The National Science Foundation awarded iSchool professor Steve Sawyer $339,362 grant for his work “Collaborative Research: HCC: Small: The Market is the Interface: Online Labor Platforms and Contingent Knowledge Work.” Sawyer’s Co-PI, Mike Dunn of Skidmore College, was also awarded a grant for his work on the project.

Steven Sawyer

Steve Sawyer

This supports ongoing work focused on how online labor platforms, such as Upwork, are reshaping work. The project builds on work that Sawyer and his team started roughly four years ago, where they’ve connected with freelancers to learn about the challenges and successes involved in their work. Specifically, they’re pursuing research on how online labor platforms sustain their market-making role, how freelancers adapt to changes on the platform, and how employers adapt to changes on the platform.

The selected sample of freelancers includes three categories: Technology freelancers, which includes information security, web maintenance, and programming; Creative freelancers, which includes writers, graphic designers, and web designers; and Administrative freelancers, which encompasses filing, scheduling, clerking, and data entry.

After three years of connecting with these freelancers, Sawyer says they’re seeing both patterns across time and new themes emerging. One is that most people are struggling to build a community online. Freelancers have clients but often don’t have coworkers, so building online communities in the workplace is challenging. Furthermore, many freelancers say they don’t expect to find a community online. They view their work as a task, and they rely on their social networks outside of work for their community.

“We do notice that the people in the technology and administrative fields complain less about the structure of the work. They know it’s going to be fairly isolating. Even if they were in the office, it would have been fairly isolated,” says Sawyer. “What’s interesting about the creative group is that while they do spend more time interacting with their clients, it’s largely for the purposes of getting feedback and clarity on their work. If we’ve had 40 complaints about bad clients from our participants, 35 of those complaints are from the creative group struggling to understand what the client wants and feeling a little isolated.”

Another observation of this work is to learn about where freelancers choose to work. For example, now that Covid restrictions are lifting, are people trying to get out of the house more? The study finds that for about half of people, their work is mobile. As long as they have a laptop and reliable wifi, they can get their job done. The other half of freelancers have specific requirements for their workspace. They enjoy quiet but like the ability to move around throughout the day.

The NSF grant will allow Sawyer and his team to continue exploring the role of online freelancing conducted through online labor platforms. Learn more about the study here.