From flex offices to gig workers: ethical & security concerns of the sharing economy for offices
The sharing economy has been described by some as an all-new approach to resource and skill sharing, while others see it as a return to traditional forms of commerce. Whichever way you look at it, it is becoming a more common way of earning income, whether as an individual, or, more recently, as a form of hidden income in office management. It also allows customers (B2C and B2B) to benefit from better pricing and overall access to goods and services. Some examples include coworking spaces, flex offices, gig workers, and equipment sharing.
In this guide for anyone renting an office, we’ll provide the knowledge you need to start incorporating some of the benefits of the sharing economy in your day-to-day office management. We’ll also touch on ethical concerns, security concerns, and best practices for implementing the sharing economy in the office.
So what exactly is the sharing economy? ChatGPT says 🧠🤖:
“In the sharing economy, individuals and organizations can share physical goods, such as cars or tools, as well as intangible assets, such as space or skills. The sharing economy is based on the idea that underutilized resources can be put to better use and that sharing can create new economic opportunities for people.
Examples of companies that operate in the sharing economy include Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit. These companies allow people to share their homes, cars, and skills with others, creating new ways for people to earn income or save money.”
Companies operating in the B2B sharing economy include Fiveoffices (which connects entrepreneurs looking for office space to rent with companies that have empty office space), Kickstarter (the crowdfunding platform that has enabled companies to to access new capital flows) or Bluehost (which offers shared website hosting). Like B2C, B2B sharing economy services allow you to benefit from existing resources in an economical and sustainable way.
➕Positives of the sharing economy in the office➕
Overall, incorporating the sharing economy into your workplace will benefit if done right. How?
It can save you money💰
Sharing essential costs is the ultimate way to reduce them. In order to run a business, you may need certain things:
- A location to collaborate, whether it’s a full-time/part-time private or shared office or a coworking space;
- Technology to enable communication, from mobile phones to laptops, scanners, and printers;
- Transportation for business travel;
- Employees with various skills and the ability to commit time and effort to your mission;
- And other resources that will make your business a success.
All of these tangible or intangible resources have high upfront costs for exclusivity - whether through ownership (for example, office ownership), lease (for example, a car lease), or contract (for example, with employees). On the other hand, sharing them can reduce costs or provide hidden revenue by allowing others to use your resources (for a fee).
Increased flexibility for workers 💪
Flexibility has become an important perk at work, as attractive to highly motivated employees today as a corner office or company car was to those of the past. In fact, it’s become table stakes for reducing employee turnover, according to the Harvard Business Review.
The sharing economy allows employees to plan more flexible work schedules, for example, by only using shared office space when necessary for collaboration, and working from home other days. In the “gig economy”, workers can also make their own hours, choose which jobs and tasks they want to do or not do, and easily make or break contracts with employers. However, this does come with its own risk as the availability of work may be unpredictable.
Increased collaboration and productivity 💻
The most valuable collaborative benefit is the opportunity to connect with individuals with different skills and resources, meaning you can find new ways to work tgogether and collaborate, which can lead to more innovative and productive outcomes. However, it also allows for specialization in certain tasks, which means the best workers for each task can focus on what they are best-equipped to do. Finally, with the digital aspect of the modern sharing economy, it’s also easier than ever to share feedback and ratings, further improving work outcomes.
Environmental benefits 🌍
It is clear that humankind cannot progress if we do not reduce our global consumption, and businesses are some of the biggest contributors to this problem. This Guardian study shows that 100 of the most polluting companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions.
One of the best ways to reduce our impact as business owners on our use of resources is to share them. For example, by sharing otherwise empty offices that need to be heated and maintained, regardless of whether they’re being used, we significantly reduce the impact of CO2 emissions in real estate.
Renting or borrowing tangible goods like tech equipment (for example laptops and screens) and furniture can also help reduce this environmental burden.
However you choose to participate in the sharing economy, make it an important part of meeting your CSR goals.
➖ Negatives of the sharing economy in the office ➖
While there are many reasons any business would want to use the sharing economy to their advantage, there are also some pitfalls to look out for. What are they?
Security and privacy concerns
Security and privacy are more important to some businesses than others, but there will always be some type of information you don’t want to be shared outside of your organization.
Obviously, a law firm and a startup selling funny t-shirts will have completely different privacy needs.
This is why it’s important to have good contracts and other measures in place (which we’ll get into later) to ensure you keep your data secure - whether sharing an office, working with gig economy workers, or sharing equipment.
Inconsistent quality of services
If you don’t get your services from the exact same people or source each time, you will find that this can impact how positively or negatively you perceive these services. Requiring a minimum level of service can offset this concern, but it can still leave a poor impression on your company or firm if you’re experiencing a lot of highs and lows.
Take Uber, for example - one day, you might have a driver who is funny, interesting, provides free water and snacks, and is also happy to drive in silence if that’s what you prefer. The next day, however, your driver might take unnecessary risks while driving, probe you with personal questions, and make you feel overall uncomfortable.
The same can be said for the B2B sharing economy - who you share an office with, who you share equipment with, who you hire for gig-based work, can all have an impact on your own output and ability to get things done.
Another issue with the sharing economy in B2B is deciding who is responsible for negative outcomes. Depending on your contract or other agreements, you may be on the hook for another person’s mistakes or vice versa! That’s why it’s important to clearly determine what legal recourse there is for serious problems.
Above all, make sure you’re not cutting corners by using sharing economy services or resources. We all want to save money, but in the long run, some services will be better fulfilled internally by a team member who has plenty of experience, or with physical resources that require a higher level of quality and maintenance.
Social and economic implications
On the greater economy, as well as socially, the sharing economy has been understood to be disruptive. It is causing some companies, with traditional business models, to lose their market share entirely - take for example, taxis, which have been heavily disrupted by Uber.
It also means there are more and more independent workers in the world - depending on the local government, this may mean far fewer worker protections, and therefore less social stability.
There is the risk that participating in the sharing economy will result in a negative impact on society as a whole, if not done mindfully. That is why we’ll continue to discuss ethics and best practices to make sure you’re participating responsibly.
Ethics of the sharing economy in the office
Along with the positive and negative outcomes associated with the sharing economy and business, it has ethical implications, too. What are some examples?
Fairness and equity
There is concern, notably from the UN, that the sharing economy concentrates societal resources rather than sharing them. This has to do, in part, with the dominating nature of platforms who provide the means for sharing over their own market.
It is also influenced by the number of individual players who use the sharing economy to augment their already sufficient income with new channels. Even in B2B, this may be true as companies with large amounts of resources (such as empty office space) may be able to benefit from early investments in their business that newcomers and small business don’t have access to.
In other ways, however, the sharing economy has provided access to resources that would otherwise be unaffordable. Again, take the example of an office. Today, a new startup who only needs 5 seats, but may grow to 20 seats in 6 months can take advantage of 5 empty seats in a much larger company’s office, and then move on to a larger space as needed.
In the past, that same startup would rent the space for 20 people in the hopes of growing with a 3, 6, or 9 year lease, shouldering a much higher financial burden, which could threaten their ability to reach their targets.
Finally, in terms of race-based or sex-based discrimination, and other forms of discrimination, there are concerns that the digital nature of the gig economy allows companies to more easily discriminate against minority groups for all forms of collaboration. As an overall social issue, it’s imperative that providers of sharing economy platforms build equity and inclusion into their company values and business practices in order to mitigate these very real obstacles.
If these types of services are provided equitably - that is, without price gouging, and with fair and honest contracts, and anyone can participate without discrimination - the end result will be positive overall for SMEs, LEs, and individual contributors alike.
Transparency and accountability
Within the sharing economy, there may be the temptation to cut corners or put in minimum effort in order to save time as your primary business focuses require the majority of your attention.
However, like in all business transactions, it’s important to be transparent about topics like real costs, delivery times, expectations of service providers, and everything else you might include in a larger, more important deal. As a customer, you need to be protected, and as a provider, you need to set your customers’ expectations.
When you make a mistake, whether as a customer or provider, you should also be accountable - otherwise, you may not be able to continue to work within the sharing economy. More and more intermediaries are putting in place strict rules and regulations to ensure that accountability is enforced, with harsh penalties if they’re not. Ethically you should be taking care of this on your own, but it’s important to know that the consequences may compound and compromise your own goals in the long run.
Worker rights and protections
When working with gig-economy workers, it’s important to ensure that you’re respecting local laws, but where local laws are too loose or unclear, to also maintain an ethical approach determined internally by your company. For example, giving adequate notice for cancellation of contracts, paying extra for insurance for dangerous work, and other practices that will ensure you’re treating workers with respect and dignity.
As part of your office management, your employees will appreciate knowing that they work for an ethical company.
Impact on local communities
One of the major visible impacts of the sharing economy on our society has been the AirBnB effect. In essence, AirBnB created a marketplace that encouraged investors to buy up real estate and rent it short-term to vacationers and business travellers while excluding local community members from being able to afford rent or home ownership.
While the intention of AirBnB was to make unused space available and reduce the cost of travel, it became more return on investment than offsetting the cost of existing property ownership.
Luckily, more regulation is coming into play to help reduce impacts on the local communities from disruptive players like AirBnB. As a business owner or office manager, you can help by looking at your company’s local impact - whom are you working with, and are you sacrificing others’ well-being for your own profit? In the short-term, this may work well for shareholders, but it’s not a viable long-term business strategy as an over-exploited market will start to turn.
Security concerns of the sharing economy in the office
Through the very nature of sharing, you’re going to have to also trust other companies and individuals with a higher level of access to your business information than you normally would. What concerns are the highest priority?
Data privacy and protection
According to IBM, the most common cause of network compromise is social engineering. As opposed to other forms of hacking, social engineering exploits vulnerabilities in human behaviour to gain access to private data and information.
Basically, it’s a way for hackers to manipulate people into giving them access to your systems - whether through pretending to be someone else and asking for help, using fear or urgency to make people react more rashly to requests for information, or promising some kind of cash incentive.
By virtue of sharing your space, sharing your resources, and inviting new team members to join frequently through gig work, you open yourself up to vulnerability. In our best practices section, we’ll share ways to mitigate this and other risks.
Sharing your space, networks, or tools will also open you up to viruses and other risks from less scrupulous users. Again, there are ways to mitigate this, which we discuss below. Even without sharing your space, a robust cybersecurity program is highly recommended for the age we’re living in.
Involving more people in your business, whether as employees, contractors, or merely sharing space opens you up to liability should those people get hurt.
Making sure to stay on top of your local regulations, and always working 100% within the law will help prevent difficult lawsuits or damage to your company’s reputation.
Best practices for benefiting from the sharing economy in the office
We’ve seen why you would or wouldn’t want to participate in the sharing economy at work, but what advice is there to make it work best? Clearly, it’s a great way to increase collaboration, productivity, and profitability, but there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it. So, what should you keep in mind?
Screening and vetting service providers
Make sure you only work with the best of the best when it comes to intermediaries for your sharing economy needs.
This means companies with:
- Transparent fee structures, codes of conduct, and regulations,
- Qualified customer service agents to answer your questions,
- Testimonials from real customers,
- Legal frameworks to mitigate risks, and
- Their own vetting in place for who they allow to join their community
Implementing proper security measures
All 👏 companies 👏 should 👏 have 👏 security 👏 protocols 👏 in 👏 place 👏 !
It doesn’t matter if you have 5 family members working for you, or 500 fully-remote strangers. There is always the opportunity for data vulnerability through social engineering or other forms of hacking, and the best ways to mitigate these risks are with consistent training and well-thought-out procedures in place.
What does this mean?
Pay for cyber security awareness training and human risk management tools. Don’t only teach your team the basics of mitigating data breaches, but also challenge them with simulated risks that will allow you to detect vulnerabilities within your own team and assign further training as necessary. One example would be Awaretrain, but you can find the best option for your own budget and organization.
Hand-in-hand with training should be clear guidelines on what is acceptable and not acceptable in your workplace. You can find plenty of examples online, but the most important aspect is that these guidelines are respected by all who enter your workplace.
For example, if you share your office space, your tenants should follow the same guidelines when it comes to locking the office, recording visitors, internet usage, etc.
If you are going to share someone else’s office space, ensure your culture around security guidelines suits theirs.
And if you’re going to have gig-economy workers, spend time with them to ensure they follow the proper procedures. It’s much more expensive to pay for a security mistake than it is for extra training.
Providing proper training and support
In addition to training for security purposes, you may need to train your team or other collaborators on issues like diversity and inclusion to ensure a positive work environment for everyone. You may also need to provide additional HR support to mitigate conflicts.
At the very least, providing an adequate period of adjustment for new working styles should be a priority to ensure your regular flow is not impacted.
Having clear policies and guidelines
Having rules means there’s no arguing about who is responsible if they’re broken. Sharing any types of resources - equipment, spaces, people - means respecting the people you’re sharing them with.
The best way to establish clear policies and guidelines involves the collaboration of the different parties to determine what is acceptable and unacceptable. At the very least, a conflict of understanding on this subject might help end a negative business relationship before it starts, meaning you can pick the right partners and ensure your own company culture, work styles, etc are respected.
A detailed, written contract is the final step in ensuring your rules are binding, and that there are avenues for recourse if the contract is not respected.
While the sharing economy has many opportunities for office management, including cost-savings, flexibility, increased collaboration, and environmental benefits, it also comes with its challenges.
For security and privacy concerns, strong training programs and clear policies will be your best bet to mitigate risk.
For avoiding inconsistent service levels, adequate screening and vetting of service providers will also do wonders.
For avoiding legal liabilities, good contracts and insurance will ensure you’re protected.
Finally, when it comes to the social and economic implications of how the sharing economy is changing society, understand that good business practices lead to long-term growth, while exploitative ones are only profitable in the short term.
As the first digital platform offering part and full-time flex office solutions through the power of the sharing economy, obviously, we are proponents of this more modern business model. However, we don’t want anyone to jump into this type of arrangement without knowing the facts. That’s why we recommend only working with intermediaries who provide high-quality support, real customer testimonials, transparency in their fee structure, and other markers of a best-in-class platform. If you’re thinking about jumping into a shared-office model, whether by monetizing your empty space or renting someone else’s space, we’re available to chat Monday to Friday via this page.
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Meet our highly driven and versatile Marketing/Technology manager, whose experience includes B2B digital marketing and B2C product marketing, as well as internal digital transformation and certification in full-stack web development. A citizen of both Canada and Ireland, she has lived in China, the USA, and now Luxembourg. Aisling enjoys cultural experiences and learning new things to love about the people who make up our vast global community.