How Airbnb and Uber Are Changing the Nature of Work

The traditional 9-to-5 workplace is morphing into a project-oriented, place-neutral, DIY free-for-all.

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Fawn Johnson
Nov. 13, 2014, 7:48 a.m.

Sandra Lev­ine had 27 ten­ants in her spare apart­ment this sum­mer. Most stayed for two or three nights. Some stayed only one night. One blessed guest stayed for 10 days, which gave her a long break from wash­ing the sheets and clean­ing the bath­room. “It turned out to be a pretty good sum­mer job,” says Lev­ine, a preschool teach­er in Bo­ston. “There were a few weeks when we had people every night. That was really busy.”

It was luc­rat­ive, too. She charged three times what she would have for a monthly rent­al.

Lev­ine and her hus­band, Sam, ran their rent­al busi­ness through Airb­nb, a web­site that en­ables people to rent out their spare rooms, apart­ments, or even whole houses to trav­el­ers look­ing for an al­tern­at­ive to a hotel. The per­vas­ive­ness of Wi-Fi and smart­phone apps now al­lows in­di­vidu­als to sell com­mod­it­ies like spare rooms or trans­port­a­tion that pre­vi­ously were re­leg­ated to li­censed pro­fes­sion­als. For some, Airb­nb and the ride-shar­ing ser­vice Uber are moon­light­ing pro­jects that sup­ple­ment more-tra­di­tion­al in­comes. For oth­ers, these new DIY ser­vices are full-time gigs.

Airb­nb provides a neut­ral in­ter­face for man­aging mon­et­ary ex­changes, but the ac­tu­al pro­vi­sion of goods and ser­vices to the ten­ants is en­tirely up to the hosts. Lev­ine ini­tially hired a clean­ing per­son to ready the apart­ment for renters, but she even­tu­ally wound up do­ing it her­self. That saved money, but it also meant her sched­ule was er­rat­ic. On a few oc­ca­sions, she had to re­arrange her day’s plans be­cause of a last-minute book­ing. Once, her hus­band for­got to black out a week­end when they were out of town, so she had to ca­jole her col­lege-age daugh­ter to ready the apart­ment when a book­ing came in.

Lev­ine isn’t an Airb­nb host any­more, re­cently opt­ing for a long-term ten­ant, but she still doesn’t think of her­self as a tra­di­tion­al work­er. “I work a few days a week till 1:30, one day a week un­til 4. I’m not 9 to 5, and I’m cer­tainly not 8 to 7, like a lot of people.”

She is more nor­mal than she thinks. Or rather, she is em­blem­at­ic of the new nor­mal. 

Lev­ine’s ex­per­i­ence il­lus­trates some of the biggest ques­tions about the Amer­ic­an work ex­per­i­ence today. What ex­actly is work? When does it start? When does it stop? Who con­trols it? Is it sup­posed to cov­er all liv­ing ex­penses? What if it doesn’t? Is it sup­posed to make me rich? What does my work say about me?

In some in­dus­tries, even the phys­ic­al of­fice is be­com­ing an­ti­quated, just like one-job ca­reers and pen­sion plans (re­mem­ber those?). It can be hard to know when someone is “at work” or not. Soon that ques­tion may be ir­rel­ev­ant. When Lev­ine is clean­ing her apart­ment for her next Airb­nb guest, she is work­ing even though her primary em­ploy­er con­siders her “off.” If she re­sponds to a text re­quest­ing a room re­ser­va­tion while strolling along the Charles River, she’s both on and off at the same time.

Work hap­pens every­where and at all times. Hu­man re­sources pro­fes­sion­als have moved away from the term “work-life bal­ance,” be­cause it im­plies that there is a dir­ect di­vide between work and life, and that work activ­it­ies take away from life activ­it­ies — and vice versa. “We call it work-life fit, work-life in­teg­ra­tion, work-life merge,” says Lisa Horn, con­gres­sion­al af­fairs dir­ect­or for the So­ci­ety for Hu­man Re­source Man­age­ment.

Man­aged com­pet­ently, this new idea of the work­place of­fers great­er freedoms for both the em­ploy­er and the work­er, and it can be a boon to pro­ductiv­ity. But ana­lysts agree that it hasn’t been fully in­teg­rated in­to work cul­ture, and that can cre­ate ten­sion. “Work in­tens­ity has rat­cheted up. Work­ers are sup­posed to be avail­able — or at least ac­cess­ible — all the time, wheth­er they’re at home or not. And yet we have this really out­dated idea of 9 to 5,” says Phyl­lis Moen, a so­ci­ology pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Min­nesota who spe­cial­izes in work­place flex­ib­il­ity. “Some feel they have to put in face time. People would ask, ‘When do you leave dur­ing the day?’ And they would say, ‘After my su­per­visor leaves.’ “

The in­crease in wo­men in the work­force has been the most im­port­ant change in em­ploy­ment over the last two gen­er­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to work­place ana­lysts, and it has placed a new premi­um on flex­ib­il­ity. The term means something dif­fer­ent to each work­er and each em­ploy­er, but so­ci­olo­gists say it can be boiled down to one es­sen­tial com­pon­ent — a work­er’s abil­ity to con­trol her sched­ule to ac­com­mod­ate needs out­side of work.

Many of­fice cul­tures haven’t moved past the as­sump­tion that for every work­er there is an­oth­er per­son at home (usu­ally a wo­man) who is tak­ing care of the do­mest­ic as­pect of the fam­ily’s life. But this Cleav­er-like mod­el hasn’t been the case for two gen­er­a­tions. In 1970, two-fifths of mar­ried wo­men were in the work­force and nearly three-fifths of single wo­men (57 per­cent) were em­ployed, ac­cord­ing to the Census Bur­eau. By 2010, em­ploy­ment of mar­ried wo­men had jumped to nearly two-thirds (61 per­cent), es­sen­tially on par with single wo­men’s work rates (63 per­cent).

It’s hard to over­state how much an em­ploy­ee’s con­trol over his sched­ule, even if it’s a small amount of lee­way, changes the work ex­per­i­ence. Al­most three-quar­ters of adult work­ers (73 per­cent) said flex­ib­il­ity is “one of the most im­port­ant factors they con­sider” when look­ing for a new job, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey com­mis­sioned last year by the em­ploy­ment firm Mom Corps. (Oth­er sur­veys put that fig­ure as high as 87 per­cent.) Nearly half of the re­spond­ents in the Mom Corps sur­vey (45 per­cent) said they would even be will­ing to re­lin­quish some of their salar­ies for more flex­ib­il­ity.

Yet the sur­vey also showed that some cul­tur­al bar­ri­ers haven’t been fully dis­mantled. Al­most half of the re­spond­ents (47 per­cent) said it would hurt their chances for ad­vance­ment if they asked for more flex­ib­il­ity.

Horn says many em­ploy­ers want to try new ways of man­aging work­ers that are less fo­cused on hours spent in a cu­bicle, but they are hampered by out­dated labor laws. “Our work­place laws have not evolved. We talk about sched­ules and ri­gid schedul­ing,” Horn says. “What dic­tated that, be­lieve it or not, dates back to the 1938 Fair Labor Stand­ards Act.”

Mean­while, a new level of un­cer­tainty per­meates the work­force. “We’re see­ing an em­ploy­ment rate that is just a little bit bet­ter than it was in the depths of the Great Re­ces­sion. We are see­ing quit rates that are not very high still. We are see­ing people say­ing in sur­veys that they’re feel­ing eco­nom­ic­ally in­sec­ure. They are less likely to re­port that they are part of the middle class,” says Heath­er Boushey, chief eco­nom­ist at the Wash­ing­ton Cen­ter for Equit­able Growth.

Em­ploy­ees now are less in­clined to “un­plug” for fear of be­ing seen as un­pro­duct­ive and let go. And they may not be wrong. Man­agers are be­ing asked to ac­com­plish more with few­er em­ploy­ees. Pro­duc­tion and ser­vice work­ers find them­selves clam­or­ing with their co-work­ers for more hours as their man­agers try to sched­ule the ex­act amount labor needed — and no more — to ac­com­mod­ate their pro­duc­tion or sales needs. Store man­agers are afraid to post sched­ules too far in ad­vance in case the sales pat­terns shift without warn­ing.

“You’ve got your Black­Berry, walk­ing around your store, and you’re look­ing at your sales ra­tios right then,” says Susan Lam­bert, a Uni­versity of Chica­go pro­fess­or who stud­ies hourly work. “Front-line man­agers are really held ac­count­able for stay­ing with­in hours. They get in trouble for even us­ing a few hours more than what they’ve been as­signed.”

Just-in-time man­age­ment makes for pre­cari­ous work sched­ules. Two-fifths of young work­ers in non­salar­ied jobs (41 per­cent) and nearly half in part-time jobs (47 per­cent) say they learn their work sched­ules less than a week in ad­vance, ac­cord­ing to re­search re­cently pub­lished by Lam­bert. That can wreak hav­oc with their lives, par­tic­u­larly if they are jug­gling school, second jobs, or child care.

Re­tail work­places also tend to fluc­tu­ate wildly in terms of em­ploy­ees’ time on the job, which makes per­son­al budget­ing dif­fi­cult. Ac­cord­ing to Lam­bert’s re­search, 90 per­cent of food-ser­vice work­ers and 87 per­cent of re­tail work­ers had hours vary widely with­in a month, many work­ing half their usu­al hours in a giv­en week.

“There are not enough jobs at the bot­tom. It’s harder for them to have any lever­age be­cause em­ploy­ers can just hire someone else,” says Dav­id Grusky, a Stan­ford Uni­versity pro­fess­or who fo­cuses on eco­nom­ic in­equity.

Grusky is con­cerned that new in­nov­a­tions in work — from tele­com­mut­ing to on-site child-care cen­ters to pro­ductiv­ity-ori­ented pay­ment sys­tems — risk leav­ing lower-level work­ers be­hind. “When we talk about work re­design, we al­ways think about the high­er end,” he says.

Horn says hu­man re­sources man­agers in the man­u­fac­tur­ing and ser­vice sec­tors, who use a lot of hourly work­ers, struggle with how to provide flex­ib­il­ity. She ad­vises them that flex­ib­il­ity looks dif­fer­ent in their in­dus­tries, but it is still doable. “For an hourly work­er, in par­tic­u­lar, a little bit of flex­ib­il­ity goes a really long way. For them, flex­ib­il­ity may come in the form of step­ping off the pro­duc­tion line at 3 p.m. every day to make a phone call to make sure their kids got home,” she says.

Ac­cord­ing to Horn, for­ward-think­ing em­ploy­ers are as con­cerned as anti-poverty ad­voc­ates about the un­in­ten­ded im­pact of schedul­ing mod­ern­iz­a­tions on their work­ers. Sev­er­al of SHRM’s 2014 award win­ners for work­place in­nov­a­tion won re­cog­ni­tion be­cause they set up pro­grams to com­bat over­work. “How do you turn off and avoid burnout,” she says. “Send the strong mes­sage, ‘It’s OK. You are on va­ca­tion. You do not need to be sit­ting in on the con­fer­ence call.’ “

So­ci­olo­gists say the true nature of work is tre­mend­ously dif­fi­cult to as­sess with any sci­entif­ic clar­ity. Lam­bert, for ex­ample, is frus­trated that her re­search on pre­cari­ous work schedul­ing is lim­ited to work­ers ages 26 to 32. That’s the only data out there; it wasn’t un­til 2011 that a census sur­vey of youth in­cluded a ques­tion about schedul­ing.

Even without hard­core sci­entif­ic proof, however, it is ap­par­ent that work will be­come more pro­ject-ori­ented and mul­ti­fa­ceted over the next gen­er­a­tion. Mil­len­ni­als can ex­pect to have sev­er­al ca­reers, per­haps even at the same time. Re­tir­ees will con­tin­ue to re­in­vent them­selves with second ca­reers. Some work­ers, with the help of Web in­ven­tions like Airb­nb or Uber, can strike it out on their own. These changes are in­ev­it­able and even wel­come, says Moen, as long as work­ers aren’t left out in the cold.

“It’s go­ing to be pro­ject work. We have to fig­ure out how to have pro­tec­tions around that so when people are out of work, they get some kind of re­mu­ner­a­tion,” she says. That’s a lofty goal, but not an im­possible one, con­sid­er­ing that it is on the fore­front of both em­ploy­ers’ and em­ploy­ees’ minds as they struggle to ad­apt to the new eco­nomy.

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