Hungry but running late for work? Deliveroo will bring breakfast to your desk. Train delayed by an hour? Uber has your back. Dirty kitchen but no time to clean it before an impending family visit? Call in a cleaner from Handy. Need the stress of the working week lifting from your shoulders? Let Urban Massage treat you from the comfort of your own home.

I could go on and on. It seems there’s an on-demand service app for everything these days, with some saying it’s creating a culture of increasingly impatient people. But what about the people who work – in whatever capacity – for the companies behind these apps? What kind of company culture is this on-demand services, gig economy creating?

From the top 

When defining company culture, I like the summary from Adam Pisconi, Co-Founder of Yammer, who says: “a company’s culture is just the social manifestation of the organisational system or operating model of that company.”

Speaking to the Culturevist, he goes on to say: “You’d be right in thinking leadership often is the one that sets the cultural tone. For example, if leaders tend to be secretive, you’ll also have issues with trust and collaboration.”

There’s some debate about who came up with the phrase ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ but it seems the theory is being reinforced at organisations like Uber. The transportation company provides a prime example of how internal discontent can leak out and affect external reputation, leading to difficulties such as driver strikes in the UK and USA and its recent grapples with Transport for London (TfL).

If you’re not sure what I mean, type ‘Uber company culture’ into Google and scroll through the raft of blogs and articles covering what Buzzfeed describes as an “aggressive, cutthroat, and demanding” culture pushed down from the top.

In ex-Uber employee Susan J. Fowler’s exposé she does credit Uber with some positive experiences, but mainly lists upper management playing political games, sexual harassment going unchecked and unpunished, and “complete, unrelenting chaos”.

And that’s just the headquarters. Uber drivers have taken to Glassdoor and spoken to the media to complain about low pay, long hours and – again and again – poor management.

I’ve singled Uber out here because much has been written about its internal troubles, but other research shows this experience is not Uber-specific. For example, in an interview with The Guardian, one Deliveroo rider spoke about how the company’s external image doesn’t mesh with the employee experience.

The rider says: “I think Deliveroo wants to manufacture this image that we are all young, middle-class men who wear trendy clothes, making a little extra cash. But a lot of the couriers are… doing it full-time because they need the money”, adding: “I don’t know how long Deliveroo can keep its image as a cool tech startup.”

Loose connections

Of course it isn’t all bad. Alongside the negative reviews on Uber’s Glassdoor page are as many from office employees praising a meritocracy with a youthful vibe and – again and again – free food. Londonist – an independent news and culture website – reports talking to several Deliveroo riders who loved the camaraderie and freedom of their jobs, and a 2017 poll of 1,000 UK Uber ‘workers’ found that 89 per cent of drivers would “recommend driving with Uber”.

Uber has put its hands up and recognised it needs to change. It’s refreshing its company culture focusing on four key themes: trust; transformation; accountability; and the ‘tone at the top’.

But there’s one big glaring problem that we haven’t considered yet. The majority of the workers at these types of company aren’t regarded as employees at all. Instead, companies like Deliveroo refer to them as ‘independent contractors’ and they receive none of the benefits entitled to a regular employee (like holiday and sick pay).

So how do you create a sense of belonging and commitment with people who, by your own definition, are only loosely connected to your company?

To go back to Adam Pisconi, he shared a story to illustrate why Yammer had such a strong company culture. He described a company that was split between “high paid, some might argue entitled, young start-up employees” and lower paid facilities management. Yet rather than creating a divide, Yammer treated the two groups equally and encouraged them to mingle at work – with some even continuing to socialise outside of office hours.

He adds: “There was something really special to me that we had created a company where people were treated equally and with respect, no matter what your job was.”

Back to basics

Equality and respect – that doesn’t seem too much to ask for now does it? It certainly makes sense as the basis of a strong company culture. Perhaps that’s why organisations struggle when differences between workers are so pointed – where even their status as real ‘employees’ of the company is called into question.

Right now, this seems to be an issue that’s too tied up in fundamental workers’ rights. If we follow what Adam says and accept that a company culture springs from its organisational structure and strategy, it seems these on-demand service companies need to get their houses in order first. Then – and only then – can a positive, productive company culture flourish.

 

Rebecca Leonard, Communications and Content Manager, Sequel Group