Remote digital platform working is great, if you live in a city - Oxford study

20 October 2022

Rather than heralding a new era of prosperity for rural and remote regions, remote working, inspired by the pandemic, is exacerbating the global urban-rural divide in the digital platform labour market, according to new analysis from the Oxford Internet Institute.

COVID-19 saw the rapid acceleration in workplace information and communication technologies, and the promise of remote work leading to work opportunities more evenly distributed between country and city and internationally.

But the new research, published in leading journal PLOS One, reveals remote work conducted via online labour platforms - such as Fiverr, Freelancer and UpWork - mirrors the geographical and skills-based polarisation of labour markets, rather than spreading work more evenly.

The Oii’s Dr Fabian Brasemann, lead author of the paper says, ‘Working from anywhere is not a technical problem anymore, thanks to digitally enabled remote work. But it remains an economic-institutional one. The remote labour market is globally polarised between countries, between urban and rural areas within countries, and in particular, between job types. So, if you live in a cosmopolitan area of a developed country, you are much more likely to be employed through the digital platforms.’

According to the report, ‘Countries are globally divided: North American, European, and South Asian remote platform workers attract most jobs, while many Global South countries participate only marginally….remote jobs are pulled to large cities; rural areas fall behind.’

He maintains that today’s findings point toward the connection between skills and place-bound institutions as enablers – even of remote work. People with access to specialised education, vocational training and local business opportunities – in other words urban dwellers – will be more likely to have in-demand, digital skills. They will find ample opportunities in the remote labour market. People who do not have the same access to enabling institutions – in other words, people in rural regions – tend not to have the most relevant digital skills. They will have a hard time finding good remote jobs.

The report states, ‘The data shows that most countries in the Global South are only marginally connected to the global web of remote work in the platform labour market. Within countries, we find that remote work flows to urban centres. These are the places where highly skilled labour is concentrated. The economic tale of the ’booming metropolis’ and the ’broken provincial city’ plays out fully in the platform economy.’

Key findings reveal the global polarisation in remote labour markets:

  • The majority of remote platform work comes from metropolitan areas in high-income countries such as North America, West Europe and Australia
  • Most remote platform workers are located in urban areas in East Europe, South Asia and the Philippines
  • Many countries in the Global South only marginally participate in the remote labour market
  • Most of the high-value remote work goes to metropolitan areas: remote platform workers in capital regions earned between 24% and 53% more per hour than their counterparts in other regions.

The paper recommends

  • Platform apprenticeships for new remote workers: - assign first online jobs randomly to people without experience to build up their initial credibility
  • Government-led digital work programmes: - Embedding online work programmes in rural areas into larger economic and labour market development schemes
  • Foster enablers of remote work: - investments in reliable internet access, local employment opportunities and skill-building opportunities in rural areas
  • Incorporate remote platform work into governmental processes: - advertising short-term remote jobs on platforms while promoting living wages
  • Connect rural remote worker communities to global network flows: – set up co-working spaces and physical meeting points for platform workers to help with knowledge exchange and skill-building

Dr Braesemann concludes, ‘We believe remote work can become an instrument of economic empowerment and growth. But, for this to happen, remote work needs to be embedded in broader economic and labour market development schemes, supporting disadvantaged regions to invest in local skill development and infrastructure. Only in regions that flourish locally, remote workers can succeed globally.’

Notes to Editors

For more information, please call +44 (0) 1865 287 210 or contact [email protected]

The study is based on an analysis of a data set of more than 1.8million remote jobs during the period between 2013 and 2020 conducted via one of the leading online labour platforms.

Download the full paper, “The global polarisation of remote work”, by Fabian Braesemann, Fabian Stephany, Ole Teutloff, Otto Kassi, Mark Graham and Vili Lehdonvrita, published in the leading journal Plos One. It will appear here after the embargo lifts:

About the OII:
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.

About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number one in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and number two in the QS World Rankings 2022. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.
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