Let’s take the high road to platform work. A multimethod study.

Let’s take the high road to platform work. A multimethod study.

Authors:  Verbiest, Sarike*; Van der Torre, Wouter*; Hummel, Lisa**; Dhondt Steven***

* TNO Healthy Living (NL) 

** Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and TNO Healthy Living (NL)

***TNO Healthy Living (NL) and K.U.Leuven (BE) 

Domain: business & economics 

The debate in the public arena on platform work tends to treat digital platform organizations as a homogenous group, for which general measures and policies should be developed. Most often ‘bad practices’, from platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo, are used to argue measures should be taken. Too little research is performed to understand if different types of platform organizations can be differentiated, if looking at quality of work for platform workers. Our hypothesis is that platform organizations may follow different approaches to quality of work. Our research consists of a literature review, an in-depth case study and the analysis of a survey on platform practices in seven countries.

The literature review underlines our main hypothesis. The potential differences in quality of work elements at different types of platform organizations are discussed. The quality of work elements cover work content (such as autonomy), working conditions, terms of employment (such as income and training & development) and employment relationships (such as performance reviews and negotiation power). The expectation is that platform organizations can be differentiated in so called ‘high road workplace’ and ‘low road workplace’ platforms. "High Road Employers see their employees and the products and services they provide as equally critical ingredients to their financial success. These companies hold a long term perspective and view the workplace as a vehicle to create significant business and social impact. They reject low road business models that exploit employees and disregard the environment. High Road Employers know that their businesses have a far better chance to thrive when they operate responsibly and their employees are compensated fairly for meaningful work" (American Sustainable Business Council; Finkel, 2018).

An in-depth case study was performed by the authors by conducting interviews, to understand if a high road perspective is possible and what high road platform practices may look alike. The case is an online platform for homeowners to find and connect with home improvement, maintenance and repair professionals. The core elements of the high road in this company have to do with pricing policy, the approach to support and co-develop their platform workers (or professionals).  The company for instance decided to hide the prices online, when they discovered the risk of a race to the bottom for their professionals. Furthermore, the company offers their platform workers guidance in developing online skills, such as profile presentation. They consider the professionals the main asset for their business, because the company aims to deliver high quality to homeowners. Investment in their professionals is seen as a defensive strategy to prevent many homeowners to look for professional support elsewhere. The high road strategy is seen as a means to differentiate itself in the market from more general platform companies. These more general platforms are stuck in low costs, low margin strategies. For the professionals, the work offered by the studied case, helps to balance their work load much better than is possible without the platform. In a way, they offer the professionals an opportunity to enlarge their autonomy in taking up specifics work offers and composing their work schedules. Low road platforms on the other hand are expected to offer platform workers crumbs of work with low compensation, primarily to make ends meet, offering little autonomy and no investment in learning and development.

The next question is if the conclusions from our case study can be generalized to the competition in the platform market in The Netherlands. Using material from Huws (et al., 2017), we conducted a new analysis to identify different strategies between platform companies to deal with professionals and platform workers. To make this analysis, a novel approach is used to identify clusters of platform companies. Income and the fragmentation of work are used as a proxy for the quality of work on the different platforms. The analyses are performed on data from a survey carried out in 2016 in seven European Countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy (approximately 2.000 respondents per country covering 27 different platforms) (Huws e.a., 2017). The results partially confirm the case study results.

From our study, we assess the implications for platform company practices and the need for policy makers to intervene in the market. At the end, we discuss the results and the needs for more specific data to investigate the differences in platform types in more depth. Future research questions are identified and a proposal on how to gather the data needed. 

The analyses are performed on data from a survey carried out in 2016 in seven European Countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy (approximately 2.000 respondents per country covering 27 different platforms) (Huws e.a., 2017).

References: 

  • American Sustainable Business Council, http://asbcouncil.org/sites/default/files/principles_of_high_road_employers.pdf  

  • Finkel, A. M. (2018). A healthy public cannot abide unhealthy and unsafe workplaces. 

Huws, U., Spencer, N., Syrdal, D., Holts, K. (2017), Work in the European gig economy: Research results rrom the UK, Sweden, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy, FEPS, UniGlobal and University of Hertfordshire.