Reuters / /Luke MacGregor
The ‘on-demand’ economy is here, and it looks like it’s staying.
Apps like Uber, Deliveroo, and Airbnb have, from a user’s point of view, changed the way we travel, eat, and sleep.
But they are also changing the way people work. For the estimated 5 million UK workers employed through such platforms, gone is the security associated with fixed terms of employment, full working weeks, and a minimum wage.
In its place is a system which offers a far more flexible working schedule, and one which many believe drives up productivity and performance.
The latest UK entry to the ‘on-demand’ market — or ‘gig economy’ as it is sometimes known — is Coople.
The idea is simple. A staffing app which allows employers to advertise work at an hourly rate — whether that be for a few hours cleaning, for security stewarding work, or for a catering job. Workers sign up, complete the work, and get paid through the app. Once that part is complete, both the employer and the employee provide an Uber-style rating for each other.
Coople counts over 100,000 registered workers serving 5,000 employers in Switzerland, where it launched in 2011. It’s too early to tell if Coople will replicate that success in the UK, where it launched in June, but the firm is confident that London’s huge labour force and big service economy will spur the company to rapid expansion.
Business Insider spoke to Coople’s UK managing director Jacques de la Bouillerie and chief business development officer Sacha Bielawski to hear about their plans for making flexible work attractive, and driving up productivity, and staffing London’s hotels.
Business Insider’s Thomas Colson: In what circumstances do you see Coople’s application being the most useful?
Jacques de la Bouillerie: There was a Coldplay concert in Zurich over the summer. Eight days before the event, the promoters decided to add a date because they were sold out. Eight days before, they called us and said, “We need 400 people in eight days — can you do this?” They put the job on Coople and the platform managed to cover it in less than 24 hours.
The model has evolved to the point where companies are starting to share their employees
We also have operations at Zurich airport. What has been interesting there is that the model has evolved to the point where companies are starting to share their employees. If you take the example of an airport, there are numerous regulations. Not everyone can work there — there are quite a few security checks. So there’s a bit of a hurdle to building your pool of flexible staff.
But if you’re, for example, a ground-handling company, you can say, “I’ve got a competitor at the same airport that also needs flexible workers. Why don’t we share the same people? Then you’re going to stabilise these employees by giving them more hours at the airport.
Sacha Bielawski: The airport example is a good one. Planes only arrive on time 5% of the time. Being able to fully employ people to take care of baggage is incredibly complex. Before we put operations at Zurich airport, a lot of employees would just have to spend time waiting. There was a lot of downtime, and a lack of productivity. By pooling the resources, it allowed all companies to reduce their costs, and be a lot more productive at the same time as increasing the salaries of their employees — so they were actually able to attract a better category of staff.
TC: Are there other sectors where that pooling of resources would be useful?
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to reallocate staff at the Lancaster Hotel to the Dorchester
JB: One area where we’ve had many discussions is hotels. They have lots of staffing needs: It can be housekeeping, banqueting — any job where employers use a lot of flexible resources. One of their struggles is to maintain a pool, because there is a lot of churn. By pooling together, they can stabilise people and jobs. So we have been talking to hotels, and some of them are our clients, like the Lancaster Hotel and the Dorchester. We’re not there yet, but it’s something that they’re very keen to explore with us.
SB: Consider the three problems our platform solves. One is absenteeism, the second is managing peaks and demand, and the last is managing administrative issues like payroll. Jacques’ point about hotels addresses the second point. It might be that one day, the Lancaster has no events whatsoever, whereas the Dorchester has three in a day. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to reallocate that pool of staff to the Dorchester.
TC: So you would make the argument that these recruitment platforms like Coople can increase the number of hours part-time workers are working?
Our goal is to make flexible work an attractive proposition, not an imposed one
JB: Yes. Our goal is to make flexible work a very attractive proposition, not necessarily an imposed one. The goal is to provide a platform with so many jobs that someone can come and work as much as they want. Obviously it will take time to build, but that is our mission.
TC: Are you sensitive to the main criticism that’s often levelled against the ‘gig economy’ — the suggestion that traditional job security is undermined by this new emphasis on a ‘flexible’ working rota?
JB: I think there are always two sides of that issue: On the one hand, all the positive buzz around the gig economy, the new ways of working, but also the potential drawbacks in terms of the sometimes precarious aspects of flexible work. But marketplaces like ours are there to help, not to make it harder.
There are lots of people who actually need flexible work. It can be students, people with childcare obligations, even people who are retired who want to stay active, or need the income. It can also be people who are in between jobs and need to pay their bills.
So yes — there can be some precarious aspects, but we are giving an open and transparent marketplace where people can find a lot of jobs without being so reliant on one or two agencies which don’t offer much transparency, or employers which employ you on zero-hours contracts. That’s not our proposition.
TC: What is the purpose of the two-way rating system — do you think it will lead companies to treat employees better?
JB: That’s the idea of the system. It’s obviously not something that exists within the traditional temp agency setup — that is a one-way system. It’s happened in the past with some employers, only rarely, that we were alerted to the ratings dropping for an employer. In some cases we could work through them, but for others we just decided not to work with them anymore.
SB: When employers get good ratings on the back of good behaviour, it becomes a very powerful tool for them to attract the best talent. You can have a great brand name that is already a magnet for talent — the Dorchester, for example — but if you get inside information that they treat employees really well, then they will be competing a lot more to attract the best talent.
TC: And from the point of view of the employer, is Coople intended to change the performance of employers?
SB: There is an increase in productivity. If you were to take the example of the hotel industry, the standard right now of the old-school agencies is that they have a minimum of four hours per shift, even if the needs of the hotel are, for example, two-and-a-half hours. They employ people to come in for a four-hour shift, and they don’t come in for all that time.
TC: A large part of the service sector in London is composed of migrants, who are facing an uncertain future given the ongoing Brexit negotiations. How do you think it will affect your business?
Our clients are concerned about Brexit, because a lot of their staffing base is composed of migrants
JB: At this stage it’s very hard to say, because we don’t know what Brexit means yet — apart from “Brexit means Brexit.” But having discussed it with some of our clients, they are concerned, because a lot of their staffing base is composed of migrants. They fear that if there was a clampdown on immigration, or if it was made a lot harder for migrants to work in the UK, it could create a very tense situation and staffing shortfalls. There are plenty of industries where big operators are really worried
SB: It is early days and the reality is that Brexit hasn’t happened yet — the change will come in the next few years. It could be beneficial to flexible staffing, as some companies may delay hiring permanent employees, but on the other hand, if there are restrictions on immigration, it could potentially have a negative impact.
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