By definition, the sharing economy encompasses any digital platform that facilitates the peer-to-peer sharing of goods and services. A decade ago few people had heard the term “sharing economy.” A mere ten years later, the sharing economy has already radically restructured our day-to-day lives. Since 2009, the sharing economy has changed how many of us travel (e.g., Airbnb and HomeAway) and move from place-to-place (e.g., Lyft and Uber). Somewhat less widely recognized but by no means less significant is the extent to which the sharing economy is also driving the redesign of workplaces.

While it may still be too early to predict all the ways in which work and workplaces will ultimately be transformed by the sharing economy, there is now a decade’s worth of data that points to at least a few key shifts. Economist Arun Sundararajan summarizes these impacts as follows:

  • Market-based: The sharing economy generates markets that promote the exchange of goods and the rise of new services; on this level, the sharing economy drives economic activity.
  • High-impact capital: In the sharing economy, the potential exists to use everything from time to money to skills at capacity (e.g., a house that once would have been left to sit idle while the owner was on vacation can now be rented out to generate income).
  • Crowd-based “networks” rather than centralized institutions or “hierarchies”: Increasingly, both capital and labor are arising from decentralized crowds of individuals not corporations.
  • Blurred lines between the personal and the professional: In the sharing economy, giving someone a lift or sharing one’s home, which were once considered personal activities, are now being recast as professional or income generating activities.
  • Blurring lines between fully employed and casual labor: In the sharing economy, full-time jobs are being replaced by contract work and even full-time employees are increasingly working under new conditions.[i]

But what does this mean for workplace design?

As suggested above, with the sharing economy, it is possible to tap into markets that were previously either unavailable or nonexistent. In the past, new markets necessarily meant expanding one’s workforce and subsequently, building larger workplaces to accommodate more workers. In the sharing economy, expanding one’s market is no longer synonymous with a larger workforce and certainly not with a larger physical workplace.

A key element of the sharing economy is that one can now turn idle space or idle time into money. In the past, if an organization required a large set of images to be tagged with metadata, they would likely have carried out the work in-house. Today, they may opt to hire one or several hundreds of workers on a task-based site, like Fiver or Mechanical Turk. In short, organizations can now easily scale up to complete specific tasks without permanently expanding their workforce and even without making space for temporary staff. Of course, this also has a profound impact on workplace design.

Since fewer organizations now need to have a large workforce on site at all times, office space can now be both reallocated and relocated. First, with fewer workers on site, it is possible to reallocate existing office space. This means that floor space once reserved for cubicles can be torn down and turned into open and collaborative meeting spaces. It also means that offices can provide more services to employees (e.g., on-site food services or meditation rooms). In short, workplaces have an unprecedented opportunity to come together to imagine the types of spaces and services they need to thrive and survive in today’s economy.

Second, as the sharing economy transforms the composition of the workforce and many organizations embrace the possibility to shrink their physical headquarters (even as they expand), relocation is also possible. In some cities, this means that organizations that once occupied large buildings in the suburbs are moving back downtown into smaller spaces. This in turn has other impacts. Workers who may have once driven to work can now work remotely or commute to work via public transit or by bicycle.

The sharing economy is not only transforming the composition of the workforce — it is driving the redesign of our work environments in ways that hold the potential to have an impact on urban development and the environment too.

 

[i] Arun Sundararajan, The Sharing Economy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016.