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The Gig Economy and social care

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I recently gave evidence to a Work and Pensions Select Committee on the Gig Economy, examining whether the UK welfare system adequately supports the growing numbers of self-employed and Gig Economy workers.

They were interested in my opinion about the flexibility of the Gig Economy and my personal experiences of what works and doesn’t work as a self-employed person.

They were clearly looking at the Gig Economy from the perspective of upping employee protection and Frank Field, the Committee’s Chair, is calling for equal rights of ‘giggers’, including a guaranteed minimum wage.

I can understand why. No-one wants to see workers exploited and certainty of employment is important to many people. However, as we’ve seen with zero hours’ contracts, there are pros and cons. Flexibility to fit other passions, like acting, writing and music, around other mainstream work is often more appealing than a guaranteed level of income each month.

However, I wonder whether the prism the Gig Economy is currently being viewed through is actually limiting our thinking.

We are well-versed in the challenges of this industry. Our population is ageing (that’s a market opportunity to me, but that’s another story), public sector budgets are shrinking, workforce attraction and retention is, and always has been, tricky.

These are big issues and we won’t make any headway by tinkering around the edges. We need to be more creative about how we think about the workforce in general and we need to be open to new ideas. Can the Gig Economy be part of the solution?

What is the Gig Economy?

We should start with the question, ‘What is the Gig Economy and what does it actually mean?’ The phrase was coined in around 2009, according to the Financial Times, when unemployment was at a high and people were working several part-time jobs. In reality, it’s been around for decades and its origins trace back to gigging musicians.

The companies most famous for taking advantage of, and shaping the modern-day Gig Economy, include the ride-share app Uber, home-stay network AirBnB, food delivery company Deliveroo and chore outsourcer TaskRabbit.

These companies operate in different markets, but what they have in common is that they provide an online platform where people can buy products and services on-demand. The suppliers of the goods or services are treated as self-employed by the platform owners, so there’s no sick or holiday pay and no certainty of work or income.

Advocates for this style of working claim it offers greater flexibility and freedom, and means people can work in a way that meets the needs of their lifestyle. Its popularity in the UK is booming. According to the Office for National Statistics, around 5 million people are self-employed currently and part-time self-employment, which is more reflective of the Gig Economy, has increased by 88% between 2001 and 2015.

The Gig Economy and the care sector

There are some key reasons why the Gig Economy ‘unicorn’ companies (those start-ups with a market value of over $1bn), like Uber, have been successful. They’ve understood their target audience, created a way that is easy and convenient for a consumer to buy a product or service, and made it affordable.

That’s what Uber’s Co-Founder, Travis Kalanick said in an interview with American organisation AARP. He said the future of the shared economy is, ‘all about convenience, quality and affordability for the consumer’.

This is exactly where care needs to be heading.

It’s easy to be swept away with emotion in the care sector. We are dealing with people’s lives and often the end of those lives. We are involved in hugely intimate tasks, looking after people’s emotional wellbeing as well as their physical needs.

However, at the end of the day, we’re providing a service and someone – whether it’s the Government or the private funder – is paying for it. It’s a marketplace. This is the mindset that we need to embrace if we’re going to have a sustainable care sector in the future.

This is not radical thinking. There are already companies that have applied more of a commercial marketing approach to product development in this sector, and are using the Gig Economy to deliver care and support to people in their own homes.

In the US, there are companies like CareLinx, which has more than 150,000 caregivers available to hire, KindlyCare and Closer to home, there’s been the recent launch of online homecare agencies Cera, HomeTouch and Vida.

All of these companies provide an online portal, where customers can find and book qualified care workers on-demand. They attract and vet the staff, but the relationship is held by the customer, and managed via either the portal or a smartphone app.

At the other end of the care spectrum, Envoy positions itself as a family concierge service. It matches the likes of stay-at-home mums, who are looking for flexible work, with older people who might need help with ‘light tasks’ rather than personal care. These tasks include grocery shopping, walking the dog, transport, errands and basic housekeeping.

These companies service the private-paying market and earn their money by charging a service or membership fee to the customer. In Envoy’s case, it’s also offering its services to corporates who are looking to support the care workers in their workforce. The services they’re offering aren’t new. They’ve just harnessed technology to make it convenient, accessible and affordable for the consumer.

As you can see, the Gig Economy is already in the care sector and disruption is happening.

Is it a solution?

There are pitfalls in the Gig Economy approach and one of the biggest is the possible exploitation of workers.

The recent Pimlico Plumbers court case, as reported by the BBC, highlights the fine line between being classed as an employee versus being a self-employed contractor. In this case, the court ruled that a contractor was actually a full-time employee as he had worked solely for Pimlico Plumbers for six years, and consequently, he was entitled to the same protections as a full-time member of staff.

For organisations considering the Gig Economy approach, this is a matter of watch this space. Legal experts are warning organisations that individuals who spend all their time working for one business will probably be treated as an employee by the courts, regardless of whether they are labelled as self-employed. Plus, the Government is expected to publish policy recommendations in the summer on the rights of Gig Economy workers.

Further afield, there are moves to ensure workers are protected. If we look to the US again, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has partnered with to promote good work and fair standards in care work. Plus, the Good Work Code has been created to provide a framework for supporting workers in the online economy. The framework has eight values that define good work and they are:

  • Safety.
  • Stability and flexibility.
  • Transparency.
  • Shared prosperity.
  • A liveable wage.
  • Inclusion and input.
  • Support and connection.
  • Growth and development.

There are challenges with everything, but I think there are real positives from the Gig Economy and lessons that can be applied to the UK care sector.

One of the best aspects is that the workforce has the freedom to make its own decisions. This autonomy is something we’ve embraced at Evermore by creating self-managed teams of Mulinellos. They have been empowered to make the decisions that impact our customers on a daily basis, and they also have the freedom to manage their own schedule.

Admittedly, our Mulinellos are employees rather than contractors, but it is something I’d consider. A workforce of contractors certainly makes a company more agile and responsive to customer demand, plus there are protections that can be put in place for the workers as I’ve discussed.

Another lesson we can learn from the Gig Economy is the power of transparency. In the case of AirBnB and Uber, they have user ratings to build trust between the customer and the service provider. HomeTouch has followed this approach and uses TrustPilot, where customers can provide feedback and a rating too.

It is also putting the customer at the heart of the service by offering convenience, quality and affordability.

What’s the future?

We’re seeing the breakdown of the care sector. The behemoths are selling off care homes at a rate of knots. Traditional domiciliary care providers are at breaking point. Local authorities and the NHS are looking for new solutions.

From the customers’ viewpoint, recent Ipsos MORI research has found that just 1% of the population want to spend their later years in residential care. This isn’t surprising, yet there hasn’t been the same level of innovation within residential care as there has been in homecare.

Things have to change

People of all ages and stages in life want to live in a multitude of different ways. Plus, people want to work in different ways too – they want a whole life rather than a work/life balance. The nine to five job and career for life will be rare in the future.

The Gig Economy holds some answers for the care sector and we shouldn’t be frightened of the changes it’s bringing. However, there’s more than that, we should also look to the wider Sharing Economy for inspiration, where consumers essentially rent out what they’re not using.

It is small, collaborative and local approaches that will meet people’s needs in the future, rather than large corporates. Within the Sharing Economy, the emphasis has shifted to providing personalised and local products, services and experiences. That’s what people want when it comes to their later years too.

Sara McKee is Founder of Evermore and Director of Market Innovation.
Email: Twitter: @SaraMcKeeFRSA

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Work and Pensions Committee – Self-employment and the gig economy inquiry

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