Just out! Video from my presentation at
Friday, October 5th at Broadway Food Hall Urbana, IL
[Videos of all the the talks are here.]
What is Coworking? Well, I literally wrote a book on that question , and I’m not really sure what the answer is.
But I’m pretty sure that the discussions at AIA reported by Carolyn Cirillo are totally wrong .
She reports that professional office designers think that coworking “needs a new definition”, essentially to match the thing that they do.
Who cares what workers actually do? Who cares what coworking actually is? The important thing is to “deliver that product” (in a “productized way”).
For these professionals, it’s all about building office space. So let’s redefine the whole world to fit the business model of the real estate industry.
I’m not the only one who strongly disagrees with this bogosity.
She lists what Coworking really is about, with item number one being “Community”.
You tell ‘em, Elam!
The annual “Freelancing in America” report was released October 31 .
In past years, I have criticized this report for some sloppy and perhaps misleading claims. Let’s have a look at this edition.
First of all, the report is base on “An online survey of 6,001 U.S. adults who have done paid work in the past 12 months” . This is an impressive sample, and includes “non Freelancers”. It’s always hard to be sure of biases in online surveys—obviously not everyone can be reached this way or will participate. In this case, there will surely be a skew toward including younger, digitally active workers, for instance. But still, this is a pretty big sample, so that’s good.
One of the headline numbers is that the total number of “freelance” workers held steady compared to 2017, at about 50 million. This was reported as “3.7 million more”, but that number is growth since the first report in 2014. There was actually a slight decrease in the number of Freelancers between 2017 and 2018.
In fact, throughout the report, there is very little change from 2017. But to create an illusion of growth, the base of comparison was shifted to the 2014 survey. Sigh.
As noted in earlier discussions, this report consistently uses a very expansive and debatable definition of “freelancing”. They include pretty much anyone who did any part time work at all, from the smallest hobby up to full time a independent business. If you focus on “close to full time” freelancers, there are about half as many as the headline number. This means that roughly 10% of the US workforce is (more or mostly less) earning a living freelancing. That’s quite a few, but less exciting than some of the headlines imply and not necessarily a big change from 50 years ago.
I understand why the Freelancers Union wants to spread the net widely, I’m a ‘one big union’ guy myself. But these workers really are such a diverse lot it’s questionable whether they should be talked about as if they are one group.
Another headline number is that 61% of freelancers do so by choice, as opposed to necessity. This percentage has risen over the last few years, suggesting that freelancing really is preferred by many workers, and that number may be growing. This growth may also reflect better employment opportunities, which has the side effect of reducing the number of involuntary freelancers (because they have found conventional employment).
The survey found that the more freelancers reported full time employment (defined as 35 hours per week or more, I think), and reported incomes of freelancers held steady over the year. Every survey has shown that the majority of freelancers work less than full time, and, hardly surprisingly, earn less than $75K. (As I have said before, statistics about freelance “income” need to be taken carefully, because independent contractors have to cover overhead and benefits, so income can’t be simply be compared with wages.)
The survey also reports on the completely unshocking fact that Freelances find that upgrading skills is a good idea, though training is awfully expensive when you are paying your own way.
The survey finds that, as always, autonomy is one of the named benefits of Freelancing, including the ability to make time for family. And, as always, Freelancing has its own challenges, including unpredictable work and income, and isolation. Freelancers also face the same anxieties as all workers about health insurance, retirement savings, and low pay. But I guess even though work still sucks, but at least you are working for yourself in your own interest and on your own terms.
A large number of Freelancers report that they make more money Freelancing than in previous conventional employment. This is an interesting finding, though I still wonder how earnings are being counted. For instance, is this a higher hourly rate, or a difference in the hours worked? And perhaps the causation runs the other way—underpaid workers are more likely to jump to Freelancing because of low pay, not because Freelancing pays well.
This study replicates the frequently reports that most Freelancers would not take a conventional job if offered. This is a solid sign that Freelancers are satisfied, and suggests that pay and conditions must be at least competitive. I have to point out that this also shows just how sucky US employers seem to treat workers. I mean, with all the stress and overhead of freelancing, it shouldn’t be that hard to be a nicer alternative. You know, treat people with respect, pay decently, take care of important needs. Stuff like that.
Overall, when you look at the actual data the picture is sobering. The number of Freelancers has held steady, which may reflect a better overall job market for all kinds of employment. Freelancers still face uncertainty, and many work only a few hours for very little pay.
Indeed, there may be a trend emerging where Freelancing is diverging into a top tier of high paid independent workers (e.g., in-demand technical workers), and a lower tier of low paid contingent workers (e.g., the lumpen proletariat of content generators). This pattern has certainly existed for a long time int he temp economy, so it may not be a surprise if the gig economy simply replicates the gig sector of the old economy.
If this truly is a trend, then it will be very important not to lump all freelance and independent workers into one conceptual heap. Highly skilled independent contractors with high incomes have different needs and opportunities from low skill, contingent workers. Above all, it is a mistake to blithely claim that freelancing is a viable path to a decent living for all workers—it isn’t, any more that conventional employment is.
The Freelancers Union has a key role to play here, especially in helping less secure and lower paid workers build a decent life. Solidarity of all independent workers is a good thing, and to date the FU has done a decent job of fighting for everyone. (#FreelanceIsn’tFree, insurance, etc.)
However, I would like to see future reports take a closer look at the differences among Freelancers who are full time, part time, and in different pay tiers. There are many common concerns, for sure. But there may be some important issues lost in the aggregate. (Just as a for example, part time working mothers will have important challenges finding affordable child care, not to mention enough hours in the day.)
Disclosure: I am a long time member of the Freelancers Union.
One of the key drivers for the contemporary coworking movement is to combat the isolation faced by independent and freelance workers. Coworking is a “respite from our isolation”, to quote Zachary Klaas .
Long before unmarried professionals discovered the loneliness of working at home, parents, especially mothers, endured the isolation of child rearing. Worse, working parents, especially mothers, have to balance two careers, at home and, well at home. Working at home may have advantages, but it is very difficult to do two jobs at home at the same time.
Neil Carlson co founder the Brooklyn Creative League coworking space of writes about these challenges, and how coworking is not only a respite from isolation, it is a way to create space for (non child rearing) work .
OK, this post is kind of Mansplaining the challenges of working and raising kids. Nothing here is in any way new to the millions of working moms through history. Somehow, when it becomes a problem for men, suddenly we need solutions other than blaming the victim.
It’s a little annoying to read about how great this coworking space is for dads to find a community of dads to help them have fun at and do better at raising their kids. Where are the moms in this picture? They have the same challenges plus clueless knuckle-draggers treating them like domestic servants.
But let’s not harp on that, and let’s ook at how their coworking space helps balance work and family.
First of all, Carlson supports the separation of work and home. (I have hewed a hard line on this topic for many decades.) A coworking space—a kid free, everybody is working here, space—is not only a better place to work, it psychologically separates “I’m at work” from “I’m at home”.
Second, coworking is a place to be part of a community of like-minded workers. In this case, the parents can find other like-minded working parents. Coworking is widely reported to improve productivity and work quality, through interactions and networking. Carlson’s analysis suggests that it may also improve parenting through the same mechanisms. (If you view child rearing as a vital, if unpaid, job, then this certainly makes sense.)
Carlson notes that the flexibility of choosing and finding a coworking space near to home is extremely valuable. A workplace that is separate, yet close enough to not waste time on commutes, or be so far away to be out of reach if needed by the little ones.
These are all fair points, if nothing that working moms haven’t already invented.
I was more interested in what the Brooklyn Creative League has done to meet the needs of these parents. Looking at the website, the facilities and amenities don’t seem to be different from most other coworking spaces. I suspect that the weekly potluck is more kidful than some coworking spaces (Friday keggers or all night video gaming are generally not that interesting to parents of toddlers).
Judging from the blog post, the “secret sauce” of BCL is probably the community leadership, which has built a community of working dads (maybe moms, too). This is certainly what I would expect: coworking is all about community, and community leaders are usually much more important than the workspace or “amenities”.
One thing that is strikingly missing from the BCL is child care. T One thing that working parents need most is accessible child care, and BCL does not seem to have anything to say on that. It also doesn’t look like the space is designed to be kid friendly at all. he website doesn’t even have pictures of kids or kid’s spaces. (This may be an inaccurate impression, but you’d think they would mention it.)
I’ve been arguing for years that coworking spaces should ally with child care facilities. I know that this is hard, very hard. But it’s starting to happen, and it’s really important.
I’m sure I will return to this topic in the near future.
Sensei Alex Hillman, founder and key player in the Indy Hall coworking space in Philadelphia, has been discussing the importance of creating and sustaining community in a coworking space for many years.
As is well known, the Indy Hall space faced closure, but the workers stepped up to help it stay open in another location. This is a famous case of a community that outlived the space in which it was born.
Hillman also recounts that many of the members almost never use a desk. They are active, but mostly through digital and other forms of interaction and contributions.
Recently, he has asked community leaders to try to “imagine what your community would look like without a space?”
Hillman cites a “virtual coworking” community as an instructive example. Described in a guest post by leader Margo Aaron, The Arena is, basically, a digital social network, though it is very selective and deliberately exclusive . Sensei Hillman makes the point that (a) the community is the primary goal and (b) it is going to have a digital aspect.
People don’t need the “stuff” and they don’t need you (the operator), they need each other. (I think Hillman likes Aaron’s approach because he is extremely concerned with how to sustain the community—i.e., how to get people to pay for the important things, rather than the unimportant “stuff”.)
Turning this point around, let’s ask, If we can create digital communities, and they work, then what is the workspace for?
In my observation, there seems to be a desire for physical spaces, and they seem to be a lot more than just a desk and bandwidth.
My own view is that at least some workers, some of the time, crave face-to-face interactions. Desperately. Even if most of the work and even most of the collaboration happens on-line, there is still something crucial about talking to a real human. A “respite from our Isolation”. 
Not to mentions hugs.
The experience of Indy Hall and similar cases also suggests that a physical space can be a catalyst (as Senseis Angel and Beth called it ), bringing people together in a way that they can discover connections and get to know each other. The result can be a community that extends beyond the four walls, and can outlive the space itself.
This is an interesting and probably useful image to keep in mind. Think about the physical workspace as the kitchen where you want to mix and heat ingredients to create something much more than a warmer mixture. You want to make a delicious meal, that everyonw will enjoys together. (OK, OK, cooking and eating your fellow workers is a bit cannibalistic, but you get the point.)
What is Coworking? It’s still mainly about community, community, community.