British Academy discusses the gig economy with Uber and business representatives

31 May 2017

The need for corporations and the law to keep pace with the changing nature of work was the topic of discussion at a briefing with business representatives held by the British Academy.

Freelance work, zero-hours contracts and self-employment have increased dramatically in recent years, with an estimated 1.1m people now part of the UK gig economy. [i]

To discuss these changes and their impact, the British Academy held a breakfast briefing on 25 May with Professor Julian Birkinshaw FBA and Andrew Byrne, Head of Public Policy at Uber Europe.

The briefing was chaired by Professor Colin Mayer FBA and attended by representatives from academia, small businesses, law, consultancy, government and trade unions.

Professor Birkinshaw, Professor and Deputy Dean at the London Business School, began by describing the changing trends in the way we work. Highlighting the rise of freelancing, ‘platform companies’ such as Airbnb, and the increased use of outsourcing, he discussed the challenges this presents for firms, policy makers and workers themselves.

Andrew Byrne then shared the perspective of a platform company, sharing Uber’s journey from start-up to a multinational company with over 30,000 drivers in the UK. He explained how Uber works to balance the flexibility of freelance work with job security and how they have worked to address concerns raised by drivers. Andrew also highlighted how employment law can complicate business growth and can limit the options for individuals who want to work more flexibly and with greater control over their work.

Speaking at the briefing, Professor Julian Birkinshaw FBA said:“When it comes to employment relations, the definition of a company and copyright regulations, the legal infrastructure around corporate work was mostly created over one hundred years ago when companies were very different. What we need now is institutional innovation to make laws which are better suited to the nature of business around us.”

In the discussion that followed, guests highlighted how the rise of freelance and platform work has also changed industries such as such as consultancy and law, through firms such as EdenMcCallum and Peerpoint.

Other issues for discussion included defining the gender pay gap in freelance work, instilling a sense of organisational values and loyalty in a workforce who may have several coexisting careers over their lifetime, and whether freelance work can tackle the UK’s productivity gap.

This session was part of the British Academy’s Future of the Corporation project, which seeks to develop a new model of business for the 21st century through research and public engagement.

[i] Good Gigs: A fairer future for the UK’s gig economy, RSA, April 2017   

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