How the sharing economy is affecting the way we work

Is the sharing economy a new business trend or simply a continuation of a long tradition of small entrepreneurs?

University of Windsor professor says sharing economy is a new manifestation of an old way of work

Uber headquarters in San Francisco, the company is known for disrupting traditional taxicab services. (Eric Risberg/The Associated Press)

Anna Wiebe picks up groceries, cleans homes and runs other small errands for her clients who are just too busy to do it themselves.

Her Roadrunner company is just one of several to pop up in Windsor, Ont., offering services for menial tasks in a bid to capitalize on the sharing economy kicked off by apps like Uber and AirBnb. 

Wiebe started the business as an expansion of her work helping her sister Maria, who uses a wheelchair. Through a blog and a Twitter account, Wiebe uses the Internet to connect her to potential clients. 

Anna Weibe is the owner and operator of Roadrunner, a company that helps people with small errands. (CBC)

Business experts have differing opinions on these new models. Some argue this is just a continuation of traditional small entrepreneurs, while others say the errand services are just a new way of doing the types of odd jobs that have been around hundreds of years.

'Uber-ization of the economy'

The car-sharing app Uber is the prime example of the sharing economy disrupting traditional business models, playing by a different set of rules than their more traditional competitors, connecting businesses and consumers directly.

Harvard Law School author and researcher Yochai Benkler sees this as a major shift in work, calling this trend the "Uber-fication of services." He sees an emerging on-demand economy where dog-walking and grocery buying are contracted out to the lowest bidder.

He sees this trend, beginning in 2014, as a "critical reorganization of the services sector."

Benkler's not alone in his analysis.

Tim Hudak, the MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook and former leader of the Ontario PC party introduced a private member's bill calling to completely legalize Uber in December.

He participated in a forum Friday at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University debating the future of the sharing economy. He was joined by representatives from Unifor, Canada's largest public sector union. 

For Hudak, the goal is to let the government get out of the way of the market and allow things to play out on their own. He sees great potential in this sector, estimating it growing to a $335-billion US industry worldwide by 2025. 

A new way to do old business?

A professor at the Odette School of Business at the University of Windsor doesn't see things the same way. Thomas Kenworthy calls the "dating model" of services a new step in an old way of doing business.

"This peer-to-peer model, or dating model has been around before and this is just a modern manifestation of that," he said. "[Apps] may facilitate greater transactions, or better ones, but ultimately we have a lot of people looking for these services and a lot of people looking to make a few bucks."

To Kenworthy, people offering to clean homes or to pick up groceries were limited in how they could market themselves. For years, the only option was the classified section of local newspapers.

With the advent of the Internet, companies can develop apps or reach their consumers through social media. But they need to adapt in order to survive, meaning companies like Uber may not look the same in five years as they do today. 

"It's nothing new," he said. "There have been teenagers who shovel snow every winter for $10-$15 per driveway and there are people who … feel they can do [menial tasks] to put food on the table."

With files from Stacey Janzer