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What happens in a platform office?

As an immediate consequence of the covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown, several ride hailing and food delivery platform companies reported laying off staff and closing down their offices.

In this essay, we describe the operational realities and social functions of a platform’s head office and localised offices like hubs, attachment centres and seva kendras (service centres) in Mumbai.

Based on our visits in 2019 when these spaces were still functional, we first detail a range of ways in which platform companies use space and ambience, deploy seating, token numbers and service staff for managing logistics workers.

These visits were part of a qualitative ethnographic fieldwork exploring ride hailing and food delivery platform work/ers in Mumbai as part of the Mapping Digital Labour in India project.

We then reflect on the consequences of the physical spaces of platforms. In our observations, these offices contain and stir emotions through these physical spaces – what happens when several aggrieved independent contractors congregate on the platform premises?

Given the recent closure of some platform offices, we reflect on their role for workers and how researchers have accessed and engaged with the platform offices. What does it mean to work for a platform when the platform is working from home?

Our intention of asking what happens when a platform office works from home is not to report on the impact of closures but to offer a descriptive framing of what platform offices did pre-closure to analyse the impact of platforms working from home.

This descriptive framing makes a case for the under-recognised role of the dynamism of platform offices and how they managed workers.

 

Platform offices

In our fieldwork, we learnt that platform offices served several functions in addition to being a worksite for staff. Platform workers visited these offices to join the service, get trained and were often directed there to seek resolution for the issues that cropped up in their work day.

Other than that, these offices were also visited by restaurant partners in the case of food delivery, fleet owners (car owners who hire drivers) and hosted third party service providers like insurance and credit companies.

Uber head office

Based on a search on Google Maps, we learnt that the office was in a business centre in Mumbai. Upon arrival, we learnt that the building was largely unoccupied, except a cafe, an office and a training centre for aspiring flight attendants.

At the lower ground floor, we saw the Uber office and split up – one of us entered via the entrance for two-wheelers and the other via the entrance for four wheelers. Following the queue of 60-80 food delivery workers, we came up to a glass door covered with a notice about the visiting hours, a list of documents required to join UberEats and other notices.

Inside the office there was a queue of workers awaiting their turn to meet the ‘experts’ who were wearing black, sleeveless Uber jackets and/or an ID card around their necks. These experts were seated on tables numbered 1 to 21 and called out workers by their name or an allotted token number.

The other entrance for the ride hailing workers who drove four-wheelers also had a queue of workers who were accompanied by their wives and children. One of us spoke to Vikas (a pseudonym), part of the operations personnel who informed us about the Incidence Reporting Team (IRT), responsible for managing ‘driver sentiments,’ especially during off-boarding. They also analysed driver and customer profiles when resolving worker-customer disputes.

Vikas’ colleague gave us a tour of the office spread across three sections and two floors. The ride hailing and food delivery sides were in the same section on the same floor and had a similar layout – workers entered the air conditioned office, wore their ID cards, got a token number and waited in queues for their turn to meet the experts.

Other than these, there were a few waiting rooms, an employee cafeteria, a training zone for new starters, an area for third party vendors offering insurance and credit services, and finally an enclosed space with the call support staff updating drivers about new policies and payments. The doors to the offices were named after popular areas in Mumbai like Film City, Bandstand, Chowpatty, Churchgate and CST, perhaps as a technique of localising an international organisation.

The second part of the head office was on the same floor as the section described above, but the logistics workers were not allowed here. This part had meeting spaces, an auditorium that was still under construction, ‘the back office’ and a space where the restaurant partners were usually entertained.

The third section of the head office was on another floor, behind an unassuming brown door with no signboards, occupied by “IT people.” We did not get access to the centre beyond the reception.

Ola attachment centre, Uber Spot Office and Uber Dost

Platform workers visit localised offices across the city at the time of joining and sometimes to resolve disputes. We were directed by an Ola auto-rickshaw driver to an Ola attachment

centre where new workers join the service. But the centre had moved from the location so we searched for the nearest office using keywords ‘Ola office,’ ‘attachment centre,’ ‘Uber office’ on Google Maps. We found an Uber office a few kilometers away with the location pinned to a street rather than a particular building. So we asked for directions from a tailor, a florist, and a stationary shop worker which led us to a small lane between an old building and a restaurant.

When we reached the office, we found that it was in a flat with no bouncers or security outside. We then learnt that it was a spot office which functioned as an attachment centre while also providing support regarding payments and blocked IDs, but only for ride-hailing drivers. This differed from an Uber Dost office which only provided support services; yet after visiting an Uber Dost, we learnt that they offered both attachment and support services to both ride hailing and food delivery workers.

In the spot office, there were representatives of M1 capital – a third party service offering drivers credit. We overheard drivers being asked to go to the ‘waiting room’ on the third floor which was an austere terrace with one big umbrella and a few plastic chairs crowded underneath it. Right across it, one could see the roof of a western line railway station -which made the location easy for some workers to access.

Swiggy Hub

Swiggy hubs are localised offices where food delivery workers can report issues, participate in various competitions and drop off cancelled orders. The hub claimed to cater to 2,500 workers and had 7 managers, a security guard and one member of the housekeeping staff. Before workers could enter, they had to scan a QR code and fill a Google form that recorded their identifying information and the reason for visiting the hub (ID activation; pay out issue). This system of screening complaints before workers’ entry allowed managers to anticipate and prepare for dealing with workers’ complaints.

 

What do platform offices do?

We read the platform offices as spaces where emotions from disputes are contained and stirred through the use of office space and staff. This perspective also reveals the evolution of the platforms’ relationship with their partners and customers.

In containing emotion, office staff often engaged with platform workers as though they were ‘customers.’ Some staff, especially in the localised centres that rarely had to engage with the end-users of the platform, even referred to workers as customers or clients during interviews.

Other than setting the tone of a polite exchange, the ambience of the office enabled the management of workers. The ambience was set by rules such as not taking photographs, maintaining silence, speaking only when called out by token numbers or full name and the air conditioning. Several managers spoke about the importance of air conditioning and a glass of cold water, and how it made workers ‘cool down.’

This cool professionalism extended to the security guards too. Otherwise stationed as the brawn, the security guards at the head office and at the Swiggy hub, were polite, articulate, and calm figures who would cleverly neutralise tension. During our visit to the headquarters, we saw an expert raising their voice at a worker and later calling for the bouncers.

Interestingly, between the two shouting parties, the bouncer was the only person speaking softly. In Marathi, he reminded an angry worker about a section of the criminal procedure code. Another time at the Swiggy hub, the bouncer was helping delivery workers spell something correctly in a form.

From their side, workers, like other customers, used social media platforms to speak to and about platform companies. This process of containment extends outside the office and includes telephonic helplines and in-app reporting facilities. However, these services entail a longer waiting period and often involve redirection before resolution, eliciting frustrated responses from workers.

Offices also anticipate some emotions like lack of attachment to platform companies which drives attrition. These pre-attrition emotions are understood to be contained by the ‘human touch’ at the Swiggy Hub. The hub organised cricket tournaments, proposed plans to add a carrom board to the office space and kept aside one day a year for all managers to participate in food delivery work.

Doubt – especially over payouts – is another emotion that managers anticipate. Several workers come to the office with their record keeping mechanisms of excel sheets and note books to show how the company had miscalculated the amount of money they earned.

Platform offices also threaten to stir emotions by coming into conflict with the existing use of the space and by giving workers a platform to congregate. The Swiggy hub shifted from a residential building onto the main road because they had run into conflicts with the residents who were complaining about delivery workers’ bikes causing traffic snarls and making noise late at night.

Even in relation to resolving workers’ issues, the manager recommended treading carefully around conflict: “strike, suspend and no are words managers should not use.” In the pursuit of this cool professionalism, a food delivery worker recalled how Zomato had separated what used to be a common office for its restaurant and delivery partners due to a series of strikes and gatherings of protesting workers.

Interestingly, offices also gave workers – who would otherwise be scattered across the city – a platform to congregate. Yet these congregations are also guided by pragmatic and logistical concerns rather than purely political ones. While complaints are shared, expression of dissatisfaction varies. Some workers in the rooftop waiting area explained to us that it was important to voice these concerns in a way that the platform could understand them, and in spaces that the platform made available for them. They spoke about participating in strikes (especially those called by unions of nativist political parties) as an obligation since it was a decision made out of solidarity and the fear of violence towards strike breakers.

During our visit to the Uber head office, we also witnessed discussions amongst a group of fleet owners and drivers about the risks of ferrying female customers in their cabs since one driver’s ID had been blocked due to a sexual harassment complaint by a customer.

This allowed other drivers who were waiting, to begin speaking about how women customers often drank so much that they would either fall asleep or not be able to control their actions. One driver narrated an incident wherein a girl and her boyfriend started getting intimate (“shuru ho gaye”) and when he requested them to stop, the girl threatened to complain against him. Some drivers said that they cancel rides when they see girls with their boyfriends.

In that moment, they all seemed to wholeheartedly agree on the unfair treatment that they were subjected to by the customers and the platform alike. Addressing our occasional gaze and presence as the same young, middle-class women they criticised, they clicked their tongues about how some bad women spoil it for all women, declaring that “not all women are alike.”

***

Researchers have encountered platforms as technological black boxes and have faced difficulties in gaining meaningful access to physical premises. Perhaps due to the nature of platforms we were studying, we managed to slip in through the spaces open for logistics workers. We found that while the platform provides the structural contours within which gig workers’ lifeworlds get configured, the physical spaces of the platform offices enable us to see the ongoing negotiations that workers engage in with the platform.

Now with the temporary or permanent shutting down of offices due to the pandemic, workers are pushed further towards slower and less accurate in-app reporting mechanisms and telephonic helplines. The closure of some offices also changes the question of access for researchers who must now seek other spaces and moments of interaction between the platform and the worker.

 

Simiran Lalvani is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. Anushree Gupta is a PhD scholar at the Department of Liberal Arts (IIT Hyderabad).  

Image credit: Juraj Kamenicky