With online working/teleworking on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic, companies are beginning to realise the potential of a digital labour force. Can we return to regular work patterns after the crisis or are we looking at a future as crowdworkers?

Challenges crowdworkers face

Based on recent estimates from the JRC Colleem survey, some 14 million European citizens depend heavily on online platform work to earn a living. When work is abundant, and the economy is booming, crowdworkers have more  leverage to adjust their gigs and working arrangements, including choosing projects that may augment their skills.

The coronavirus pandemic changed that overnight. As most businesses across Europe struggle with revenue loss and seek ways to cut down costs, job opportunities for crowdworkers are dwindling. In contrast, offline gig workers (e.g. delivery workers) have seen a sharp rise in their workload during the pandemic, along with increased exposure to danger as they have to continue delivering goods and services.

Platform workers are not protected by labour market regulations or by social security safety nets; nor can they benefit from corrective measures adopted by governments to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the economy, as these are primarily addressed to workers with standard employment contracts. The most vulnerable workers are currently the ones least protected.

Coronavirus and the turn to online work

The social distancing measures imposed by governments to halt the spread of the coronavirus – often expanded to horizontal lockdown – have resulted in businesses shifting to the use of digital technologies in restructuring their operations. Online work and teleworking have become the norm when circumstances allow it, turning more and more contract employees into quasi-crowdworkers.

As we move out of the crisis towards a new normal, this experience may prompt companies to re-evaluate their traditional offline working methods. The merits of hiring a permanent workforce may be questioned, with employers favouring a flexible online workforce instead, after seeing the value of digital work in action. The lessons businesses learn during the pandemic may lead to a huge boost of online work in the post-corona era.

Why skills matter

In times of turmoil and economic uncertainty, people rely more on their skillset to survive. During the pandemic, and especially in the face of a looming recession, developing their skills and continuing learning are the most powerful tools workers, including crowdworkers, have at their disposal. Cedefop’s CrowdLearn study has shown that crowdworkers mastered the art of online learning long before the current crisis.

But with an ongoing economic downturn, crowdworkers, old and new, will have to further update and enrich their skills if they want to remain competitive in the job market (see figure). Cedefop’s research provides insights into which skills are crucial for workers who want to thrive in the online economy, as well as which learning strategies of the ever-growing community of crowdworkers deliver the best results.

Cedefop is doing ongoing research on digitalisation and the future of work, particularly through its CrowdLearn study. Our recent seminar ‘Skill development of workers in the platform economy: anticipating the future of work and learning’ discussed the challenges and opportunities crowdworkers face. Explore what it means to be a crowdworker and how to be a successful one in the seminar literature.

You can also find relevant information in Cedefop’s briefing note on digitalisation, while the CrowdLearn final report and dedicated briefing note on the platform economy will be published soon on the project’s news page.