Wrap-up Reshaping Work 2019: Platforms are influencing the future of work

The 3rd edition of the Reshaping Work congress took place in Amsterdam last week. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only international congress gathering all stakeholders for a sharp and constructive debate about the future of work within the platform economy. The congress is an impressive event with about 200 participants and 60 speakers, which has become a platform in itself with events in several countries. I dedicate this blog to share my personal view on the congress’ most striking points. 

To my delight the debate moves forward. But could someone provide some context?

It strikes me that the general debate regarding the platform economy has gained territory during last year. Although the discussion used to get stuck on usual suspects like Uber and Deliveroo, this edition was the first in which the role platforms play in the future of work was sincerely represented. Some positive progress.

Jeremias Prassl, professor of law at the University of Oxford, shared in the opening keynote the observation that the discussion about the provider shifts to the background, and a growing number of alternative ways are being developed to reach the same goals. I agree that a growing number of platforms starts to pay attention to social securities, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this deze progression could even cause non-platform workers to tap into these collective securities both more easily and at lower costs while profiting from innovations organized by platforms or stakeholders in the platform ecosystem.

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Although it has become clear to me that this debate is moving somewhere, it still is in its infancy. Yet, there is a beginning. Maybe I should say that it is readily waiting in the starting blocks, to use a more constructive description of this phase. Part of the development is found in the interesting news from research that was shared, as meanwhile 6 years of academic research has been carried out on the platform economy and interesting findings are surfacing.

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The fact that platforms cause the number of freelance professionals to rise is something most will agree on. Platforms lower the organizational threshold for starting independent professionals, as they outsource their sales, marketing and administration to a platform; just like hotel owners do with Booking.com. Will the complete labor market platformize and become flexible? Jeremias Prassl doesn’t hold that opinion: he states that standard employment is here to stay. It is high time to construct a system in which collective securities and obligations for workers are well organized. Consequently, the debate about the form of contracts will surely become less relevant.

In my opinion, even researchers could spend more time on the context of the platform economy. Many c2c platforms compete with the black market in which working conditions aren’t to be considered as good. It would be very interesting to know how conditions for workers and the composition of the population changes with the rise of the platform as a broker. A common complaint among researchers has been the limited access to platform data and files of platform workers. Partially, the way of asking is playing a role —what’s in it for them, but also the fact that the group of interview targets is overasked from time to time. Smart cooperation with requests for data and bundling projects could be of help.

The typical platform worker doesn’t exist

What was made clear to participants of this edition of Reshaping Work is that a typical platform worker does not exist. In the very same way typical laborers, or freelancers don’t exist. During sessions and presentations of many interesting papers, all kinds of platform workers were considered. From the precarious migrant, who can only start to work on a platform like Deliveroo, to the creative freelancer working through Fiverr, and the top designer registered with Toptal (a platform rejecting 98% of its applications) who earns a decent income with his international clientele, covering the loss of national clients by working via the platform.

It would be great to differentiate more in likewise manner during upcoming debates. Many variables influence the position of a platform worker, of which I will mention a few:

  1. Is there a need for a physical meeting in order to fulfill a task? In other words: is it about on-site or off-site (online) work?
  2. Are clients consumers or organisations?
  3. Does the supplier have unique (scarce) or commodity skills?
  4. Is a one time or repetitive task concerned?
  5. Is the match being established automatically or semi-automatically (by preselection)?
  6. Is an unlimited supply allowed to log onto the platform, or is the balance between suppliers and requested work being observed, in order to make sure that everyone has sufficient work?
  7. Is the income made on the platform supplementary or is the platform worker depending on the income generated on the platform?
  8. Are both orders and payments made on the platform or is the platform only serving as a matchmaker?
  9. What are the social securities offered by the platform?

Furthermore, many a condition changes with the tides of the economy, with platform work and non-platform work alike.

Platform as stand alone entity or software tool?

When talking about the impact of platforms on the organization of work, the debate mostly focuses on ‘stand alone’ platforms with their own pool of supply and demand. And although the number of platforms in this category is growing, it is still hard to say if this is just a shift from traditional brokers to digital brokers, or that real new jobs are created.

The greatest impact platforms can make is, in my opinion, when they start functioning as a (software) tool which improves the way labor is being organized. An earlier article I wroteelaborates on that subject. During the congress, I joined a roundtable with Twago: a platform/tool that was acquired by temporary employment agency Randstad some time ago. Twago builds talentpools for clients like Philips and Unilever with their own ‘branded’ environment for both their own talent as well as talent recruited by Twago. Moreover, they create the overview in databases with applicants who have been rejected and interns. Up until today, Twago has not yet been able to build the link with the Randstad databases. In this regard it is still questionable to what extent it will be practically possible to successfully build a great entry app for labor serving larger organisations.

When platforms aren’t taken as a ‘stand alone’ entity, but as a software tool, they come so much closer to the real platform philosophy. Many stand alone platforms are relatively closed, governed by the fear of losing shareholder value. A missed chance. Platforms will have to open up to external parties even more to offer their users these kind of services. Intrinsically, this shouldn’t be a problem: platforms are in fact a concatenation of existing suppliers in the ecosystem of, for example, payment, administration, and ID-checks. It would suit platforms to practice the platform philosophy themselves some more, as there is plenty of opportunity.

From C2C (P2C) to P2B

There used to be a lot of attention for platform work with transactions between the individual supplier and a consumer, C2C, although I’d rather speak of P2C (Peer to Consumer), as the supplier could easily be a professional as well. Earlier in this article, I mentioned platforms like Fiverr, Toptal and Twago, showing that Business as client is an ever growing market. The advantage with business as client is the possibility to spend relatively much on onboarding, since the revenue per client will be significantly higher. With consumers as client onboarding costs may soon exceed the margin made on the relationship.

Hence, I expect that —and I saw many such examples during the Reshaping Work congress— platforms with a Peer 2 Business set-up will gain a good market share and can become serious competitors within the temporary employment sector.

Conclusion

This edition of Reshaping Work has shown its participants the diversity of platform work and how platform work could greatly impact consumers and businesses alike. I missed the discussion on how these new developments could fit in with existing policies and some sharing on best practises of how this already happens. Although there was a good amount of interaction between several represented stakeholders, I would love to see more sessions next time in which they really start to work together. This is a vital aspect to stimulate development. All stakeholders have this subject on their agenda, so it is important to look for connections and to learn together. Yet, we won’t have to wait for the next edition in order to start working at it ourselves.


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Martijn Arets

Martijn Arets

International platform expert | Professional outsider | Explores platform economy since 2011 | Bridge builder | Speaker