It facilitates a universe of gig work while offering full-time employees world class HR. Does Airtasker exist between work as we know it and the future?
Depending on which side of the fence you sit, Airtasker is responsible for disrupting an inefficient labour market or for eroding decades of hard-won industrial relations regulations.
It’s easy to guess what the company itself thinks. Head of people operations Mahesh Muralidhar believes Airtasker is already one of the great Australian success stories. “The fact that it has been created in Australia and is now going global… is something I think Australians should be incredibly proud of,” he says.
Founded by CEO Tim Fung in 2012, the tech startup operates an online marketplace that allows people to outsource tasks. These are mostly everyday chores, such as painting an apartment or gardening. But it can include higher-skilled, more specialised labour like website design, or more obscure tasks such as foot modelling.
The platform is only getting bigger. It has more than two million users, facilitates $200 million in transactions per annum and was launched in London this year, with plans to expand into more international markets in the not-too-distant future.
Taskers and employees
The Airtasker universe is divided into two spheres: ‘posters’, those who need work done; and ‘taskers’, those who do the work. Then there are Airtasker employees who create and maintain this universe.
It’s an interesting dynamic that places the company between modern work and its potential future – one characterised by a contingent workforce and a digital-first labour market.
On a practical level it means the relationships Airtasker has with full-time staff and taskers are very different.
The former receive top benefits and the kind of cutting edge, analytically-led HR treatment that’s seen in Silicon Valley. The latter operate flexibly and control their own working lives.
Airtasker serves as an intermediary between taskers and employment – an arrangement that means taskers exist in the same legal grey zone as other gig workers. It’s undetermined whether they will end up being classified as employees, contractors or as something new.
World class HR
To get an idea of how Muralidhar approaches HR for Airtasker’s employees, you just have to understand that he has one clear goal: create value for Airtasker’s customers. “My biggest priority,” he says, “is to set people up to hit the company goals.”
Fung and Muralidhar oversee a growing team of 175 located in Sydney, Manila and London, and when you’re expanding fast, acquisition of top talent is crucial. “I go out of my way to tell all my team members that we should never compromise on the people we’re bringing on board,” he says. The point is illustrated by Airtasker’s recent high-profile recruits, such as the new head of engineering, former Google executive Yaniv Bernstein.
To find the best people, Muralidhar relies on data-driven recruitment processes to reduce bias and improve decision-making. Anyone applying for a role at Airtasker is asked to complete a exercise to “showcase their craft”, he says.
“We have a very numbers-driven assessment process for each piece of work that they hand in.” Successful applicants are then invited to spend half a day in the office.
Muralidhar looks for culture-add over culture-fit, which, in his view, is an unreliable judgement. Ask if a candidate is good at their job and if they will create value for the company and its customers, he says. If the answer is yes, invite them to add to the culture and “make us even better”.
“We work hard to create a fun and lively physical environment,” says Muralidhar. Weekly ‘ask me anything’ sessions with staff serve as a powerful team-building exercise. Employee perks and benefits include café and gym discounts, social events, an “above-market” parental leave policy and a “pretty chill” informal work from home policy. “There’s a strong level of trust in the business,” says Muralidhar.
Staff are provided with learning and development opportunities, with quarterly goals set to guide professional growth. So far, 30 per cent of staff have completed feedback training. “We have some ambitious goals, so people need to stretch. They need to become really good at their craft.”
Underpinning this high-performance culture is a united sense of purpose. “There’s a lot of meaning in the work we do. We put money into a lot of people’s pockets,” he says.
Muralidhar believes leadership determines culture, and credits Airtasker’s positive culture to Fung. “You need CEO sponsorship,” he says. “The fact that we’ve got an awesome culture that people are really attached to is a reflection of him and his stewardship. Our values primarily come from him, because at the end of the day the tough decisions where your values kick in are made by the CEO.”
“We have some ambitious goals, so people need to stretch. They need to become really good at their craft.” – Mahesh Muralidhar
Taskers and critics
Unlike Airtasker employees, taskers have no workplace benefits like paid parental leave and gym discounts. Instead, taskers have flexibility and the opportunity to work at all. Airtasker creates jobs, argues Fung, who claims that 70 per cent of tasks on Airtasker were job opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Muralidhar says Airtasker’s senior management treats the welfare of its users seriously. “One of our values is that people matter,” he says. “Tim takes this very personally. It’s really important to him that we do right by people. We talk about it a lot.”
Airtasker is like any traditional open-air market, says Muralidhar. The goal is to make sure the market is safe and easy to access, as this is key to facilitating as many transactions as possible. “That’s our job. It’s setting up that landscape. The better we do it, the more transactions that happen, the more money people make. We are completely incentivised to do that.”
However, the platform is not without its critics. A 2016 report by Unions NSW argued that the “increased prevalence of digitally enabled, gig-based work is actively fragmenting labour standards and disintegrating traditional jobs into short-term tasks with no employment safety nets”. Among Unions NSW’s primary concerns were workplace safety, particularly in the use of trades skills, and the use of Airtasker by businesses.
Another concern is the downward pressure Airtasker places on wages as posters assign jobs to the lowest bidder. “There’s also the potential for people to post jobs that would otherwise be paid at a normal rate for a casual worker,” says UTS Business School associate professor Sarah Kaine, who offers the example of unpacking pallets in a warehouse, a job that is covered by an award.
“That’s not Airtasker’s direct responsibility, but it’s a by-product of the system and the market they’ve set up.”
However, Kaine credits Airtasker with “trying to grapple with some of the more difficult regulatory and moral issues around their model” more than other sharing economy platforms, after it announced an agreement with Unions NSW in April addressing concerns about pay and working conditions.
Another recent deal has seen Airtasker introduce insurance for taskers via IAG’s CGU brand, providing up to $10 million in cover for third-party liability, personal injury or property damage.
“They’ve stopped short of mandating what rates are to be paid, but at the very least there appears to be some concern about what kind of model they’re propagating,” says Kaine.
It’s a model about which Muralidhar is characteristically optimistic. “We’re trying to make markets more efficient”, he says. “The more we share, the more connected we are to each other, the happier we are.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 edition of HRM magazine.
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