Opinion

The Importance of Flexibility in the Gig Economy

We always enjoy our conversations with drivers when we take Ubers or Lyfts. It is interesting to learn why and how often drivers drive. We also learn all about their different careers outside of the gig economy, and the lifestyles they lead. Much of what we hear, particularly about the attraction of earning extra money when it is convenient for them, is reflected in the public conversation about the gig economy.

However, this anecdotal information is not reliable enough to help inform the growing policy conversations regarding this new model, and in particular, those who work with these companies.

To help sort fact from fiction, SherpaShare, a support platform for on-demand workers, has begun to try to fill an important gap in our understanding of the gig economy through a series of surveys with people who work on these platforms. Our view is simple: If we are going to have a national debate on the rules governing the gig economy and those who work in it (as it appears we are), then we should be guided by hard data rather than conjecture or political agendas.

Probably the most hotly debated issue today is whether gig economy workers should be classified as independent contractors, as most are currently treated, or whether they should be employees. Surveys with drivers who work on ride-hailing services and delivery platforms tell us a great deal that can inform this conversation. Significantly, drivers overwhelmingly consider themselves contractors.

Earlier last summer, approximately two-thirds of on-demand workers, including those providing services through Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Sidecar and Instacart, reported in one of our surveys that they consider themselves independent contractors rather than employees of the companies on whose platforms they work [“63% of on-demand workers consider themselves independent contractors”; June 17, 2015]. Independent contractor status allows workers the flexibility to set their own schedules, said one commenter by stating that “the great thing about being an independent contractor is the flexibility and their limitless opportunity to make good money” [“Here’s what rideshare drivers told us they really wanted”; June 24, 2015].

One way gig economy workers leverage their flexibility is by earning income from multiple and sometimes competing platforms often in the same week, something they likely could not do if they were employees. Data from an August 2014 survey shows that 65 percent of on-demand workers, including those on platforms such as Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, Airbnb and more, were earning income from two or more services at the time the survey was conducted [“Map: 65% earning from 2 or more platforms”; August 13, 2014].

In a study specific to rideshare drivers, close to two-thirds of respondents stated that they expect to work on multiple apps in the same week [“Survey: Drivers want diverse income sources and flexibility”; April 7 2016]. As independent contractors, these workers take advantage of the ability to weigh demand, price rates and feasibility of operation to pivot between their platforms of choice. This is why you may spot Lyft, Uber and Wingz decals on any one driver’s sedan.

Data from yet another survey provides some clues about why the flexibility provided by the sharing economy is so highly valued. An overwhelming majority, approximately 75 percent of on-demand drivers report that they change their hours-per-week schedule, sometimes working more, and other times working less [“Report: The top demographic trends of the on-demand workforce”; October 23, 2015]. Along these same lines, the data shows that 67 percent of drivers expect to work a flexible, casual schedule with possible gaps in their driving [“Survey: Drivers want diverse income sources and flexibility”; December 2015].

Similarly, for about 70 percent of drivers, their gig economy work is supplemental to “other full-time work” [“2014 in review: The top 6 rideshare driver trends”; December 21, 2014]. Thus, it appears gig economy workers choose to work more or less on these new platforms based on their primary work schedules, or in the case of students or parent drivers, their class or child care schedules, as well as their need for supplemental income. The supplemental nature of this gig economy work is further reinforced by data indicating that many drivers on ride-hailing platforms work 20 hours per week or less [“2014 in review: The top 6 rideshare driver trends”; December 21, 2014].

Overall, the data paints a picture of a gig economy workforce for whom flexibility is far more than an attribute; it is the feature that drives workers to these platforms. The great attraction of the gig economy is that it provides these diverse workers – men, women, the young and the old, students and parents – with the opportunity to earn supplemental income when, where and for as long as they choose.

Moreover, individuals can and do combine these income opportunities to suit their needs and desires, whether driving on multiple platforms, renting their homes or apartments and more. In fact, workers report that they like this ability to control their work on these platforms; 60 percent of ride-hailing service drivers report that they are satisfied or completely satisfied with their experience, and only 1 in 7 indicate being unsatisfied [“2014 in review: The top 6 rideshare driver trends”; December 21, 2014].

The debate over the rules governing the gig economy surely will continue, but if there is one clear message in the data regarding gig economy workers it is this: don’t touch my flexibility!

Jianming Zhou and Ryder Pearce are co-founders of SherpaShare, an organization conceived in early 2014 to help rideshare and other gig economy drivers better understand and profit from the on-demand economy.

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