Study: In the Gig Economy, Getting to Know Workers is Key to Keeping Them

May 8, 2023
By: Nathan Allen
Woman in mask driving in her car touching her mounted phone


When done right, the gig economy can mutually benefit companies and workers. Companies can tap into deep and vast labor pools. And workers can create their own schedules, enjoying flexibility and working as much—or as little—as they want. But that can also create some headaches. What if workers collectively only want to work during specific times? What incentives can get them to work more hours more often?

A recent study coauthored by Berkeley Haas Assistant Professor Park Sinchaisri set out to answer these questions. The study, published in the journal Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, concludes that financial incentives increase both the frequency and duration that people work. The study also finds workers will work less after reaching a daily or weekly financial goal, but those that start work earlier in the day are more likely to work beyond the time required for their financial goal.

Robust data set includes nearly a year of ride-hailing data

Sinchaisri and his fellow researchers—Gad Allon of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Maxime Cohen of McGill University—utilized a comprehensive data set from a U.S.-based on-demand ride-hailing company. The data included 358 days’ worth of driving activities and financial incentives for drivers in New York City between October 2016 and September 2017.

The data included thousands of drivers and millions of work shifts, as well as each driver’s vehicle type, experience with the platform, number of hours driven, and financial incentives offered and earned. “The key advantage of our data is that we observe the incentives that were offered to every driver regardless of the decision to drive. In other words, even for drivers who decided not to drive for a particular time period, we still know their offered wage and promotions for that period,” the authors wrote.

Drivers demonstrate an ‘inertia’ when it comes to working hours

Perhaps not surprisingly, the researchers found that drivers have an ‘income-targeting behavior’ easily tracked in most apps that give real-time earnings reports. That is, drivers will work toward their income goals but are less likely to work once they meet them.

More surprisingly, Sinchaisri and his team found an ‘inertia’ regarding working hours. Workers who have previously worked longer shifts are more likely to start a new shift or work longer than drivers who have worked less. The finding goes against previous research on taxi drivers, who have more of a “time-targeting behavior.”

“This difference could be driven by the unique flexibility of gig work,” the paper says, suggesting that inertia could represent drivers’ strategic behavior.

“Inertia is why it is so hard to bring gig workers back after the pandemic—they currently aren’t used to working day after day, so it’s a matter of attempting a cold start,” Sinchaisri said. “However, there is a flip side. Once these workers go back to working, they are much more likely to continue working.”

Get to know your gig economy workers

Sinchaisri says getting to know your workers better can help create more specific targeted incentives. Companies should ask gig economy workers what specific goals they have to understand their workers more and make adjustments based on that feedback, Sinchaisri advises. “Once you know your workers’ goals, you can think of better ways to incentivize them,” Sinchaisri points out.

Or, as the paper states, “Targeting specific workers with different incentives can be beneficial. We examine how the platform can improve its operational performance by offering personalized incentives based on workers’ attributes.”

Incentives are good, but not everything

While incentives are good, and Sinchaisri says gig companies should pay their workers as much as possible, good pay and incentives alone are not everything. And in today’s climate, where gig workers have plenty of options, companies should do what they can to continually attract and retain workers.

“The recent rise of the gig economy has changed the way people think about employment,” the paper states. “Unlike traditional employees who work under a fixed schedule, gig economy workers are free to choose their own schedule and platform to provide service. Such flexibility poses a great challenge to gig platforms in terms of planning and committing to a service capacity. It also poses a challenge to policymakers who are concerned about protecting workers.”

As this research suggests, that also goes into considering behavioral factors.

“We find that financial incentives have a positive effect on the decision to work and on the work duration, confirming the positive income elasticity from the standard income effect,” the paper concludes. “We also observe the influence of behavioral factors through the accumulated earnings and number of hours previously worked. The dominating effect, inertia, suggests that the longer workers have been working so far, the more likely they will continue working and the longer duration they will work for.”

Sinchaisri noted that these insights are not specific to the particular platform they studied, and could apply to other types of gig-work platforms. “Many gig platforms do offer more certainty in pay,” he said. “This could be one way to improve the retention and the motivation of the workers.

Read the full paper:

The Impact of Behavioral and Economic Drivers on Gig Economy Workers
By Gad Allon, Maxime C. Cohen, and Wichinpong Park Sinchaisri
Manufacturing & Service Operations Management
March 2023