[Update 2019: This story has been woven into my new book, Artificial Intelligence for HR, which highlights the key skills we need to compete with machines in recruiting, engagement, and more. The book is getting rave reviews. Check it out here.]
If you missed the news this last week, a pair of researchers have published a report showing that Uber drivers are gaming the system in order to earn more money, reduce pickups, and fight back against what they see as a tyrannical algorithm. Here’s a blurb from PBS:
As University of Warwick researchers Mareike Möhlmann and Ola Henfridsson and Lior Zalmanson of New York University say in their best academese: “We identify a series of mechanisms that drivers use to regain their autonomy when faced with the power asymmetry imposed by algorithmic management, including guessing, resisting, switching and gaming the Uber system.”
Algorithmic management is, of course, the software Uber uses to control its drivers. As Mareike Möhlmann puts it: “Uber uses software algorithms for oversight, governance and to control drivers, who are tracked and their performance constantly evaluated.”
A joint statement from the authors elaborated: “Under constant surveillance through their phones and customer reviews, drivers’ behavior is ranked automatically and any anomalies reported for further review, with automatic bans for not obeying orders or low grades. Drivers receive different commission rates and bonus targets, being left in the dark as to how it is all calculated. Plus drivers believe they are not given rides when they near reaching a bonus.
Small wonder then that, according to Lior Zalmanson, “The drivers have the feeling of working for a system rather than a company, and have little, if any interaction with an actual Uber employee.”
So what are the drivers doing in response? Gaming the system by tricking the algorithm.
The researchers report that drivers organize mass “switch-offs.” The dearth of drivers in a given area then triggers the surge pricing mechanism.
The authors conclude by summarizing their findings, pretty much as formally as they began: “We found that [the drivers] actively tried to regain some of their lost control and sense of autonomy. We reported four observed driver behaviors. We found that drivers tried to guess and make sense of the system’s intentions. They utilized forums such as UberPeople to share these stories and gain social support. In many cases, these stories were echoed by other drivers, creating an urge to act. This resulted in a range of practices to resist the system, by switching to alternative systems and even gaming the system to their advantage.”
While the rest of us aren’t switching out our managers for an algorithm any time soon, it’s important to note some of the key statements in this piece that relate to all of us as employers.
The drivers have the feeling of working for a system rather than a company, and have little, if any interaction with an actual Uber employee. People want to interact with people. That’s not Uber’s business model, but we’re seeing now yet another strain on the company based on a fundamental fact that humans are social creatures.
When you work for a nameless, faceless system (or algorithm), it becomes much easier to cheat the system and fight back. It’s different if you’re having weekly conversations with real people who care about you and your success. Remember this idea when you’re trying to find out how to connect your remote employees.
We found that [the drivers] actively tried to regain some of their lost control and sense of autonomy. Is it any surprise that workers would like some sense of control or autonomy in their work? It’s a foundational management and leadership premise to provide autonomy to workers, yet Uber tries to treat its drivers like nothing more than the robots that power its algorithm and platform.
Do we really have to have a newsflash that reminds this company that people are, um, people? They have hopes. Dreams. Desires. And they will find a way to get them if they feel like they are not appreciated or supported appropriately.
Drivers receive different commission rates and bonus targets, being left in the dark as to how it is all calculated. Plus drivers believe they are not given rides when they near reaching a bonus. One of the first lessons you learn in HR? Don’t screw with someone’s pay. Whatever you do, be transparent and don’t make people guess about how their compensation works, or you run the risk of creating a black hole of negativity and gossip that will swallow the company whole.
In a previous job a big part of my compensation was a quarterly bonus that my family depended on. It never failed that each and every quarter the deadline for payment would pass, I would raise the question, and eventually it would get paid. But why make me or any other employee have to go through those hoops for that? It makes me wonder if I would have ever been paid ANY of it if I hadn’t brought it to their attention. When it comes to how pay is structured, be clear about the expectations, be transparent about the process, and for goodness’ sake pay people when you say you will.
Okay, that’s enough from me. What are your thoughts on this specific issue or these general issues? Am I on point? Off the mark?