Working through gaps in the Sharing Economy

Prior to 2020, I hadn’t heard of Yeeply, Contra or Workana. Maybe, like me, you were more familiar with their larger peers in the Sharing Economy space: Uber, TaskRabbit and Deliveroo. No doubt there are many of you who not only had good knowledge of these digital products but have used them yourselves over the past 12 months.

Between 2016 and 2020, we saw an 81% increase in Sharing Economy participants. Various experiences of lockdown around the world have only fostered the demand and growth of products like these: digital-first, community-curated platforms that leverage the collective resources and skillsets of their participants to deliver great impact.

In principle, the Sharing Economy should result in greater flexibility, resource sustainability and income opportunities across a broader swathe of society compared to traditional employment. By reporting, however, the Sharing Economy is dominated by business-to-consumer (B2C) and consumer-to-customer (C2C) platforms that tightly control their markets, monetise this bottleneck and profit by stacking funnels of supply rather than demand. While the convenience of these platforms is appealing, criticism has centred on this model’s longer-term outcomes: market monopolisation, wage inequity and financial risk.

In the years prior to COVID, the Sharing Economy drew increasing concern around the status of workers who faced the risks of freelancing (i.e. concerns around income, lack of health benefits, and unpaid leave) without the higher wages that fixed contracts can generate. Factor in a once-in-a-generation pandemic, and many Sharing Economy participants have borne the combined impact of income losses, a lack of worker protections, and the burden of maintaining resources that have depreciated in value. These gaps have left millions out of work. The observation isn’t that community-based economies place their participants at inherent risk. Rather, that the Sharing Economy model contains gaps that have increased their workforce’s vulnerability.

Skillet works to overcome these gaps by broadening our scope to commercial providers and consumers. Rather than relying on an overloaded pool of independent contractors who compete to secure work in a fixed circuit, we loop established businesses into the conversation. Businesses use Skillet for the services they need done, and to offer their own range of services to others – both individuals and businesses – in their area. Individuals, meanwhile, can call upon the services and skillsets of others in their community who are experienced, vetted and qualified to meet their needs.

Along with our partners in the Aged Care, Disability Support, Community Health and Trades spaces, we’ve found that collaboration rather than competition is key a platform in which all participants can benefit and from which we can grow organically. By partnering with existing businesses, Skillet is able to provide services in sectors with more complex requirements while ensuring consistency. This also means that participants maintain control over the services they deliver – not just in terms of scheduling, but how they reach and continue to engage with customers. This helps keep Skillet focused, ensuring that we’re responsive to the needs of our contributors and consumers.

Having adopted this approach, we’ve particularly effective at building structural interoperability for providers in the Aged Care and Disability Support sector. While New Zealand’s healthcare sector has long envisioned a secure and accessible data ecosystem, this reality is some years away. For now, platforms like Skillet can extend the reach of businesses who already do great work and have the capacity to extend their impact further – without cutting into their rates or locking them into niche markets.

The Sharing Economy will, no doubt, evolve as we create a new post-COVID ‘normal’. With new regulation around workforce protections and greater awareness of gig working conditions, there is much opportunity for structural change from both the public and private sectors. While you’re reading this, have a think about what you’d change in your current or next workplace. What elements of the Sharing Economy model would you introduce, and which recommendations would you make to build a community-driven economy that is collaborative and truly equitable for all?

21 June 2021