Technology is changing the way we work, providing unique challenges for both employers gauging prospective talent and for employees ensuring their rights and proper working conditions.

Through a series of projects in the Stanford Cyber Initiative, Stanford researchers in the program’s Future of Work focus area are investigating how best to develop online work platforms and how policy can mitigate their negative effects.

A team of interdisciplinary scholars is addressing workers’ rights on online platforms, among other important issues, as part of the Stanford Cyber Initiative. (Image credit: nevarpp/Getty Images)

“Our goals have been to envision what that future might look like, to build technology to empower new forms of organizing and to understand what impact these platforms are going to have on people,” said Michael Bernstein, an assistant professor of computer science.

More work in the future will involve crowdsourcing, an already popular method of bringing together virtual workers to accomplish tasks. Bernstein and Melissa Valentine, an assistant professor in management science and engineering, improved on this trend with Foundry, an online platform where people can create their own company. The company’s workers are comprised of flash teams, online groups of experts in specific fields. Foundry’s ability to adapt to the varied requirements of its owners and its egalitarian model – allowing any of its members to make changes to their business platform – have proven effective in early testing.

“Anyone with a web browser can create and lead an organization of globally-distributed, diverse experts within half an hour,” Bernstein said.

But the Cyber Initiative has concerns about workers’ rights on these sorts of online platforms, particularly because most online workers are contracted for short-term projects, leaving benefits like health insurance, paid time off and job security in question.

Margaret Levi, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and Bernstein looked to industries — like farming, the creation of railroads and the early development of automobiles — throughout history that followed a similar short-term model to predict the effects on workers’ rights and to find policy solutions.

“The new platforms for matching employers and employees do a terrific job at facilitating wide-
ranging searches for the right people for the right jobs at the right time,” said Levi. “But they have two deficiencies that our project is trying to correct: providing effective power to workers over pay and working conditions, and providing reputational mechanisms that accurately assess the skills and quality of employees. “

Employers are challenged as well, often unable to verify an online employee’s quality before hiring. Because they can’t count on quality, they don’t pay much. And because employees aren’t earning much per job, they don’t put in much effort. The result is a decrease in both quality and pay.

“We are considering ways to increase workers’ control over the labor supply and over the determination of who is qualified as means for improving workers’ rights and power,” Levi said.

They are exploring the idea of a “digital hiring hall.” The platform would draw on information across the internet, compiling and verifying certificates, courses and work experience. It would provide employers confidence in candidates’ quality of work, and also allow employees to band together for fair wages and working conditions.

Bernstein described the platform as a “LinkedIn in which every line on your resume represents work you have verifiably completed on online work platforms.”

Working alongside Bernstein, Valentine and Levi in the Future of Work area is Ramesh Johari, an associate professor in management science and engineering. His work focuses on rating systems and how they can be adapted to function for online employees.

Media Contacts

Nicole Feldman, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 724-0642,