Organisational control of platform work

Heiner Heiland, Technical University Darmstadt

The paper is dedicated to the emerging field of platform work, which is the epitome of the transformation of established industrial relations. Specific objects are online platforms in Germany, which take over the mediation of courier work of meals. These represent a new field that has become established within a few years in all major European cities, with annual growth rates of approximately 20%. At the present time, however, it is not the size of the analyzed phenomenon that underlines its relevance but its role as an organizational avant-garde. Because the service platforms focused here face central challenges that go hand in hand with the digital organization and control of work.

The focus is on the specific coordination and control of this type of work by organizing platform-internal markets. The German field is particularly insightful in this regard, as its key players have taken different paths with regard to central organizational issues, which have a broad impact on other aspects of organizing this type of work. Thus, the platforms show a varying degree of a shift of the market frontier into the companies. Specifically, one of the platforms hires the workers with a fixed employment contract and the other works with self-employed couriers. The work equipment must be provided by the workers themselves in both platforms.

This varying shift of the market frontier is the subject of a trade-off between low labor costs on the one hand and low levels of coordination and control over labor on the other. The platforms react to this with various instruments such as algorithmic management, information asymmetries and surveillance (Heiland 2018, Ivanova et al.2018, Schreyer/Schrape 2018, Heiland/Brinkmann 2019).

The thesis of the paper is that these mostly technological instruments are preceded by the control of work by determining the working time and space: "It is possible to define domination in such a way that it is always capable of prescribing the rules according to which people are [...] in a detailed organization of spatial and temporal parts "(Negt 1987). As shown in the article, this coordination and control of time and space in platform work is not based solely on a technological fix, but is complemented by an organizational fix (following David Harvey (1992) and Beverly Silver (2003)).

The research topic was investigated using a "fully integrated mixed-methods-design" (Teddlie / Tashakkori 2006), by means of which various complementary data were collected. There were 35 qualitative interviews conducted with food couriers, a quantitative online survey (n = 241) as well as ethnographic surveys conducted by analogue own courier work and digital content analysis of online forums and chat groups. The different methods were used interactively and referred on each other in all phases of the research process.

Central findings

The platforms are mediators between restaurants, couriers and customers. As such, they compete with other platforms for these three groups of actors. The platforms hope to initialize indirect network effects that will positively enhance the different groups (for example, more restaurants, bring more customers and thus more couriers). At the same time they are also gatekeepers. In particular, they control access to the platform for the potential couriers and thus the opportunity to earn an income through courier work.

In addition, the platforms are not just participants in markets, but organize their own internal markets. On these, couriers compete for the opportunity to work at their preferred times and in the desired places. Despite the differing scope of market frontier shifts, the platforms do not differ in this respect. Even the hired couriers have to compete for shifts on the platform-internal markets. And so, large parts of respondents on both platforms say they regularly do not get the shifts they want or need.

The general currency in these markets is the performance of the workers. But in this regard, the platforms differ concerning the central performance evaluation criteria. The company with only self-employed couriers does not face the transformation problem of potential labor into an actual performance. This is outsourced to the workers themselves as a result of their independence. The relevant criteria, which influence the platform-internal status, do not concern the work performance as such, but only the reliability of its execution. For the employed workers, on the other hand, in addition to the reliability, in particular criteria of the work performance, such as speed and quantity of the completed orders are central.

Good status as a result of appropriate performance gives the courier the opportunity to choose their shifts at different times. Good status means being able to access the shift schedule first. This is crucial for the profitability of the work done by the self-employed and the intensity of the work of the employed drivers and is therefore one of the central topics in the interviews.

The freedom and flexibility of platform-based courier work, which is regularly claimed to attract new couriers, is thwarted when the workers have a poor platform-internal market status. Anyone who either relies on income through self-employed courier work or can/wants to work at certain times and/or only in certain zones, is therefore dependent on a good status on the platform-internal markets.

But it is also crucial that the effectiveness of this organizational control technique is based on a sufficient supply of interested workers. Thus there is a high dependence of the platforms on local labor markets, so that in some cities this instrument has no effect.

As the paper shows, the coordination and control of platform-based courier work is not based solely on technical instruments. Complementary part of this technological fix is an organizational one by means of which the workers are competing with each other and are required to work reliably and efficiently.