Combining jobs in the platform economy: how workers make algorithms appear seamless

By Francisca Grommé, Yuri Scharp, Jans Berden, Claartje ter Hoeven

The majority of people working via platforms such as Uber or Amazon Turk also has other sources of income. In addition to platform work, they may work in a civil service job, clean houses, or sell art. While there is a growing field of research around the quality of platform jobs, we know less about how and why platform workers combine jobs and the effects of such ‘hybrid work’ (job combinations) on wellbeing. We do not even know what jobs are combined because most current statistics and questionnaires are not equipped to measure hybrid work.

Yet, one of platform companies’ main selling points is the possibility of seamlessly combining platform tasks with your work and private life. Platform companies state that their interfaces and algorithms are flexible, so you can “top up” your existing income or work around your private priorities. Based on 33 interviews among platform cleaners and drivers and a questionnaire among 112 microworkers conducting online tasks, we conclude that hybrid work is rarely seamless. Instead, workers’ use their resources and skillsets to make hybrid work appear seamless, something we refer to as ‘suprawork’ (after Strauss, 1988, 1993; also see Aroles et al. 2023). It is important to recognise suprawork because it sustains a large part of the platform economy, and can negatively affect the wellbeing of the most vulnerable workers.

Hustle and gig

Platform work was integrated into more varied and heterogeneous combinations of work histories and job combinations than we initially expected. From part of the interviews, a picture emerged of a ‘hustle and gig’ style of working (Ravenelle, 2019).

For most respondents, the main motivation for engaging in platform work was financial. Among cleaners and drivers, platform work was commonly not their primary source of income; however, it was essential to making ends meet. Often financial need accompanied life changing events, such as a divorce or redundancy because of automation. In such circumstances platform work offered the opportunity to complement their income while also allowing for childcare. Workers combining platform work with self-employment often used platform work as income security. For instance, self-employed taxi drivers used Uber to top up their income, intending to save labour by driving when algorithmically determined rates were high. Platform workers who still could not make ends meet, often because they lacked access to the labour market, did additional odd jobs, such as cat sitting, online tourist recruiting for hotels, or investing in crypto currencies.

Financial need also accompanied the realisation of personal dreams. New entrepreneurs used platform work as an income base when starting their own company or artist practice. For instance, a salaried security officer started driving Uber because he wanted to start a health clinic abroad, and needed to pay for accompanying education. One platform cleaner’s dream was to work as a salaried cleaner, something that they found difficult to attain after a prison sentence. Many of these workers performed platform work temporarily, sometimes returning to it when their dream failed.

To complete this varied picture, some respondents simply integrated platform work into their lives as salaried workers because they enjoyed the variety, such as a tax lawyer also working as a driver.

Managing complex working lives: resources, skill and play

It follows that these complex working lives need to be managed: schedules must be combined, and on-demand work needs to be integrated with ongoing activities. Furthermore, some respondents worked more than 40 hours per week, and needed to also manage their personal life while making sure they were getting enough rest.

The interviews and questionnaires suggest that workers apply a mix of resources, skill, and play to manage job combinations. Combining platform tasks with other work can be challenging because it is on-demand and irregular. In addition, there is no manager with whom rules and boundaries can be negotiated. One warehouse worker enlisted the help of her older children to babysit her younger child so she could clean via a platform. Managing her family in this way was crucial because she could not arrange a babysitter on short notice. Another type of work and skill was the creation of a routine by studying platform algorithms so work could be more predictable. Our survey among microworkers moreover pointed out that an important skill and resource used by some microworkers is the application of playfulness in managing one’s work. For instance, by initiating humor or creating micro-goals during tasks, microworkers managed their engagement with the platform work.

These findings suggest that platform interfaces and algorithms alone do not enable seamless, flexible working lives. Instead, workers invest resources, skill, and play. They constantly need to manage their environment to integrate platform work into their life. This is what we refer to as suprawork.

Recognising suprawork

Our surveys among microworkers suggest that combining jobs can be associated with low wellbeing, low enthusiasm, and exhaustion, especially when the main incentive for doing microwork on top of other work was financial and performed non-playfully. Drivers and cleaners also indicated stress caused by serving a variety of clients and always being on-call. Some platform workers also indicated being overworked because they experienced difficulties in managing their workload, as the platform always offered more jobs. Uber drivers experienced stress when they could not comply with the app’s minimal number of accepted clients because of their other responsibilities. According to the drivers, not accepting a minimal amount of clients would lead to fewer new jobs becoming available though the algorithmic management system.

Intrinsic motivation (liking the job) can lessen such effects. Playfulness can also help to retain enthusiasm and limit exhaustion. Yet, such effects are most likely to occur among workers who are less financially or socially vulnerable. Drivers and cleaners who experienced platform work as a contribution to their life often did not rely on platform work as their main source of income, were studying, or had financial or social support.

To conclude, platform work is becoming part of complex and sometimes vulnerable work lifes. Platform companies depend on this hybrid workforce. We therefore need to recognise suprawork: the additional resources, work, and efforts invested by platform workers. Algorithms alone do not make work seamless and flexible, but workers do.

The research project ‘Hybrid employment in the platform economy: Who is juggling multiple jobs and how?’ was conducted between 2021–2023. It was supported by the Erasmus Trustfonds Foundation and the ESSB Panel Study.

References

Aroles, J., Bonneau, C., & Bhankaraully, S. (2023). Conceptualising ‘Meta-Work’ in the Context of Continuous, Global Mobility: The Case of Digital Nomadism. Work, Employment and Society, 37(5), 1261–1278.

Ravenelle, A. J. (2019). Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy (First edition). University of California Press.

Strauss, A. L. (1988). The Articulation of Project Work: An Organizational Process. The Sociological Quarterly, 29(2), 163–178.

Strauss, A. L. (1993). Continual Permutations of Action. Aldine de Gruyter.

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