Deliveroo and 'creating vocabulary': What's in a name?

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​To what extent does language matter in how you engage your workforce and on organisation-worker relations?

The gig economy is once again in the firing line. This time Deliveroo hit the headlines under the banner of ‘creating vocabulary’ with a suggestion that it is now making an explicit attempt to avoid language that might position its workers as employees.

The recent court cases for a number of companies have been the primary media focus. And quite rightly so in fighting for workers' rights, and also as we all seek clarity on where workers stand in the gig economy. However, beyond the focus on the legalities of the move, Deliveroo’s change in language may also mark more significant, longer-term implications regarding organisation-worker relationships. And these may impact on the organisation in different ways.

Deliveroo are certainly not 'creating vocabulary' as such. But their actions would point to them creating new organisational vocabulary which reconstitutes the relationship between the organisation and their workers. The examples used in the recent Guardian article seek to illustrate how Deliveroo is moving away from language that we normally associate with an employment relationship where the organisation is able to maintain a certain level of control over its workers, to language which we would typically associate with a supplier relationship where the supplier is able to act without being under the direct control of the organisation.

This question of control marked a significant aspect of both the recent UK and US Uber court cases. This change in language thus also brings with it a changing set of expectations as well as a shift in responsibilities and accountability. The question is: what might such a change in language imply for how organisations engage with their workers?

The reconstitution of workers through a change in language will certainly make a difference. Drawing upon language that is associated with supplier relationships will assume a particular kind of working relationship and one that is markedly different to an employment relationship.

For existing workers, this will inevitably create tensions. The previous language would have set expectations around what constitutes fair treatment by the organisation. To move from payslips to invoices, from uniforms to kit, from shifts to availability, all mark a particular kind of relationship between workers and the organisation. Any organisational change comes at a price. But even more so when roles and responsibilities become reconstituted. As much research demonstrates, these reconstitutions are often subject to forms of resistance.

At the same time, it will be interesting to see how the reconstitution of workers as suppliers will impact on the attractiveness of such organisations to those seeking flexible work. On one hand, it signals a clear shift away from the lack of clarity that we currently see, which has combined the language of both employment and self-employment, thus leading to much confusion and unmet expectations. This is not to say that a supplier-style relationship will be less complex or have less challenges. But the use of this language will set certain (and more familiar) expectations.

But there is another issue. The dream of escaping the shackles of corporate life, and the quest for freedom and autonomy in both our lives and careers, underpins such flexible working. But autonomy and freedom always come at a cost. How the move to a language that promotes a supplier-style relationship will impact on how these dreams are made possible, will be interesting to see. It will also be interesting to see if other similar organisations follow suit.

Joanne Larty is senior lecturer at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS)

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