Disruption of Workforce Standards in the New Platform Era

"I'm my own boss. I don't have a set schedule, and I can make a good living doing this."

I heard these words from the driver of a popular ride-sharing service during a recent trip to the Bay Area to attend Positive Platforms for a Workable Future, a convening hosted by the Institute for the Future.

We know that today’s workforce is changing. But how can those of us who develop emerging platforms, fund initiatives, conduct research and write policy get a deeper understanding about how positive platforms will influence the workforce?

​Photo courtesy Alex Krause

“Platform” is one of the entrepreneurial buzzwords we hear all of the time. Essentially, platforms are innovative software interfacing tools (think: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb) that help satisfy a need.

Positive platforms are breaking workforce standards, and through this innovation, improving lives for many people. But they are also bringing about new challenges.

Platforms by their nature upend the traditional relationship between firms and employees. Devin Fidler, research director of Institute for the Future, noted that platforms are truly an experiment in labor economics. We are experimenting with human capital management and how technology helps define people’s jobs. Because platforms are so new, we have a lot to learn.

During the Workable Futures convening, my colleagues and I discussed the challenges that a platform-centric economy presents to the workforce. These challenges will require the help of great problem-solvers, policymakers, innovators, and entrepreneurs.

1.  Fair Wages

Ensuring workers receive fair wages for their services is a critical consideration for platform developers. One participant noted that Uber workers wouldn’t be compensated the way they are now if there was no Lyft (and vice versa). Other workers forego using a platform and work on their own as free agents, because finding work through their own social network may allow them to negotiate better wages and find better jobs.

2.  Worker Benefits

For free agent workers who do not hold a regular, full-time job with benefits, the very issue of access to benefits (health care, retirement planning, tax preparation, and other social safety net needs) remains.

Some businesses, such as Intuit, have innovated solutions such as QuickBooks Self-Employed, to assist independent workers. In addition, self-employed workers can access health care plans designed for them and solo 401K plans. However, we need to create better solutions that allow more access for more of these workers. 

3.  Worker-Platform Relationship and Development

“Who does the Uber driver put as a former employer reference on their resume?”

This was a question we asked ourselves often during the meeting. Many platform workers are unable to communicate back and forth with the platforms in which they work — one important way in which the organizational structure for these platforms is so different than typical employment. Finding new solutions for feedback looping, professional development, and inter-platform networking is necessary.

4.  Worker Interaction

Most free agent workers express that they are happier in their employment than those who are not free agents. But being a free agent can be an isolating and lonely work style. Finding platform mechanisms for workers to network with one another and develop a community could help these workers be better at — and more connected to — their jobs.

These few issues only scratch the surface at what all problem solvers will need to consider when thinking about the sharing economy and the future of work. It will take great innovators who will help create interesting solutions to help workers and entrepreneurs mutually benefit in the new paradigm of work.

The way this group gathering at the Institute for the Future is thinking about work in terms of platform evolution is a good start to the type of thinking that will be necessary to solve these issues. While we can’t predict the future, we can work toward readying ourselves for what may come as we continue to innovate the job market and how it functions.


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