AI at Wharton


“Making Out” While Driving: Relational and Efficiency Games in the Gig Economy

Authors: Lindsey Cameron


On-demand or “gig” workers show up to a workplace without walls, organizational routines, managers, or even coworkers. Without traditional organizational scaffolds, how do individuals make meaning of their work in a way that fosters engagement? Prior literature suggests that organizational practices, such as recruitment and socialization, foster group belonging and meaningfulness, which subsequently leads to engagement, and that without these practices alienation and attrition ensue. My four-year qualitative study of workers in the largest sector in the on-demand economy (ridehailing) suggests an alternative and more readily available mechanism of engagement—workplace games. Through interactions with touchpoints—in this context, the customer and the app—individuals turn their work into games they find meaningful, can control, and “win.” In the relational game, workers craft positive customer service encounters, offering gifts and extra services, in the pursuit of high customer ratings, which they track through the app’s rating system. In the efficiency game, workers set boundaries with customers, minimizing any “extra” behavior, in the pursuit of maximizing money per time spent driving and they create their own tracking tools outside the app. Whereas each game resulted in engagement—as workers were trying to “win”—games were associated with two divergent stances or relationships toward the work, with contrasting implications for retention. My findings embed meaning-making in what is fast-becoming the normal workplace, largely solitary and structured by emerging technologies, and holds insights for explaining why people remain engaged in a line of work typically deemed exploitative.