Working with Wolt: An Ethnographic Study of Lenient Algorithmic Management on a Food Delivery Platform

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Abstract

In this paper, we present the results of an ethnographic study focusing on food deliveries for the digital platform Wolt. The platform manages food transport ordered by customers to be delivered at home from restaurants, and subcontracts the transport to workers called ‘couriers’, who act as independent firms or entrepreneurs. The paper is based on six months of participant observation, during which time the first author worked as a courier, as well as on ad-hoc conversations and semi-structured interviews with other couriers. We describe couriers’ work for the platform and discuss our findings using Möhlmann and Zalmanson’s definition of algorithmic management. We found both similarities and differences. It was noticeable that the couriers were positive about their work that no penalties or wage reductions were enforced, and that human support complemented the platform’s algorithmic management. Thus, the algorithmic management we observed is neither harsh (as it has been described on other platforms including Uber), nor like the algorithmic despotism present on Instacart, for example. Hence, we refer to it as ‘lenient algorithmic management’ and underline the importance of adding new perspectives to our
understanding of what algorithmic management can be, as well as looking at the context in which it is practised. To complement this finding of lenient algorithmic management, we present a set of strategies couriers must engage in to be effective on the platform: Thus, couriers must 1) schedule their work for
peak hours to limit the amount of time they waste, 2) bundle orders to increase their payment per tour, 3) make use of support to handle customers and cancel orders involving delays, and 4) make use of the ecology of local support structures. The contribution of this paper is to add new perspectives to the way
we perceive algorithmic management by presenting a lenient form of algorithmic management and indicating the importance of looking at the context in which it is practised, while describing what it takes to be an effective worker on the Wolt platform.
Original languageEnglish
Article number4
JournalProceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction
Volume6
IssueGROUP
Number of pages22
ISSN2573-0142
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022

Keywords

  • : Algorithmic management
  • algorithmic competences
  • digital platforms
  • computer supported cooperative work
  • ethnography
  • Wolt
  • food delivery

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