Kate Muth on the Future of Work and What Everyone Gets Wrong About Gig Workers
Cake & Arrow’s Kate Muth joins the On Point podcast to talk about how work is changing and share research insights about gig workers
As the world finally begins to stir back to life after more than a year of quarantines, lockdowns, business closures and extended work from home arrangements for many, it remains unclear–for employees and employers alike – what the future of work will look like.
Earlier this spring, Cake & Arrow Director of Strategy, Kate Muth, connected with Peter van Aartrijk on his podcast, On Point, to discuss the future of work and specifically how our research with gig workers might offer insight for employers into how to support their workers through this transition and into the future. The below is lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Peter Van Aartrijk (PVA): Well, I think one of the first questions I would have on behalf of our devoted listeners is what is Cake & Arrow?
Kate Muth (KM): Well, Cake & Arrow is an experience design and innovation company. We work with organizations generally in the insurance industry– though not exclusively – to identify new opportunities and design innovative products and services grounded in real customer needs. Typically we’re designing products that have some sort of digital interface.
So our history: we started I think 16 years ago or so working primarily in e-commerce and really optimizing e-commerce experiences for our clients. As that work progressed and moved along, we recognized that intuitive user experiences within the e-commerce industry were becoming table stakes. We started looking further afield and seeing that there were other industries that were trying to catch up. They may or may not have had that transactional piece that comes from e-commerce, but were still trying to service their customers and provide really great digital experiences. And so we eventually landed in the insurance space and now we’ve really adjusted our mission. We’re not just trying to create and innovate on products and services, but we’re also trying to help carriers and brokers really create authentic and meaningful relationships with customers, policy holders, employees. We’re trying to bring our user-centered design expertise to an industry that really needs it.
PVA: Yeah, that’s a lot. That’s a heavy load. You guys can be in business for a hundred years working on that in the insurance industry. So you’re based in New York City. Well, how’s the city doing these days? Are you guys going back to the office anytime soon or have you been back?
KM: Well, we actually moved into a beautiful new office space in December of 2019. And so, you know where that went. So we had a couple glorious months in our beautiful space with lots of room for collaboration. And then we all have been home since last March. We tried to open the office for a little bit. But for the most part we’ve just been working remotely. We’ve always worked remotely, in some capacity. We have clients all over the world and we have some colleagues who are on the coasts and so have transitioned pretty easily to this new way of working. But I think a lot of us are anxious to get back to that space and collaborate again.
PVA: I’m hopeful that in 2021, as we get deeper into the year, people will be a little more comfortable going back. I do wonder, when people say “I’m not comfortable”, what does that mean? Like, “I’m kind of comfortable working remote. I like having my laptop on the back porch and my dog next to me”? or is it like, “I don’t want to get the virus”? which I certainly understand. It’s probably some combination. And actually we’re going to talk about this, because I want to spend some time on some really good thought leadership you guys are putting out around the future of work and where and when and why and how people are going to be working.
You know, I worked in the city, I worked in the World Trade Center area for 10 years. It was the time where if you were working, you were at the office. There wasn’t even a question about that. I think the pandemic really opened up this whole new world. Not only are there millions and millions of part-time or gig workers, but there is this whole new question of who’s in control. Is it the CEO telling me when it’s time I have to report to the office or is there a sort of blended work environment? And I think the insurance industry is, I don’t want to say struggling, but they’re trying to figure it out because I know CEOs of insurance carriers who are kind of saying, “you know, I don’t like commuting either. I wouldn’t mind a little more flexibility”.
What would you say Kate, about some of these thoughts, particularly for the insurance industry?
KM: Well, I think you bring up a good point of what does being uncomfortable actually mean? It does feel like little by little we’re moving away from that sort of fear-based, “I’m uncomfortable or uneasy getting into the office” and it’s now becoming more about how do I want to live my life? What role does work play in my day-to-day? How am I segmenting my time? How am I kind of giving of myself personally and professionally throughout the day? And where are those boundaries? And they are shifting a lot and Cake & Arrow has done a lot of research even prior to the pandemic. We were trying to understand the needs of gig workers and of non-traditional employees who maybe don’t have, or have never had that organizing structure around their lives that comes from giving over to an employer and agreeing to that sort of back and forth with the commute and the structuring of their days.
And so people are getting sort of a taste of what time is like when they’re organizing it themselves and in charge of what work looks like minute by minute. And they are getting comfortable. I know I am. I have two young children and you won’t hear them right now because thankfully they’re both at school today, which is another sign of things going back to normal, but I’ve had to figure out how to be a parent simultaneously while doing things like this, where I’m hiding in my bedroom and saying, “don’t bother me”. But then when the call is over and I can open the door and make my girls lunch, that’s amazing. And why shouldn’t we have that flexibility and why shouldn’t these kind of human comforts be available to people, while also reaping the benefits of having a traditional employment arrangement, where you do have some structure and some operational help and overhead taken off of you?
PVA: Well, back to one of the things that happened, and it was already happening before the pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated it. And that is that people not only lost their jobs, but their jobs kind of evolved. And you saw a lot of people out of work and then taking on gig work. So let’s define that. What is a gig work? What does gig work mean?
KM: Yeah. I mean, whenever we’re doing work either for our own research or with clients around what is kind of commonly called the gig economy, we have to redefine our terms. But generally we define the gig economy as being inclusive of any work performed by independent workers, whether it’s something that they’re accessing through a gig work platform, like Task Rabbit, or Upwork or Uber or something that’s sourced through more traditional channels. Either way they’re still working as a freelancer. We also include people who are leveraging their assets and working in the sharing economy. So earning money by renting or sharing things like apartments, homes, cars using platforms like Airbnb. So it’s a broad definition. And I think just for our intents and purposes, it’s also a mindset. We’re looking at the sort of the hustler, the person who is kind of thinking of themselves, or encouraged to think of themselves as a business of one. So that’s a long, broad definition for you.
PVA: Yeah. And typically gig workers are 1099 workers as opposed to W2, is that correct?
KM: I think that’s one way of looking at it. I can’t speak to exactly how we’ve drawn those boundaries for every product.
PVA: 1099 may be too fine a point, but it’s like, they’re earning income, but it’s not coming through payroll. Through payroll, they’d earn things like disability, income protection, workers’ comp, and other benefits that protect them. They may have a 401k, they’re certainly getting some of their taxes paid, so maybe that’s what I should say.
KM: Yeah. And I think that’s a good point. We’re looking at people who are sort of in charge of their financial wellbeing and have to take on some of those responsibilities for building a stable financial platform to build their careers on themselves. And they don’t necessarily have that employer intervention guiding and providing all of those things for them.
PVA: Right. So like I’ve said in other episodes, I think this trend, which again I think the pandemic accelerated, it was already happening with younger generations. Which leads me to some of the myths about gig workers Cake & Arrow has written about. I want to get into some of these myths, because it’s not just younger workers, but it seems like Millennials and Gen Z are generally the ones that have got more things going on, whether a side hustle or something else. But the whole nine to five thing can turn these people off. These workers, these people I should say are, I think under the radar with a lot of insurance professionals who should be responsible for protecting them or could be responsible for protecting them. They’re also having an impact, I think, on the insurance industry as an employment brand. So do I go nine to five to work at the big mothership insurance company or the local retail and independent agent? Or what? Like where, how can I work for those folks, maybe part-time or in some other capacity? Is that of interest to the insurance industry? I think they’re really examining the whole work and lifestyle thing themselves. So I think this is a really good topic for insurance professionals on those two levels, at least.
But you had published an article last year about the myths of gig work. It’s interesting, this intersection of how you’ve helped carriers and brokers with the user experience, but also how you’ve helped them look at their users as people versus, you know, someone they just make money off. And so one of the myths is that gig workers are Millennials, which again, I just said it, I tend to think the younger generations drive a lot of this, but maybe you guys feel otherwise.
KM Well, I think that that’s sort of a place that we started when we were first investigating the gig worker mindset and the potential users of some of the systems that we were working on designing. And that was an assumption that we held in common with the popular imagination. A lot of these platforms that have emerged in the last 15-20 years to connect people to these kind of temporary one-off work opportunities, it’s in their best interest to get more workers on their platforms and advertise it as sort of more of a lifestyle choice and as a way to reclaim the freedom that we were talking about over your work life and your daily life. And that’s a very attractive proposition. And they were able to catch a lot of millennials who were embarking on their careers and catch their imagination– kind of harness those ideas of gig work to the ideas of entrepreneurial-ism and really striking out on your own and following your passion. And that was a very effective marketing sort of ploy by a lot of these platforms to make it seem very attractive.
And there’s a lot of truth in that, but because the millennials were sort of in a place where they maybe hadn’t worked before for a more traditional structured employer, they maybe wouldn’t know what they were giving up.
But when we did our research, we actually learned that, well, there is a segment of the sort of millennial population that is certainly doing this work. And we kind of laugh when we talk about millennials now, because it ends up being sort of just people, because they such a big part of the workforce and a part of the population –
PVA: Yeah it’s like 93 million people. So, as a generation, they are a lot bigger than the Baby Boomers.
KM: Yes. And when we actually look at the share in the full-time independent workforce, it’s pretty evenly split between the Boomers, Millennials and Gen X. Millennials have a little bit of an edge, but as you said, they also have an edge on numbers, just pure population. And when you look kind of closer into it, the majority of gig workers aren’t necessarily those sort of freedom-seeking digital nomads who are shaping their own entrepreneurial trajectories. A lot of people are actually doing gig work to supplement a full-time job. We found 71% of people we spoke to were actually employed and working at full-time jobs while they were doing their gig work. And many of them, you know, 42% were married, almost 30% had children. So this sort of vision of it being a single free person, kind of just kicking back and picking up work to get to the next gig is true on some level. But there are also a lot of people who are using gig work as sort of a portfolio of employment to make ends meet or to get ahead.
PVA: That’s interesting for all kinds of reasons.
Myth 2: gig workers are platform workers. That’s what you were describing earlier when you were talking about things like Uber and Airbnb, right?
KM: Yup. And I think the platform phenomenon where these new technologies have enabled more people to consider and take up gig work again, has sort of captured the popular imagination and branded that worker as a gig worker. But in reality, you know, at Cake & Arrow, we have always employed freelancers and independent contractors to do various aspects of design work. And like a lot of designers, many of them have always worked as independent contractors and that’s true across the workforce where there are lots of people in all walks of life who do not have a long-term traditional relationship with an employer and are picking up work. And so there hasn’t been so much of a shift in the numbers of people who are independent contractors, but it’s more just how they’re accessing work and whether or not they’re taking advantage of these technologies.
PVA: Okay. The third myth is that gig work is a choice, and you kind of alluded to some of that financial pressure they may have, or the need to get ahead in maybe education or whatever it is, or build a portfolio. You see the ads for people drive for Uber who are like, you know, I have a kid home, I have MS and Uber allows me all this freedom to, you know, control my schedule and be with my daughter and deal with MS, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s kind of like, oh, Uber is a savior. And you know, as I think about this now, it sounds kind of like, maybe it’s not really a choice. It sounds like there should be other jobs you could have that could also give you that same flexibility to be with your daughter and deal with your MS that aren’t like a platform or a gig work per se.
KM: Right. And I think that messages like those are very potent because there is such an unmet need, especially in this country for more flexible work arrangements so people can do that- caretaking. You know, we hear a lot about the sandwich generation, where we have people who are taking care of young children and people who are taking care of elderly and ailing parents and grandparents simultaneously, trying to find time for all of those things. There’s just not a ton of options If you’re looking for employment that can accept all of that. You know, when you’re working traditional retail jobs even, you don’t always have control over your schedule. And so that sort of story and message about control is very potent, as I’ve said, even if it is a little bit illusory. I think that maybe desperation is too strong a word, but for a lot of people, they turn to gig work because they do need to make some money, but they do need to fit it in among all of their other responsibilities.
And, you know, for somebody like myself, I’ve been very privileged. When I became a parent, I was able to work part-time because I had understanding employers who would make those arrangements with me. I was incredibly lucky to be able to do that – to work three days a week. And so I think there is an opportunity for more employers to recognize that need and really think about why people are turning to gig work on these platforms and what they’re offering that maybe they could replicate a little bit.
PVA: Okay. Myth 4: gig workers value flexibility over stability. This is something I’ve heard a lot of too. I don’t know whether this is a generational thing, but I know that younger people in the face of several crises in their lives – the financial meltdown in 2008 and then the pandemic has caused younger people to really worry about stability and money and things like that. So maybe, maybe this is part of that, Right?
KM: I mean, I think that when we’re looking at flexibility and stability, it’s not really an either/or thing. People generally, millennials especially, value both. I think that one thing that’s happened over the past few generations too, or past few decades, is that people may value stability but when they’re looking at traditional jobs and traditional employment arrangements, they’re not necessarily seeing stability exemplified there in the way that maybe it was in past generations. So it doesn’t necessarily seem like such a choice that they’re going to be any more stable in some job arrangements. So it’s not necessarily that they’re choosing gig work because it’s more flexible, but they’re recognizing that flexibility is a benefit of gig work that they want. And they’re not necessarily going to get stability elsewhere anyway.
PVA: Okay. Myth five: gig workers don’t want insurance. As I read the report, I thought that was kind of interesting because I think it exposes this feeling that I’ve had that a lot of people don’t really even understand the product and what an insurance policy actually is and why they need it.
KM: Now throughout all of the various investigations we’ve done, we’ve continually found that gig workers are severely under-insured and that’s true of a lot of people broadly, gig workers, especially. And we’ve also found that there’s just extremely low awareness of what kinds of policies might cover them in their work that it’s even something that they could consider buying. Anecdotally, I have a babysitter in my house right now who is sort of a gig worker herself. And I just asked her, do you have renter’s insurance? because she was telling me she just rented an apartment. And she has lived in New York the last 10 years. And she just said, “no, what’s that?” So there’s a lot of assumptions that we can make when we are working closely with this industry that things are sort of common knowledge that just aren’t– at a shocking degree.
The other thing I would say around the myth that gig workers don’t want insurance is that continually, when we have done our studies, we always posed some sort of question that’s like, would you want, or would you invest in something that would ensure income stability over a period of time or would ensure that if something tragic happened to you, you would have the money to cover your expenses for a given period of time? So kind of describing insurance without using the word, you know, playing that game taboo and always there’s a yes, I definitely want that. I would definitely pay for that. And then when we turn it around and say, okay, here’s an insurance policy that does those things, would you pay for that? No, I don’t want that. It’s sort of the framing of insurance. There are a lot of associations. There are some trust issues there that just, or maybe it’s just the way that it’s positioned and marketed, but there’s definitely a messaging challenge there and possibly an authenticity and integrity challenge there as well.
PVA: Yeah. That is a very articulate response to what I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I think the industry –and you probably are seeing this in your work for carriers and brokers–but it’s like the vernacular, the acronyms, the capital letters on the policies are stuck in the sixties and seventies with how we describe things, the jargon it’s just overwhelming for people. So what they end up doing is feeling that they’re being sold something they don’t need and they only buy what’s absolutely necessary, which you also mention in your study. You know, people buy insurance when they have to– when they have to to buy a house, to buy a car, to have a business, to be a doctor, et cetera, you need it. You gotta have it. But when it comes to something as critically important as disability income, where you have a three times more likely chance of being disabled in your lifetime than dying, and people say I don’t really know what that is or it’s too expensive or whatever it is, it’s a shame. And I think the industry has to do a better job.
KM: Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t agree with you more. And I also think that it’s tied up with some of what we were talking about previously where disability, even life insurance, to a certain extent, these were things that in many people’s minds were associated with employee benefits and things that your employer would tell you if you should have those things or there would be some sort of organizing structure that would serve these policies up to you and you would know if you needed to have them. And if there’s not that organizing structure for people, they just aren’t really getting those connections and understanding that it can actually help them.
PVA: So last question … it’s really maybe more of a snide remark about what I think when I see the term user. I heard someone describe it well: the only other people who are called users aside from people who use technology are drug addicts. The word user just seems so antiseptic– so inhumane or not human. And over the years, you know, we’ve said user experience, user interface, customer experience has been around seven years or something like that. But I wonder if you feel that at all. And in your work with carriers and brokers, if there are things you do to kind of make it more about the person – not the user. Like in your writing you are really breaking down these gig workers and saying – they’re people – they are people too. You know robots aren’t delivering your food and making a $2 tip. I mean, these are people. Is this something that you bring to your work every day with your clients?
KM: Yeah. And thanks for giving me an opportunity to kind of call that out because I also sort of hesitate when I use that word user, even though it’s part of the lingo we use to describe the work that we do. But ultimately, I mean, I guess user centered design was unfortunately named because the user is the human at the center. And the idea of user-centered design is really to be human centric, people centric. And with the work we do, the first place we start is by talking to individuals and talking to humans. So in the report where we were talking about the myth-busting, that was sort of an aggregate of many studies that we’ve done over the years where we have gone out and talked to people– and some of them were even doing sort of gorilla intercept studies where we’re talking to Uber drivers during our rides and learning about them. Sometimes we’re bringing people into the office and having a round table. Sometimes we’re doing one-on-one interviews where we’re really getting to the heart of the human conditions, human contexts that they’re experiencing in their everyday lives that are leading them to gig work and motivating them to persevere in these sort of employment arrangements that are not always to their advantage. We don’t do any work if we don’t have a phase of customer, user, human research – that drives our discovery and leads to insights that directly impact the things that we recommend and design.
PVA: Yeah. Otherwise it’s just technology. Ones and zeros, right? I mean, I don’t want to pick on tech people. They’re humans too.
KM: It’s a good reminder though, that we often translate it to customer experience or other aspects of experience, but really what we’re talking about is human experience.
On Point is an Insurance Journal podcast hosted by Peter van Aartrijk featuring conversations with engaging and informative industry experts on technology, branding, social media, and other great topics. You can listen to the full episode featuring Kate Muth here.