-based gig work for
freelancers. There has been tremendous
growth in the gig economy, but most of it
can be attributed to unskilled work such as
driving (Lyft, Uber, Ola, DiDi), delivering
(food, parcels, etc. through Zomato, Swiggy,
Deliveroo, Meituan), and doing simple
errands (TaskRabbit, Just Dial).
However, the stability in the gig economy
for knowledge workers in particular, e.g.,
engineers, consultants, management
executives has not been experienced yet.
Research shows that the evidently huge
diversity visible in the nature of gig work
and those enrolled with it poses a challenge
for measuring and understanding the
experiences of the gig workers. New
interfaces are also created between
traditional employment practices and the
gig economy, debates on precariousness of
gig work that aims at ‘perform or perish’,
while arguments are also in favour of
flexibility and lifestyle freedoms for some.
In other words, the debates around ‘feast
or famine’ lifestyle choice of certain groups
of freelancers are not exclusive anymore.
Things are competitive in both skills and
practicality in the knowledge economy gig
work. For example, a Korean business
person living in India looking for tax advice.
If this is conducted using the gig economy,
there are two options, A) find an accountant
competent in both India and Korean
taxation systems (good luck with that!) or B)
use two freelance accountants, one
specializing in the Indian tax law and the
other in Korean law. The second option
would need to ensure that the two
Published Version
North-East Colours, Post-editorial (28th July, 2020)
‘coordinated’ properly with each other,
which might not be easy. Equally important
would be to make sure that both of them are
as competent as they claimed to be before
the business responsibly decides to draw up
a contract. There is clearly a high transaction
costs (search, background check,
coordination and contracting) which would
go away quickly if the business decides to
drop all the hassle and hire a company like
KPMG instead. So, although there may well
be cheaper and efficient ways of getting a tax
advice remotely but transaction costs
remain a key concern. This is something
important to consider for knowledge
workers within the gig economy.
However, new technologies have
significantly lowered transaction costs
across the board. Digitization of knowledge
work has opened doors for more objective
evaluation, which not only makes it easier to
have more reliable customer feedback and
ratings, but also makes it easier to create
performance-based contracts. New artificial
intelligence algorithms have the capability
to help in cost-effective matching of demand
with appropriately skilled individuals. It can
be also argued that there is too much focus
on external moderation and review process,
the power lies exclusively in the hands of
‘users’ or ‘customers’ and leaving very little
room for error and inability to secure a
‘higher rating’ by the gig worker. The
success of platform-based gig work is after
all based on user ‘ratings’ and ‘comments’,
in other words virtual or digital reputation.
While knowledge economy-based gig
workers have promoted themselves as
providing flexible work that can be lifelines
to institutions during economic
downturns, a research that studied 43
business analysts and lawyers in Canada
and the United States over the past 3
months shows that the services have been
anything but that. Due to the pandemic,
gig workers’ earnings have plummeted
and many have become disgruntled about
their lack of health care in particular apart
from reduced work allocation by the
partnering online platforms. Many others
are also feeling economic pain from the
outbreak layoffs have hit workers in
retailing, airlines, hotels, restaurants and
gyms but even as public health agencies
have recommended social isolation to
insulate people from the virus, gig workers
must continue interacting with others to
pay their bills.
As the disruption unfolds, the World
Economic Forum have identified those
reliant on the gig economy for work as
among the hardest hit. Will the current
crisis propel a response from stakeholder
groups (e.g. gig based work platforms,
governments, individuals, trade unions
etc.) to steer the course away from
plummeting income and job offers in the
gig economy?
"One result may be that even though we
will undoubtedly lose many in-person
businesses, we may have a more robust on-
and off-line landscape of experiences and
businesses available after the pandemic,"
says a study by the University of Illinois.
While questions and complaints are plenty,
there are practical challenges associated
with predicting the future trajectory of the
gig economy, regardless of a pandemic,
since it is A) amorphous, B) varied, and
often of C) hidden nature. The gig
economy we see today refers to the broad
trend towards the use of freelance
contractors on a short-term basis, who are
often connected to contractors through
mobile platforms.
Published Version
North-East Colours, Post-editorial (28th July, 2020)
The gig economy. Workplace culture.
Technology-richness. Knowledge workers.
Today’s business world is about much
more than what is doneit’s also about how
and why. Ease, convenience, trust and
speed are some of the essentials to tick off
the list. One of the objectives of gig workers
or freelancers is to achieve a sense of
meaningful fulfilment, regardless the
nature of contract that they find themselves
in at times.
The economic havoc wreaked by the
coronavirus pandemic will fuel the gig
economy as companies become
increasingly wary of hiring permanent
staff and rising unemployment leads to an
increase in the number of individuals
seeking contract work. In a climate where
the needs of customers are changing, or the
future is more uncertain and unpredictable
than ever, the notion that a business can
hire someone and know the work they're
going to do for you for two years, let alone
for a lifetime, doesn't really exist anymore.
Whether it’s a digital artist, programmers,
business consultant or analyst or even a
lawyer.
At the same time, rising unemployment
meant more skilled workers were seeking
contract work, i.e., Demand for labour, will
source from organisations aiming at
adding new skill sets and capacity while
surviving during turbulent business
timers. The Supply of labour, on the other
hand will come from individuals who
increasingly need new sources of income.
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