Research Findings

Playing the game: How ride-hailing drivers make meaning out of gig work


September 29, 2022

My mother was a middle manager at a call center when she lost her job during the Great Recession. For the next eight years, I watched her work one odd job after another to make ends meet, but her employment during that time was never as reliable as it was before the country’s economic crash forced her to change course.

More than a decade later, my mother’s story is no longer unique. In fact, short-term employment, especially in the gig economy is fast becoming the norm. Millions of Americans – both blue and white collar – are making a living through platforms such as TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Fiverr, UpWork, GrubHub, and others. According to government data, more than a third of the American workforce is participating in non-standard work arrangements, such as gig jobs, a number that is expected to rise.

This compelling data, combined with my mother’s experiences, inspired me to study the gig economy. Specifically, I wanted to know how independent workers give meaning to their daily tasks and find personal satisfaction in jobs that are highly transactional and lacking in organizational structure. The freedom to work without walls, annoying co-workers, or micromanaging bosses has its highs, but the lows can be hard on the soul.

In my published study in Organization Science, I interviewed 63 ride-hailing drivers in 23 North American cities over five years to gather insights on how they keep themselves engaged at work. I discovered that they play two types of mental games, which I have categorized as the relational and the efficiency game

In the relational game, drivers bond with their passengers and take pride in providing excellent customer service in order to get a great review on the 5-star rating system. They developed a positive impression of the app and its underlying algorithms as they constantly track their ratings and get positive feedback from customers. Drivers end up seeing themselves in an amicable relationship with the platform company, viewing the work as a game they try to “win” by putting in maximum effort.

In the efficiency game, drivers aren’t interested in forging a connection with their passengers. Instead, they want to complete the trip quickly at the highest pay rate, minimizing any small talk or “favors” (for example, making fast food stops) personal contact, and get passengers out of their car. These drivers are unable to track their efforts as accurately through the app, so they develop an adversarial relationship with it. They often create their own tracking tools and sometimes manipulate the platform’s algorithm to “win” the game on their own terms.

Drivers who played the relational game didn’t get more tips for providing great service; instead, they were motivated to connect with customers due to a sense of pride and professionalism in their work. Many of these drivers described themselves as tour guides for newcomers to their city or a counselor for customers who needed to talk about their troubles.

One driver told me about a despondent, slightly intoxicated rider who had lost his job and spoke of harming himself. The driver said, “I talked to him, I told him a little bit about myself and how in our lives sometimes things don’t go the way you want—it’s just a chapter of a book, and you have to go through anyway. He said thank you and that he wished that he met me before…Before he got out of the car, he just shook my hand, said thank you to me again. It was a good ride for me.”

Another driver shared a story about working after a big football game and taking home two excited, tired sports fans. As they sat in the stadium traffic jam, the riders mentioned that they were hungry and thirsty. The driver offered them free bottled water and sausage snacks that he kept stocked in the trunk. The appreciative riders exclaimed that he was “the best driver ever!” Fondly, recounting this story, the driver said, “It’s a dollar water and a dollar sausage, and it made their day. They’re going to go back and remember me and talk about me for the rest of their lives. They won’t even know who I am.”

In contrast, efficiency-game drivers were guarded and suspicious of their riders. Worried about being accused of theft or breaking something, they didn’t offer help with luggage. Concerned about being accused of harassment, they didn’t engage in chitchat. Wanting to keep their cars clean, they didn’t let passengers smoke, eat, or drink inside. And they didn’t go the extra mile by taking side trips that would take up more time.

One driver refused a rider’s request to swing by McDonald’s drive-thru because, “I don’t want to make 17 cents a minute and drive you a mile down the road and have my car smell like McDonald’s and have you sitting back, eating fries, making my car smell like fries.”

Not surprisingly, gig drivers felt differently about the app depending on which game they played. Relational-game drivers regarded the app as benevolent because they believed the algorithmic “boss” would reward them with the best-paying routes and best customers. In contrast, efficiency-game drivers felt like the app was adversarial – always working against them by not providing the best routes and inaccurately calculating their pay. One driver even described the algorithm as unholy. “I know exactly who’s behind the algorithm’s decision, and it’s not God.”

It’s important to note that while my study concentrated on the experiences of the drivers, it shows how the apps play a critical role in shaping the work lives of independent employees. That’s why it’s important for tech-based firms to take into account drivers’ experiences, not just the customers. In the absence of cubicles and conference rooms, the app stands in as a manager for these independent workers and, without a thoughtfully designed interface, drivers will create their understandings and games that may or may not be in alignment with the firm’s goals.

Finally, I want to share that as part of my research, I spent three years as both a ride-hail driver and rider. That experience not only helped inform my study, but it enabled me to get drivers to open up with astonishing honesty about their experiences. It was also a reminder that we must always keep an open mind as researchers, especially when we study nascent areas like gig work.

Here’s an example. I found driving challenging, especially in heavy traffic, and, at times, found the pay structure confusing so I assumed other gig workers would have similar experiences. Certainly, the countless news stories about beleaguered drivers fuel the assumption that gig work is exploitative and unpleasant, the unfortunate choice for people, like my mother, who have few choices left. But contrary to my own experience, many ride-hail drivers enjoy their work or, more accurately, see it as the best option available to them. They like the autonomy, the flexibility, and ability to get out of the job what they put into it.

That’s one of the beauties of qualitative research – it allows researchers to understand emerging phenomena through our own eyes and also the eyes of others’ – ultimately to a deeper understanding of the rapidly changing world around us.

Read more

Lindsey D. Cameron. ““Making Out” While Driving: Relational and Efficiency Games in the Gig Economy” in Organization Science 2022.

(A free download version of the paper is available here.)

image: Ivan Radic at Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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