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The Gig Economy in Times of COVID-19: Designing for Gig Workers' Needs

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Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected gig economy workers due to the contingent and precarious nature of their work. Many gig economy workers have had to adapt quickly to new forms of working, and even learn new skills, to sustain their livelihood. At the same time, gig economy companies have prioritised profit and customers' needs over workers' safety. In this position paper, we draw insights from recent academic literature, policy papers, and media reports from across the globe to explore broad implications the pandemic has had on gig economy workers. We then discuss how gig economy platforms might be redesigned to support better working conditions and foster workers' development. CCS CONCEPTS • Human-centered computing → Computer supported cooperative work.
The Gig Economy in Times of
COVID-19: Designing for Gig
Workers’ Needs
Juan Carlos Alvarez de la Vega
Dept of Computer and Information Sciences,
Northumbria University
Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom
Marta E. Cecchinato
Dept of Computer and Information Sciences,
Northumbria University
Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom
John Rooksby
Dept of Computer and Information Sciences,
Northumbria University
Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom
Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately aected gig economy workers due to the
contingent and precarious nature of their work. Many gig economy workers have had to adapt quickly
to new forms of working, and even learn new skills, to sustain their livelihood. At the same time, gig
economy companies have prioritised profit and customers’ needs over workers’ safety. In this position
paper, we draw insights from recent academic literature, policy papers, and media reports from across
the globe to explore broad implications the pandemic has had on gig economy workers. We then
discuss how gig economy platforms might be re-designed to support beer working conditions and
foster workers’ development.
Human-centered computing Computer supported cooperative work.
future of work, gig economy, worker-centred design, COVID-19
The Gig Economy in Times of COVID-19 Microso Research Symposium on The New Future of Work, August 05–07, 2020, Virtual Symposium
Worldwide, the COVID-19 virus has claimed over 500,000 lives and infected millions of people [
Many countries have implemented robust public health measures, such as lockdowns, to contain the
spread of the virus. As a result, many jobs have been profoundly impacted. Millions of employees
around the world started working from home, especially those whose work requires creative and
collaborative skills [
]. The situation has been vastly dierent for independent workers, such as gig
economy workers [
], whose livelihood is partly or wholly supported by digital platforms and whose
jobs – in many cases – cannot be conducted from home. While there are varying definitions of the gig
economy, for this paper we refer to it as the types of jobs that are conducted through digital platforms
that handle the matching, contracting and payments between customers and independent workers
Gig economy workers are in a particularly vulnerable situation during the pandemic because of two
primary reasons. Firstly, gig economy workers are usually regarded by companies as ‘independent
workers’, meaning that they lack access to benefits provided by regular employers, such as paid sick
leave and health insurance [
]. This independent worker status also means that workers bear all
the risks associated with their jobs, from health and safety to financial loss [19]. Secondly, gig work
is contingent to the demand of their services – thus gig workers whose demand for their work has
significantly declined due to public health measures, like social distancing, are le without income.
The combination of these two factors puts workers in a tough position because many of them rely on
day-to-day wages and have no other sources of income thus forcing them to put themselves and their
families at risk of contagion due to financial pressures.
In this position paper, we discuss how COVID-19 has aected the working circumstances of gig
economy workers across dierent countries. We start by reviewing the type of work that is contingent
on workers and clients sharing the same physical or geographical location, such as couriers and carers
– namely location-dependent work [
]. Then, we explore the types of gig work that is conducted
entirely online, such as crowdwork and freelancing – namely online gig work. Aer that, we discuss
a series of implications for future research in computer-supported cooperative work and social
computing (CSCW). We argue that location-dependent companies have mainly taken a customer-
centred approach during the pandemic, overlooking workers’ conditions and needs in their designs.
We contribute to the ongoing discussion in HCI around ‘worker-centred’ approaches to improve gig
workers’ conditions [
]. Then, we discuss how online gig workers’ circumstances could be improved,
drawing parallels from current research on knowledge workers adapting to work from home.
The Gig Economy in Times of COVID-19 Microso Research Symposium on The New Future of Work, August 05–07, 2020, Virtual Symposium
Drawing from academic publications, policy papers, and media reports, here we present insights
on how dierent types of gig work worldwide have been broadly impacted during the COVID-19
pandemic. We begin by discussing how the pandemic has aected those gig economy services bounded
to social proximity and the changes implemented by platforms to stay in business, as well as their
eorts to support workers. Then, we explore the eects of the pandemic on online gig work, and how
those gig workers who can work from home are facing new challenges.
Location-dependent gig work
A re-imagined gig economy. Gig economy companies have re-designed their services to fit the pandemic
needs. Food delivery companies such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats and the like partnered with supermarkets
to conduct grocery deliveries in various countries [
]. In South Africa, getTOD, a household services
company launched virtual ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) assistance, whereby gig workers could provide guidance
remotely [
]. Etsy, an online marketplace re-designed its search engine and urged independent
workers to cra face masks to meet customers’ demands [
]. Similarly, some local companies
have followed gig companies’ model to stay afloat; such is the case of UK’s Blueline taxis that
have compensated the sharp decrease in rides with delivering household products [
]. Many local
restaurants have joined delivery apps to continue their operations. However, media reports suggest
that in some cases platforms’ fees exceed their renting costs [
]. Certainly, gig economy companies
have quickly adjusted to the pandemic circumstances to stay in business, encouraging workers also
to adapt and continue working. However, as we will revise below, their approaches to supporting
workers’ needs may not be suicient.
A customer-centred approach? Despite gig workers puing their lives on the line to conduct work,
platform companies do not seem to have made adequate changes to their services to protect them.
Instead, the focus seems to be around prioritising customers by keeping them engaged and safe.
‘Contact-free delivery’ has been a standard feature implemented by delivery companies, whereby
workers and customers maintain a safe distance when exchanging goods [
]. Figure 1 shows an
example of this feature from the company Deliveroo [
]. While this feature might inspire safety to
customers, reports suggest that workers remain at high risk of contagion when coming in contact
with other gig workers and sta at the collection points [11, 15].
Figure 1: Screenshot of Deliveroo contact-
free feature.
Moreover, an examination of 120 gig economy companies across 23 countries indicated that gig
workers’ primary concern has been sustaining their income, yet companies have not adequately
addressed this issue [
]. Some companies have introduced a form of financial compensation for sick
workers and those self-isolating [
]. However, workers have expressed that these compensations are
oen stringent and hard to obtain, for example requiring COVID-19 diagnosis from oicial authorities,
The Gig Economy in Times of COVID-19 Microso Research Symposium on The New Future of Work, August 05–07, 2020, Virtual Symposium
which can be scarce in many countries and assumes that workers have access to healthcare [
]. A
less common approach has been the incorporation of alternative forms of work to support gig workers’
income. For example, a gig economy company in South Africa that oers ‘micro-jobs’ to be completed
from a mobile device, such as data entry and survey completion, oered paid training for workers to
conducts home [
]. Uber launched the ‘Work Hub’, an extension of their driver app that connected
drivers with other forms of essential work [
]. Figure 2 shows a screenshot of the Uber Work Hub
announcement. This extension of their app encouraged workers to join other Uber services like Uber
Eats and claimed partnerships with other companies requiring workers. Nevertheless, these examples
seem to provide sporadic alternatives for workers rather than addressing their financial concerns.
Figure 2: Uber announces the Work Hub.
Online gig work
The eects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on those gig economy services that occur entirely
online, such as freelance web development on platforms like Upwork, are relatively underexplored.
The available examinations indicate that needs for digital services have abnormally fluctuated in
comparison to previous years [
]. A quantitative study of online gig work platforms in 3 countries
suggests that jobs in the technology category (e.g. soware development) remained highly requested
between February and May 2020 [
]. Conversely, creative, multimedia, and marketing services
dramatically decreased during the same period. Also, this study demonstrates that the demand for
online gig workers has plummeted while there has been a steady rise in available workers [
]. This
disruption in the supply and demand for online gig work has increased the competition for markets
that were already over-saturated even before the pandemic [
]. As a result, a large proportion
of online gig workers may have seen their earnings significantly reduced. However, in contrast to
location-dependent work, there is lile evidence that online gig platforms have provided alternative
sources of income for those workers whose income fell. This could be because online gig work can
still be conducted from home and arguably has not been disrupted by public health measures.
The pandemic has wholly reconfigured the household as a working space not only for online gig
workers but also for millions of employees across the world now working from home. Arguably, online
gig work is a highly autonomous and flexible profession that can be conducted from anywhere in
the world with an internet connection [
]. While it might seem that online gig workers are familiar
with working from home, previous examinations of crowdworkers indicate that only those with
adequate spaces and technologies had positive experiences [
]. Conversely, those crowdworkers
who alternated caring responsibilities with their work and lacked quiet spaces to focus expressed
a decline in their productivity [
]. Indeed, working from home during the pandemic has meant
for many workers having less time to focus and caring for their children, thereby disrupting their
standard working paerns [
]. A panel study of 60 online gig workers in the US indicated that many
of them have modified their work availability and decreased their workload to aend household
The Gig Economy in Times of COVID-19 Microso Research Symposium on The New Future of Work, August 05–07, 2020, Virtual Symposium
responsibilities with their families [
]. Many of these online workers also had their partners working
from home or even laid o, adding an extra emotional burden. The nature of online gig work is
contingent on clients’ requirements and subject to finding new gigs which can be time-consuming
and unremunerated [
]. Therefore, it should not be assumed that designing approaches and tools for
supporting working from home can equally benefit online gig workers as they do regular employees.
In this section, we discuss implications for future research structured around two broad areas: 1)
worker-centred optimisation of gig economy platforms, and 2) designing for online gig workers.
A worker-centred gig economy
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the precarious nature of the gig economy, yet gig companies’
responses seem to prioritise their customers and interests rather than workers. Despite gig workers
worldwide voicing their concerns about safety and income loss through unions, gig companies’
responses have not adequately addressed these needs [
]. Regarding safety, the ‘contact-free’ delivery
feature is a prime example which focuses on customer safety, dismissing workers’ interactions during
the collection process. A worker-centred approach to address this issue could be enabling gig workers
to report unsafe collection points through the app with photos and short descriptions, while also
allowing them to reject the collection of goods without penalisation. Regarding income, location-
dependent companies have predominantly addressed financial compensations for workers who fall ill
or have to self-isolate [
]. Other eorts to support workers’ pay include repurposing their services to
keep workers providing other services. For example, Etsy restructuring its online marketplace to sell
face masks [
] and Uber encouraging workers to expand to Uber Eats through its ‘work hub’ [
speak to companies’ motives to satisfy customers’ needs. Worker-centred approaches could provide
remunerated training and development opportunities for workers to engage in other types of work.
For example, Etsy could provide online craing workshops for independent workers to learn how to
sew face masks and include this product to their profile. Moreover, Uber could provide its drivers with
other forms of paid work that could be carried out from home, thereby protecting those drivers who
are in high-risk groups and cannot engage with delivery or shi work. The gig economy is shaping
new forms of work through technology-mediated management, work autonomy, regulation, and even
reconfiguration of the workplace [
]. It has also expanded rapidly, with over 50 million gig workers
estimated only in developing countries [
]. Previous work in HCI has engaged with methods to
facilitate worker-centred approaches in the gig economy that beer serve workers [
From providing crowdworkers with digital tools to evaluate employers [
] through to providing
design recommendations to improve Uber drivers’ experiences [
]. However, the incorporation of
these approaches should go beyond – informing policies that advocate for beer working conditions
The Gig Economy in Times of COVID-19 Microso Research Symposium on The New Future of Work, August 05–07, 2020, Virtual Symposium
in the gig economy [
]. At the same time, it is essential to acknowledge that taking a worker-centred
approach merely addresses a fraction of the broader inequalities and injustices that underpin the gig
economy [
]. The COVID-19 pandemic has only sharpened these injustices by companies designing
for customers and their business, overlooking those who bear most of the risks – gig workers.
Designing for online gig workers
The experiences and issues of online gig workers during the pandemic have seldomly been explored,
thus opening up an area of opportunity for future studies. Since HCI research and other disciplines
have started examining the gig economy, mainstream location-dependent platforms like Uber and
Airbnb have aracted most of the academic aention, leaving knowledge-based forms of gig work
understudied [
]. Among the various types of online gig work, Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT)
crowdwork has taken most of the academic aention, e.g. [
]. During the pandemic, only a few
researchers have covered online types of gig work [
]. A reason for this could be that online gig
work is less visible to the public as online gig workers primarily collaborate with corporate and business
clients and far less with everyday people. Future examinations should capture broader perspectives
from other forms of online gig work, such as freelancer conducting work through platforms like Upwork.
As recent research demonstrated that the demand for various online gig services has plummet [
future studies could investigate how online gig workers have adapted to compensate this shortage
and ways to support them.
Online gig workers, alongside millions of employees around the world, are experiencing an unprece-
dented transition to working from home. However, there are notable dierences between online gig
workers and regular employees working from home, and thus the design of tools and strategies to
support beer working from home conditions might look very dierent. Online gig workers primary
concerns might be around landing new projects and responding to the fall in demand for their services
]. In contrast, knowledge workers who have stable employment might struggle more with their
productivity and family wellbeing during the pandemic [
]. While online gig workers might already
have designated spaces and various devices to support their working practices, employees who mainly
worked in an oice might be struggling to get technological equipment that is in shortage [
]. Explor-
ing interactions with home spaces and household members is an area of further research that might
benefit both online gig workers and regular employees that are aending personal responsibilities
while working from home [8].
This position paper has discussed the implications COVID-19 has had on various types of gig work.
It argues that during the pandemic gig economy companies have primarily adapted their services
and platforms to fit customers’ needs, overlooking workers’ preferences. Based on recent academic
The Gig Economy in Times of COVID-19 Microso Research Symposium on The New Future of Work, August 05–07, 2020, Virtual Symposium
literature, policy reports and media articles, we present two main areas for future research. Firstly, we
contribute to the recent HCI discussion of worker-centred approaches to support beer workering
conditions [
], arguing that future gig platform designs should engage their workers in these processes
and address their needs. Secondly, we explore the forms of online gig work that have been seldomly
studied during the pandemic. Also, we compare how designing for online gig workers might look
similar or dierent from those employees also working from home.
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This policy brief provides research evidence into the working conditions of the UK music industry that indicates the necessity to consider the future of work not only froman economic or employment law perspective, but also in terms of wider societal implications that include the health and well-being of workers.
We draw on data from the Online Labour Index and interviews with freelancers in the United States securing work on online platforms, to illuminate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s global economic upheaval is shuttering shops and offices. Those able to do so are now working remotely from their homes. They join workers who have always been working remotely: freelancers who earn some or all of their income from projects secured via online labour platforms. Data allow us to sketch a first picture of how the initial month of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the livelihoods of online freelancers. The data shows online labour demand falling rapidly in early March 2020, but with an equally rapid recovery. We also find significant differences between countries and occupations. Data from interviews make clear jobs are increasingly scarce even as more people are creating profiles and seeking freelance work online.
The COVID-19 pandemic represents a crisis that affects several aspects of people's lives around the globe. Most of the affected countries took several measures, like lockdowns, business shutdowns, hygiene regulations, social distancing, school and university closings, or mobility tracking as a means of slowing down the distribution of COVID-19. These measures are expected to show short-term and long-term effects on people's working lives. However, most media reports focused on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on changes in work arrangements (e.g., short-time work, flexible location and hours) for workers in a regular employment relationship. We here focus on workers in flexible employment relationships (e.g. temporary agency work and other forms of subcontracted labor, as well as new forms of working, such as in the gig economy). Specifically, we will discuss (a) how the work and careers of individuals in flexible employment relationships might get affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; (b) outline ideas how to examine period effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the work and careers of those individuals, and (c) outline how the pandemic can contribute to the ramification of flexible employment relationships.