What does human interactions look like in a working environment where customers are randomly assigned and communication with colleagues doesn’t happen?

By Ha Ta, Aria Bracci, Ning Wang and Matt Cunha.

Chris Foy used to work on Wall Street, but surviving leukemia sent him looking for a job that would let him pursue his passions: basketball and cancer research. He’s still looking, but in the meantime, he’s been driving for Lyft. And though he voluntarily fled the world of finance, he misses the camaraderie. He misses working with others.

Foy and other workers are finding flexibility and freedom in the gig economy, but it comes at a cost: isolation. They can go years without once seeing a coworker. And it’s not just colleagues that they’re disconnected from. Gig workers also have little incentive to form relationships with customers because a steady stream is guaranteed through gig apps like Lyft, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit.

But workers have started to create a new work environment, one that looks strikingly similar to the one found in offices. They build online communities. They flock to coworking spaces that mimic office life and try to find new ways to connect.

Ted Duncan is a Boston-based contractor for TaskRabbit, an online marketplace that matches freelance labor with customers seeking help with errands and handyman work. He built a community of fellow taskers through Facebook. Since 2017, the “Boston Taskers” group Duncan created has been a place where “taskers,” as they call themselves, can meet, get advice, and find referrals in or near the Boston area.

Since TaskRabbit’s built-in messaging is designed only for communication between taskers and customers, taskers can’t easily find and contact one another. Ironically, while these gig workers experience isolation in one app, they turn to other apps to make workplace connections.

“There's a lot of value to networking with your peers,” said Duncan, who uses the Facebook group to find other taskers to complete jobs he can’t do himself. If a proposed task falls outside his expertise, he will direct the interested customer to a tasker he knows and trusts. Here, in place of TaskRabbit’s algorithm, which matches labor supply to demand, is old-fashioned networking.

Taskers have found ways to replicate the social support already established in the traditional workplace, validating good workers to build a stronger community. “You've heard the saying ‘the rising tide lifts all ships,’ right?” said Duncan. “I want the good taskers to continue to be good, and when you refer somebody, it kind of gives them a little extra sense of importance.”

Lyft Driver, Kip Clark's Personal Network Compared to Network of Uber/Lyft Drivers on Facebook.

Duncan’s efforts demonstrate a desire to network with coworkers virtually. For others, the desire can lead them to look for connection in the real world.

“People still need a physical place to connect and be face-to-face,” said Alfred Byun, a design director for Gensler, an architecture firm specializing in creative workspace design and strategy. This longing for human interaction translates to a prevailing fixture of the gig economy: the coworking space.

For a monthly fee, coworking spaces offer professional work areas for freelancers (individual desks), businesses (offices of various sizes), and people who fall somewhere in between. Gensler has designed offices for the coworking companies Impact Hub, Pipeline, and RocketSpace, incorporating elements specific to each office’s location and clientele.

There is a growing population of independent workers who want to be untethered from a single organization while still being able to make successful collaborations and connections, said Byun. “People want to curate their own career paths, which is one reason why coworking spaces are becoming so attractive,” he said.

Co-working Space Growth in the U.S.

Coworking space growth in the U.S. from 2007 and forecast for 2020 to 2022. Source: Emergent Research.

Eric Asquith, a former tenant of the Atlantic Avenue WeWork coworking space, was already part of a small software team when he began renting space, but he acknowledged that coworking spaces are unparalleled resources for those who might otherwise not feel connected.

“They're all under one roof and could just go down to the water bubbler or coffee station and just shake a hand and meet those sorts of people,” said Asquith. Not only that, but WeWork, which operates 11 coworking establishments in the Boston metro area, routinely offers community gatherings, from ski trips to tenant-organized events, like a home-buying workshop organized by Dylan Krebsbach, a tenant of the WeWork on Sleeper Street.

Krebsbach said he prefers the interactions that happen in coworking spaces over those in traditional offices; in the former, people see him as a person, rather than just a job description.

“I don’t like the corporate setting,” said Krebsbach. “I like that people here know me as Dylan, and not that I do A, B, and C on a daily basis.” He described lunch-break conversations as “a little more informal—which is nice, right?”

Byun reiterated that fostering such connections was once difficult as an independent worker. But now, “you can create your own tribe.”

For people who work for app-based services, the coworking space isn’t as accessible of a place to make connections. But, Andy Garin, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, said such connections aren’t actually necessary for workers’ success on these apps.

“What’s arguably really new about [gig] apps is it makes it very easy to suddenly start driving or running errands,” Garin said. “You don’t have to figure out who your clients are. You don’t have to kind of start an agency. You don’t have to read books about how the business works. The apps make it very easy.”

The gig economy was once only as big as one person could create; “gigs” were often secured by word of mouth or flyering, and compensation happened in cash. Now, connections can happen more automatically.

This is true for Chris Foy and Kip Clark, who both picked up driving for Lyft while waiting for permanent job offers. The flexibility of creating one’s own work schedule is what originally attracted them to this work.

But unlike other gig workers who can find connections through coworking spaces; it remains difficult for app-based gig workers, like Foy and Clark, to establish rapport with customers, whom are often automatically assigned.

“There's downtime in the car where you’re just hanging [alone for] fifteen minutes, nothing's going on, and you're just like ‘this is a little boring,’ said Foy, who formerly worked on Wall Street. “On the trading desk, there’s a lot of stuff going on for eight to ten hours a day,” Foy said. “There's never really a dull moment.”

Clark, now a former driver, once saw Lyft as a company that, he speculated, “in addition to giving people rides, might give me a sense of people.” But on any given day, that wasn’t the case. “I've been on the road for four hours, and maybe I've talked to people for ten, fifteen minutes of that,” he recalled.

By his estimation, Clark’s total daily interaction often lasted less time than the average length of a single ridesharing trip in Massachusetts: 15.4 minutes, according to data released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities in May of 2018. This amounts to interacting with passengers about 5 percent of the time he was driving.

“I don’t think anyone expects friends out of it,” said Clark of his interactions with rideshare passengers. “But, you know, at the end of the day, we are human.”

Users and providers alike are not optimistic that this relationship will change. “People expect minimal interaction, and I think that’s fair,” Clark said. “The last thing I want to do is talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk.”

Julie Wang, a Bentley University student who uses gig apps frequently to commute and order food, said she feels like within the convenience of apps, face-to-face communication is lost. Referring to her own habit of using food delivery apps, she said, “we used to just go to the store and talk to the employee and order, and now all you do is click buttons,” then “someone just comes, drops [your order] off, and you don’t say anything to each other.”

She added, “I feel like some people do forget how to communicate with others—just like normal, everyday conversations—because they’re not talking to anyone really.”

But both Wang and Khalida Sarwari, who also uses gig apps, said the corporate oversight and security clearances inherent to gig apps are why they trust the strangers they hire—sometimes even more than their neighbors. Lyft, for example, not only maintains experience and safety requirements but conducts background checks for all drivers.

“We don’t really talk to our neighbors across the hall or downstairs, so I feel like if they were [to] just randomly come say ‘hi’ to us or something, we would be a little freaked out,” said Wang. She noted that she feels differently when commissioning gigs. “You somehow trust that stranger because they’re like, affiliated with Uber,” she said.

Sarwari said she once made friends with an Uber driver she met while visiting Austin, Texas. “He was really nice and offered to text me recommendations for places to check out or restaurants to eat at, and so I kept his number,” she said. She contacted him the day after, and they eventually went to dinner, sightseeing, and even to a shooting range. They’re still friends on social media, and he even invited her to his Thanksgiving celebration with friends.

Since moving to Boston in November of 2018, that experience has made Sarwari more trusting of gig apps. She initially used Craigslist to look for apartments but grew troubled by the expectation that she pay thousands of dollars, upfront and online, to a stranger. Instead she chose to use Airbnb, which offers the option to sublet apartments, despite it being more expensive. “You know you're trusting strangers, but at the same time, there's checks and balances where you know there is no way they can scam you,” Sarwari said.

For Sarwari, there isn’t as much certainty with people who are purely strangers. Since moving, and in the absence of people she knew and trusted (her boyfriend, family, friends, and professional contacts suddenly thousands of miles away in the Bay Area) she began using services such as Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, Airbnb, and DoorDash. She resorted to asking a neighbor for a favor only once, and it was in a moment of urgency: She was locked out of her apartment wearing only slippers.

“I mean, I wish it were different, like the old days when you could knock on a neighbor’s door and ask for, you know, an ingredient or something,” she said. “But it’s just not the world we’re living in now.”

Despite the occasional isolation that comes with the driving gig, Foy said he’s gotten more out of being a driver than his passengers do. “It gets me out of the apartment and it gives me something to do during the course of the day and … [I] get to talk to some people in the car,” he said.

During his first three weeks of driving, he’s had a conversation with riders who are sport fans and who, after some exchanges, were completely shocked to find out that he was a basketball star and used to play with some big names. One particular conversation left the biggest impact on him. Foy picked up a passenger, who asked him why he started driving for Lyft, then why he was interested in working for a non-profit after working for so long on Wall Street. “Six years ago I was diagnosed with [Acute Myeloid Leukemia] type 3,” he told her. “There’s one doctor who said it’s gasoline on fire for leukemia.”

She looked at Foy and said, “I'm a nurse practitioner—I work in the oncology unit at Mass General. I know exactly what you're talking about. It’s not often that you’re a survivor.”

The two then pulled up to Mass General, where they were picking up a second passenger, the woman’s friend. He got into the car, and the first passenger said to him: “[The driver is] a stem cell transplant guy, and he has [acute myeloid leukemia] type three.”

Foy looked at the new passenger in the rearview mirror. He returned the gaze, asking, “And he’s driving the car?

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