E-Work and New ‘Work’

In a previous blog post, E-Working – what are the trends? I examined the data available on e-work, also termed tele-working. Much of the data, especially the trend data available from the Census, only measures those workers who work ‘mainly at or from home’ and as discussed this only captures a small element of the workforce which we know, frequently work from home.

Capturing the extent to which people e-work is related to how the question is phrased; so for example if the Census question was changed, to ask whether a person worked on one or even a ½ day per week basis, it is likely to significantly increase the number reporting that they are e-workers.

Rural E-working

A recent report commissioned by Vodafone and conducted by Amárach Research, Connected Futures (3.8MB) examined the extent to which broadband has influenced those working in rural Ireland. The research found that nearly one in four broadband users in rural Ireland uses the internet at home in relation to their work (about 430,000 people). Among those remotely accessing work from home, most use the internet to check email and organise their work diary. Nearly half use the internet at home to work on reports and presentations. These e-workers report that with internet access, they can avoid commuting to work, which the research indicates typically occurs about two days a week.

Entirely Home-based E-work

The use of communications technology and more importantly its widespread availability at home has allowed new forms of work to emerge.

An early use of home-based working which is conditional on the availability of a minimum level of broadband speed has been the outsourcing of work where the employee is entirely home-based. For example Amazon and Apple were reported as requiring applicants to have a minimum 5Mbps download speed for home based customer support jobs. This and the need for universal high speed broadband is discussed in the WDC Report, Connecting the West, Next Generation Broadband in the Western Region (Low Res 1.5Mb).

Enforced Flexibility

A new report, published last week by TASC, Enforced Flexibility? Working in Ireland Today, (609kb) discusses an emerging practice where employees work entirely from home, though not by employee choice. For at least one of the high tech multinationals an emerging practice is to place some of their customer service workers in their own homes.  While traditionally the choice to work from home was perceived as a positive option, in this case the decision was made by the organisation rather than the individual: it was not an option as there was no possibility of working in an office. (p.62).

E-working has generally been considered in a positive light from the employee perspective, enabling more flexibility in working hours which can be more family friendly, reduced commuting time as well as fuel and carbon savings. However the TASC report notes that e-working which is wholly and entirely conducted from home, without the option of working in an office may not offer the same degree of flexibility. Constantly online during their shifts they were subject to the same tight supervision as those based in a traditional call centre environment. While it is difficult to establish what proportion of customer service workers now work in this way, there is evidence that the numbers are growing (p.62). In some instances these employees are self-employed contractors even though they are entirely contracted to the one employer.

The ‘Gig economy’

Measuring the extent of e-work is further complicated by the changing nature of work. The evolution of communications technology which has enabled the increased possibility of e-work, has evolved even further to allow new forms of ‘work’ to emerge.

Broadband and online platforms have allowed the development of new types of work and service delivery variously termed the ‘gig economy’, ‘sharing economy’, ‘crowd working’ and ‘uberisation’. Previously ‘gigs’ were how musicians earned a living, now the ‘gig economy’ includes all those who rent out their property, possessions or services for a fee, all of which is managed online!

The ‘gig economy’ is another form of e-work as it relies on electronic communication, though with the increasing use and availability of smartphones and mobile broadband this type of e-work is often less tied to a fixed location, whether this is at home or elsewhere. The ‘gig economy’ can also be seen as entrepreneurial, allowing individuals to initiate a process of selling goods or services and increasing the potential for self-employment.

Much of this type of work and service delivery is likely to be more developed in large urban centres, with significant critical mass. So far, within Ireland, Uber is just in Dublin and Cork – though the IDA announced a significant jobs announcement by Uber  in Limerick earlier this year.

However while parts of the ‘gig economy’ are urban driven, it is by no means exclusive to it. Airbnb can operate anywhere and maybe very popular in more rural areas with more limited supply, especially in high season.

As a type of employment, the ‘gig economy’ has raised questions about workers’ rights and protections such as guaranteed income, health care and pensions. Hillary Clinton, US Presidential candidate, when outlining her economic plan noted, This on-demand, or so called gig economy is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation. But it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.

Evidence of the ‘Gig Economy’

To what extent the ‘gig economy’ is changing the nature of work is not clear. Some argue that while more are choosing to earn income from this ‘gig economy’, it is not clear whether this is in the absence of another job or to supplement existing paid employment?

Research undertaken by the University of Hertfordshire has tried to quantify the extent of the ‘gig economy’ in both the UK and Sweden.

The research found that in the UK around 5 million people are engaged in the ‘gig economy’. In the UK online survey 21% say they have tried to find work managed via so called ‘sharing economy’ platforms such as Upwork, Uber or Handy during the past year, equivalent to around 9 million people or almost one fifth of the adult population. Around 1 in 10 (11%) of respondents said they had succeeded in doing so, equivalent to around 4.9 million people.

Almost a quarter (24%) of UK women responding to the survey claim to have sought work via online platforms, and one third (33%) of 25-34 year olds.

3% of respondents claim to find paid work via online platforms at least once a week, equivalent to around 1.3 million adults, with 4%, or around 1.8 million finding work at least once a month.

Main source of income or a supplement?

A quarter of all those workers in the ‘gig economy’ say they rely on this income as their sole or main source of income.

Only 10% of those workers in the ‘gig economy’ were students, a proportion that dropped to 6% among those working in the ‘gig economy’ weekly. This is in line with the general proportion of students in the adult population of the UK (at around 8%).

The range of work is extremely broad, from high-skill professional work at one extreme to running errands at the other. The most common type of work, undertaken by more than two thirds is office work, short tasks and ‘click work’ done online. However a significant proportion are doing professional work, creative work, providing taxi services or a range of other services in people’s homes.

Where is the ‘Gig economy’?

From a geographic perspective, the largest numbers are in England with one in five based in London, just under a quarter each in the South, the Midlands and the North with 7% in Scotland and 3% in Wales. This reflects the general distribution of the UK population.

The Swedish online survey found a similar pattern to the UK survey. In Sweden 12% are working in the so-called ‘sharing economy’ for platforms such as Upwork, Uber or Skjutsgruppen, equivalent to around 737,000 people. Twice as many people (24%) used such sites in the hope of finding work – equivalent to almost a quarter of the working age population.

Conclusions

E-work can describe a variety of employment types ranging from ‘traditional work’ conducted at home or on the move, through to occasional engagement in online activity to generate additional income.

This can include a traditional employment relationship between an employee and an employer with the employee working from home possibly one or two days per week. It can also include the ‘new’ types of work and service delivery associated with the gig economy’, where people are often self-employed.

E-working of all types and the more recent growth in online platforms which has enabled new forms of income generation are all dependent on the widespread availability of broadband. The research to-date indicates that this type of employment and income generation is a very significant and growing element of the economy and labour market. The evidence cited from rural areas suggest that online participation for work is as prevalent, if not more so than in urban areas. This reinforces the need for the universal availability of quality broadband, another reason for the speedy rollout of the Government’s National Broadband Plan.

Deirdre Frost

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About WDC Insights

WDC Insights is the blog of the Western Development Commission Policy Analysis Team. The WDC Policy Analysis team analyses regional and rural issues, suggests solutions to regional difficulties and provides a regional perspective on national policy objectives. Policy Analysis Team Members are: Deirdre Frost, Helen McHenry and Pauline White. We will all be posting here. You can contact us here, or use our firstnamelastname at wdc.ie Follow us on Twitter @WDCInsights
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