The Weird Phantom Boss Dynamic of the Gig Economy

Uber drivers reflect on what it’s like when an app is your only point of contact with the company you work for.

GIF: A man looks at a smartphone and dashboard as a disembodied finger wags at him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

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For people who work in the gig economy, the question of who is “managing” you day by day is complicated. Sometimes it can feel like you are your own boss, setting your own schedule with minimal feedback from on high; sometimes it can feel like some phantom boss who lives inside your smartphone is telling you what to do. The Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report in June estimating that around 10 percent of the American workforce in 2017 was engaged in “alternative work engagements,” which includes ride-sharing, food delivery, and other gig economy jobs.

It’s unclear how many of these people rely on apps to facilitate their workflow, but peer-to-peer service apps like Uber, Grubhub, and TaskRabbit have undoubtedly grown over the past few years. With more and more people now looking to apps as a kind of surrogate “boss,” we wanted to better understand the dynamics that arise when an algorithm starts telling you what to do. Here are excerpts, which have been edited for clarity and grammar, from our interviews with a half-dozen Uber drivers about what it’s like to report to an app. To protect their relationships with the companies they work for, we’re only using first initials.

Does the app feel like a boss to you, in the sense that it makes demands you comply with in order to keep making money? Why or why not?

I mean, there are some recommendations Uber has for drivers to make sure you provide good service to customers. And there often seems to be an unwritten rule or an undertone that there may be consequences if you don’t abide. There are ratings standards that you want to keep up as a driver to ensure you maintain a constant flow of ride requests. … However, Uber won’t come right out and say it or put into writing what their benchmarks are for levels of service.
R, has driven for Uber for one month

[I feel like my own boss] because I can manage my schedule. I can take the kid to school and be a dad. If there’s an emergency at school I can rush over there, and I can help my kid with homework. I like it that way, even though at the end of the year there’s no progress report.
G, has driven for Uber for two years, and also occasionally drives for Lyft

There only two things that a driver needs to really pay attention to from a performance metric, and that is cancellation rate and your overall driver rating. (Generally speaking, you need to maintain above a 4.7.) If cancellation rate goes high or rating goes low, then you’ll get nastygram emails and such telling you [what] the consequences [will be if you don’t improve]. Strictly from a driving standpoint, no boss feeling comes from it. We can choose the route we take, which riders we pick up (at the time of writing, I have accepted 37 trips out 303 trip requests sent to me in the past week).

Uber attempts to get drivers on the road at specific times using cash bonuses and the like. No harm in that, though. It’s just an incentive, and as a driver, you can take it or leave it. (For most of us, we take it if we feel the monetary amount is worth the hassle of the driving: For example, I am not driving D.C. rush hour for $1 bonus each trip, not worth it.)
N, has driven for Uber for 20 months and Lyft for a few weeks

What are your feelings about the company management behind the apps you work for? Have you ever interacted with them personally?

I have strong feelings against them. It seems like every fiscal quarter, they add some new feature that they claim will make the driver experience better when in reality, it is yet another awful, awful addition. They claim they listen to drivers and try to make improvements based on that, but either they listen to some seriously inexperienced drivers or they are just lying about that as well. And when they do make a feature drivers love that maybe impacts their bottom line slightly, they immediately take it back.

Meh. The company comes across as rather impersonal. So far, the only interaction I’ve had with them is Uber Support after I received a couple lower-than-5-star ratings from passengers. Trying to get any information out of Uber Support to help you determine what went wrong or how you can improve as a driver is basically useless. It seems like Uber Support has one big, huge script from which they copy/paste textbook responses to every question or issue you send to them. After several back-and-forth messages with Support, you eventually give up because you realize you’re not going to get anywhere with them. You just learn to suck up your lower ratings and “Uber On!”

To be honest with you, Uber Support is terrible. They have scripted answers and rarely actually type a real answer. The person you message the first time will not be the person responding if you follow up so you basically have to restate everything over and over.

I haven’t physically gone to meet with them. I did have people in my car [once] who said they worked for Uber, so they just asked me how stuff was going. I don’t know if that was formal or anything, but that’s about it. I really don’t have too many preferences. Yeah, I’d love it if I could make more money so I could pay student loans off quicker. There are people who you’ll find who are very frustrated with them and what not, but I feel like [company management] is generally trying to do the right thing.
I, has driven for Uber for four years

They are so fast. Whatever you say, they will respond right away. Most of the time, if you ask them something, they will send you something that’s copy and pasted. If you ask them a question, they have some prepared answer for that. If you ask another question about it, they send you the same copy.
T, has driven for Uber for two years

How does this kind of work feel different from having a boss who you report to directly and see in person every day? In what ways is it easier? In what ways is it harder?

It is so much easier than having a physical boss you have to see and/or report to every day. While having a “job” that is completely app-based may seem cold and inhuman to some people, I prefer it and feel that it makes it easier for me to do the job. If I had to report directly to a physical supervisor as a driver, I would not like it very much. Having your vehicle inspected each day before going out, having to justify the hours you decided to work, having to explain why you accepted this ride but rejected that ride, etc. I enjoy the freedom of the app-based gig. On the other hand, it could be difficult not having a physical person you can relate to, and work with, to hash out any issues or concerns you may have.

With a lot of these [apps], you’re missing not just the level of human interaction, but also the mentorship: building interpersonal skills of dealing with a manager, balancing priorities, working with another person. Those are things that you can’t really quantify the value of, I feel.
—S, has driven for Uber for two years (and has also worked for Postmates and Fiverr)

No boss to report to is nice. … No performance metrics, I think, relieves some of the stressors that may come with a standard job. But there are negatives. … It is really hard to budget when you have no idea if you are going to hit your quota [each week]. …There aren’t any end-of-year bonuses, no pay raises, no 401k, no benefits, etc. Your life as a driver is static in many ways. If you earned $45,000 this year, there isn’t much reason to believe you’d earn more than that next year, or five years from now, or 10. There is a ceiling once you figure out the system and build your strategy, and there is no real option to go above that.

One of the ways that it’s harder is that there’s no accountability; I don’t have access to my own data in a form that I can work with. That’s maybe not a concern for all drivers, but I’d like to have more control over the data they’re collecting on me. They let you access it on their own website, but you can’t get a CSV to start running your own stats if you’d like to, or do things to maximize your own growth or your own earnings.. … I feel like in a lot of workplaces there is … an inherent responsibility to foster the growth of your employees. Working at a federal agency, [my day job], I feel like there are rules in place and obligations that managers need to meet to train their employees and build their employee’s skill sets—things that do translate into more earnings at some level. [Uber] gives you all of the information. But you have no control over it, really.

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