How do you motivate workers who are managed by an algorithm?

A women working at a laptop and looking at her phone

USC researchers investigate crowdwork — assigning mundane tasks via a website — and determine how to help these workers feel invested in their duties.

Many businesses turned to remote workers to continue their operations after states issued stay-at-home orders to reduce COVID-19 infections. It’s a trend that is likely to continue long after the coronavirus is controlled.

To help companies ease the transition online, USC researchers studied the challenges to increasing the use of crowdwork — a manifestation of the gig economy in which companies offer ad-hoc, mundane tasks to prospects via a website. The move minimizes disruptions that organizations would experience as a result of COVID-19 or other crises.

The study, conducted in September through a collection of task responses via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform, shows that workers will need more autonomy over tasks and a clearer sense of purpose to perform often mundane work at a high level — advantages that AI assistance offers.

“Crowdwork functions similarly to Uber, but it is used to perform online tasks like clean data, train artificial intelligence and moderate content,” said Gale Lucas, research assistant professor at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“As unemployment rates continue to skyrocket, it will likely become even more popular in serving as a stopgap during the current shutdown and as the economy changes due to COVID-19. We need to improve crowdwork and make it more efficient, which could involve new types of supervision assistance using AI.”

The findings were presented May 11 via the International Conference On Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems in New Zealand. A video presentation is be publicly available.

Algorithmic management contributes to crowdwork

With the continuous development of AI technologies, employees and gig workers increasingly encounter software algorithms that assist in assigning their work. Many tasks performed by managers — such as hiring, evaluations and setting compensation — will increasingly use AI as a tool to help perform these functions.

Read the full story on USC News