The head of HR for Uber ANZ has opened up on the tech company’s approach to people management and culture, and hit back at criticisms of the gig economy that she said is providing a new form of employment to people with few alternatives.
Susie Gleeson-Byrne presented a seminar at the CeBIT conference in Sydney on Tuesday (29 October) on the changing nature of work and how the global tech giant is contributing to this.
Admitting that Uber has been “no stranger to controversy and to headlines”, Ms Gleeson-Byrne countered criticisms of the gig economy as destabilising the nature of work by exploring some of the ways in which Uber has used it to offer new employment opportunities.
She cited people who are deaf or hard of hearing as one such example, , noting that a number of Uber drivers have a hearing impairment.
“Unemployment in the deaf or hard of hearing community is around 70 per cent, reflecting the great difficulties this community experiences in identifying and securing work,” she said.
“We are very proud of this development.”
According to Ms Gleeson-Byrne, other people who are benefiting from the gig economy include professional athletes, who can fit work around their “gruelling training schedules”, as well as mothers of young children seeking to work during school hours.
Access to work is one of the four pillars that Uber sees as part of its vision for the gig economy. The other three pillars, the HR head explained, are flexibility, protection (against illness and injury), and growth (in skills and opportunities).
Ms Gleeson-Byrne said that research conducted by Alphabeta had revealed that around four in five (78 per cent) drivers on Uber’s platform joined specifically because of flexibility needs, and around half have young children.
She also said that skills development has become an increasing focus for the company, as drivers and workers look to upskill to remain competitive and employable in the workforce.
In doing so, she said that Uber is working with universities in the US and UK to offering study programs for its drivers, as part of its Uber Pro loyalty program. Ms Gleeson-Byrne said that the company is planning to announce a partnership with an Australian education provider in the near future.
Yet one of the greatest criticisms of the gig economy, Ms Gleeson-Byrne said, is the lack of protection for workers against the risk of illness or injury.
“We’re looking at ways to solve the needs of these workers... by offering flexibility and support,” she said.
Part of this has been to introduce an insurance partnership for Uber’s drivers, which she said has been rolled out for some 2 million drivers in different countries, and continues to be done so in line with the regulatory frameworks of each respective country.
Ms Gleeson-Byrne suggested that Uber is employing the same pillars to its own employees, balancing the demand for flexibility with the need to continually grow and develop new skills.
“All industries need to think about skills and transitions more and more frequently — the single career ladder is no longer there,” she said, suggesting that all employees need to “build a portfolio of abilities”.
For Uber, part of this has meant looking beyond formal qualifications and work experience when recruiting.
Ms Gleeson-Byrne said that many young people approaching Uber for employment have no formal work experience, but a wealth of volunteer experience and unpaid internships, which she described as “self-starting initiative” that the company is trying to impart across its wider workforce regardless of age.
She concluded by referencing US tech pioneer Elon Musk, who she said has publicly espoused that most jobs will become obsolete as they are replaced by technology, although those that require empathy and human connection will always be needed.
“We are tribal beings — we need to connect with other individuals,” she said.
“Work, I think, fulfils a really important need for that connection.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.