A new book about Coworking, Coworking Spaces, and Coworkers.
A new book about Coworking, Coworking Spaces, and Coworkers.
I have long said that, if we’re going to talk about “The Future of Work”, I want to talk about “The Future of Workers”.
This month Sensei Sara Horowitz asks, “Is the future of work stuck in the past?”  As a founder of the Freelancers Union, she has long been involved with futurist punditry on this topic for many years, and she expresses dissatisfaction with discussions that “focus on the impact on businesses rather than individual workers”.
The perspectives (let alone the interests) of actual workers are absent.
“In fact, “The Future of Work” takeaways are often radically disconnected from the needs of American workers.”
Eternal optimist Horowitz is happy to note that workers mostly don’t know and don’t care about these pontifications. She sees workers “charting their own course, building that new workplace in real time and creating the social organizations they need”.
Horowitz has her own agenda, of course. As any good social scientist (such as me) or union organizer (such as SH) will tell you, “Workers are social creatures” (all people are social creatures), so it is a mistake to talk about gig workers as if they are isolated units, one person companies. For Horowitz, the implication is that it is important to organizing workers for economic and political power, and, these days, she is busy creating worker owned insurance and other social safety nets.
““Future of Work” enthusiasts should focus their attention and energy on the institutions that organize workers”
Of course, labor unions are the (lost) past for most workers, so this is hardly a ground breaking prescription. And I’m not as optimistic about the feasibility of organizing workers in the way SH talks about. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be a member of the FU, I just don’t think it is likely to gain enough power to matter.
(However, coming up with decent insurance and other benefits will be a huge plus for ordinary workers. So, you go girl!, on that front.)
I am considerably more optimistic about other kinds of worker driven “organizing”, especially coworking spaces. Independent workers may not be able to wield a lot of political or economic power, but we definitely can create and control our own work places, and our own communities of co-workers. This is a huge win for workers, indeed, potentially life saving.
But IMO, the secret to success for a coworking community is local, in person interaction, which is not a large-scale thing. Everybody can belong to a coworking community, but it will be a zillion small, independent groups, not one large group. So, coworking is very important and beneficial, but it is not really an “institution that organizes workers” in the way SH is thinking.
Obviously, we can expect both coworking and the FU to continue in the future, both serving the needs of future workers. These two movements are different ways to address the needs of individual workers, and both are powerful because they are social.
For the record, following a post wondering “Where are all the freelance characters on TV?”, the Freelancers Union* posted an earlier item that tells us that one place to look is the TV show, Broad City . The article, signed by “Trupo” (which is an insurance company partly owned by the FU), discusses the fictional life of the characters. (Caveat: I haven’t watched more than a few minutes of this show myself.)
“The characters don’t explicitly say they are freelancers, but they continue to work side jobs throughout the shows five seasons.”
These two working women live the real life of a freelancer: many gigs, mostly very short term. Intermittent income, no benefits, little security.
The show plays these challenges for comedy, of course. The point is that this is slice-of-life comedy, representing the real experience of a lot of workers living in New York City.
The FU concludes, “hopefully this is just the beginning of a more accurate representation of the growing norm of non-traditional work.”
I don’t know how “normative” or “non-traditional” gig working is, will, or should be. But it’s certainly good to see some realistic fiction about working lives.
As I commented earlier, why not a fictional life set in a coworking space? I have described coworking (and by implication freelancing) as “participatory theater”, in which workers create their own story of the Future of Work. That sounds like a decent scenario for scripted theater.
*Note: I am a proud member of the FU.
What is Coworking? One answer has always been, “Community, community, community”. (See The Book)
Of course, short term, seat-by-seat rental is great for rental companies. It squeezes every last penny out of their properties, with minimal extra investment. So, of course, major real estate companies love the idea and want to get in on it. So there is now a “Service Office Industry”.
Everyone tells them that what these customers want is cheap office space and “community”. We got the first, so all we need to do is sprinkle on some community, and bingo! The future of work!
This corp-rat nonsense has prompted numerous objections from leaders of what is now called “authentic coworking”, including Cat Johnson, Liz Elam, and Alex Hillman. (Readers of this blog know where I stand on this issue.)
This winter, Saidat Giwa-Osagie takes an uncompromising stand, “No Community, No Co-working” . Apparently addressing the real estate industry, she emphasizes that “success depends on the special bonds between its members”.
As I have said, “Community, Community, Community”.
This advice is not easy to follow, because “Community is something you have to build. You can’t buy it,” (Liz Elam, quoted in ) I would add, the emphasis msut be on the “you”, which is plural and includes the workers.
Giwa-Osagie points out that community is also not to be achieved through technology. No end of companies are selling the usual surveillance software, that aims to help a workspace operator track the workers. That’s not likely to do much good, IMO. In fact, I would argue that workers already have all the digital community they can stand, and coworking is all about face-to-face interactions. “a respite from our isolation”, (per Klaas )
Giwa-Osagie agrees with Elam that real estate companies generally lack the competencies to do “community” right. This is not their lane. Therefore, they should collaborate with people who do understand community.
She also points to the success of “niche” coworking (which I consider to be the only kind of coworking that works). Community isn’t something generic, and it doesn’t really scale. There are many, many kinds of communities, and each community is specific. Think lot’s of little operations, not one gigantic one.
In short, Giwa-Osagie encourages real estate to stay in their own lane, and not imagine that they can just conjure up “community” to sprinkle on office space.
I agree. And I’s you don’t have ot look farther than the rolling catastrophe that is WeWork. Of the many mistakes WW has made, ignoring this advice is the most fundamental.
The “Future of Work” is often touted as a gig economy, and for many jobs, a remote gig economy. Almost any work that centers on the Internet can be done anywhere. Growing legions of remote workers prove that this is not only feasible, but very productive . And many workers prefer to “phone it in” via the Internet.
(Remote working is not necessarily freelancing or gig working. Many conventional employers allow some workers to work from home, and there are many geographically distributed collaborations. On the other hand, many gig workers are expected to provide their own infrastructure and workplace, so they may well work from home. So, remote working is a very important aspect for most gig workers.)
(I’ll also note that remote working and distant collaboration has been happening since we invented the Internet. It’s kind of the whole point of the Internet. So much of this is not really new or unprecedented, except it has become ubiquitous.)
By now it is clear that remote working has its challenges. Indeed, the isolation of remote working is the key problem that coworking is designed to solve. Besides finding a coworking community, what should remote workers try to do?
This month, Kevin Payne suggests “7 tips for being a happy and successful remote worker” . He is writing for the Freelancers Union, but the “tips” apply to workers no matter what their contractual arrangements.
What are his tips?
1) Set boundaries
2) Designate a dedicated working area
3) Change things up
4) Make a schedule (and stick to it)
5) Know your priorities
6) Invest in the right tools
7) Don’t forget yourself
The first tip is actually the crux of the matter. When you work at home, there is no physical separation between “work” and “not work”, and more importantly, between “work” and “home/family/everything else”. Whatever may be wrong with conventional workplaces—and there are plenty of things to complain about—they definitely are psychologically and physically separated from “home”.
The other tips are mainly about how to set and keep these boundaries. An important part of this is psychological, hence “know your priorities”. This also involves at least two sets of priorities—work and not-work—and also two distinct sets of activities. Hence “a dedicated work area”, a schedule, and the right tools.
These are good tips, for any worker, remote or not. And there is no one right way to do it, so find your own way.
But even if you have a great gig and a great home office and manage to balance your life with work, you still are working alone. People are not meant to be alone all the time, and sooner or later most people are unhappy without colleagues and human contact.
This is, of course, one of the big reasons why people join a coworking community. Coworking is a “respite from our isolation” (a la Klaas, 2014 ). Indeed, Payne suggests joining a coworking space.
“Some remote workers and freelancers work in coffee shops, while others sign up for coworking spaces.”
I will go farther, to point out that the coworking space actually solves many of these other problems. There is a boundary, it is a dedicated space, it has the right tools—including like-minded workers to actually talk to.
In short, a coworking space is just the thing for remote workers.
So, Bob’s top “tip” for remote working is “find a local coworking community”. You’ll be happier, healthier, and probably successful.
This month, the Freelancers Union* asks “Where are all the freelance characters on TV?”  They point out that even in more or less realistic shows, few people identify themselves as “Freelancers”, even in cases where they work as writers and similar gig workers. Worse, some of the portrayals are wildly unrepresentative of how real freelancers live. Is anyone surprised that corporate entertainment media is oblivious if not outright hostile toward the lives of real workers?
(In part, there is a semantic issue here. Actors and Writers generally are gig workers, but they identify with their profession, not with their contractual arrangement. A thespian is “an Actor”, not “a Freelancer”. May dramatists just don’t think about “freelancer” as an identity for a character.)
The article hones in on the apparent lack of medical insurance even for characters who get hurt or have a baby. Huh? If the only thing you find unrealistic about Sex and the City is that the show doesn’t discuss medical insurance….
Eventually, it becomes clear that the FU is actually advocating their own insurance products, which explains that specific emphasis. And, yeah, its important, and yeah, I’m glad the FU is on it.
Anyway, the title does actually raise a good point. Freelancing and Coworking are important work life experiences for a growing number of people, and something that young people should know about because they may want to or have to be part of the gig economy. So it would be nice to have realistic role models in popular culture—for better or worse.
Personally, I’m not going to watch anything that spends a lot of time worrying about the challenges of health insurance for gig workers. But why not have a ‘cheers’ set in a coworking space? Why not have more shows about interesting gig workers, and fewer shows about obnoxious billionaires?
It would be particularly valuable for young people to see and to identify with some good examples of gig workers. People who have to hustle for gigs, are responsible for delivering their contracts, who constantly learn, and who are good members of a coworking community. People who more or less successfully balance work and family life. Etc. You know–real people.
So, how could this come to be?
Well…the FU surely has within its membership more than enough talent to create such popular fiction in every medium. It would certainly be apt for freelancers of the FU to tell our own story this way….
*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.