One little letter, big shakeup.

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Will White-Collar Work Get an Uber Disruption?

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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On-demand companies are known for using technology to match service providers with customers who need things like taxi rides, housecleaners and couriers. But these companies aren’t just for concierge-type services.

Some startups are trying to usher white-collar workers into the on-demand economy as employees, rather than as customers. If these companies succeed, it could be an interesting development in the contract labor debate that has been sparked by the advent and rapid adoption of on-demand services.

Last week, a former PayPal and Microsoft executive, Rakesh Agrawal, introduced redesign|mobile, a web-based marketplace for skilled labor. Agrawal once worked for the expert network Pacific Crest Securities as a contractor who hopped on the phone to explain certain tech topics to hedge funds and mutual-fund managers.

He’s essentially replacing the expert network idea with software that matches clients with consultants, lawyers and other professionals who can answer questions about legal issues, personal finance, the tech industry, communications and business strategy. But instead of working with huge institutional investors who pay thousands of dollars, he’s serving individuals and charging tens of dollars.

“A lot of questions that could be answered don't even get asked because the process is so cumbersome,” Agrawal said. With his company, customers can book appointments in 15-minute increments and not worry about lots of paperwork and other logistics.

Amy Phillips, redesign|mobile’s editor, is herself a contract worker who manages the site from her new home in Todos Santos, Mexico. “She’s a great example of the kinds of positions we want to create,” Agrawal said, noting that she can use the site to get work even though she lives in a place where there isn’t a huge demand for editors  -- and make a flexible schedule for herself.

What Agrawal is doing isn’t new. It just that the Uberization of high-skilled or high-paying work hasn’t been talked about much. Lawyer-on-demand apps, such as Quicklegal and UpCounsel, already exist. People can use the Medicast app to summon a doctor to their homes. And Upwork matches a network of freelance writers, graphic designers, accountants, programmers and marketing experts with clients who need their skills, even for very small jobs.

While I was at the Collision startup conference in Las Vegas this week, I noticed that there was more buzz around the idea of turning white-collar work, or skills or products that traditionally command higher paychecks, into less expensive services that can be summoned as easily as a town car.

People were talking about Zirtual, which specializes in providing administrative assistants on demand. It’s similar to Fancy Hands and to TaskRabbit, which matches customers with administrative assistants as well as handy men and delivery people. There was PayLive, a company that makes it easier for hosts of live events to charge viewers only for what they actually watch. And I met with the developer of an app called TalkToChef that lets people contact a kitchen whiz to help them through a tough cooking problem.

There isn’t yet a break-out hit in the world of on-demand professional services, so it’s impossible to call the category a success. But I do think that there’s a market for less expensive white-collar work. An Uber, for legal advice, seems like a pretty good idea.

If companies such as redesign|mobile catch on, it will be interesting to see how they influence the conversation about the on-demand economy. Right now it’s dominated by the Ubers and Homejoys of the world, companies that use low-cost contract workers to serve customers at high volume and take a cut. This is also known as the 1099 economy, since contract workers fill out 1099 tax forms used to report income other than regular wages and salaries. Lots of 1099 employees are fighting to be considered full-time employees and be given full-time employee rights or some way to account for the job-related costs they incur in travel, gas, supplies and insurance.

White-collar workers seemingly enter this space with more privileges and potentially lower costs. They can hop on their laptops or phones to get the job done and don’t need to worry very much about transportation and supplies. In this way, it’s hard to see how this is a bad deal for, say, a busy working mom who wants to make extra money off of her expertise.

If they’re happy to be part of the 1099 economy, will that influence the way that companies and the law look at these on-demand companies? Will they miss perks such as sick pay, paid vacation and expense accounts and other supplies? If they embrace on-demand work, shouldn’t that drive pricing down in industries like law and consulting, just as Uber and Lyft should drive down pricing in the taxi industry? What happens to the business models of law and accounting firms?

I don’t have answers, but this is something that I’m watching closely. On-demand probably will be the most important development to come out of this tech boom. And making the white-collar world part of this phenomenon doesn’t have to be a runaway Uber-like success to be an interesting and influential development that shapes how we think about workers and their rights.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net