Book Review: “Out of Office” by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

Out of Office by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen

I’ve been looking at the New Way of Work for a while now, particularly the development of coworking spaces, along with the overall gig economy and remote working.

This new book is a response to the sudden, unplanned pandemic-induced experiment in mass remote working.  Millions of office workers were suddenly required to work from home, ready or not.  And mostly we weren’t ready.

I’ve pontificated on this topic myself, so, yeah, this is something I kind of had to read.

Warzel and Petersen’s basic findings are sort of a mash up of Why We Gather, How To Do Nothing, and The Sum of Us.

So–no real surprises here to anyone who is paying attention.

Though, I must say that none of those books above were sold as business advice, or as “the future of work”, which W & P seems to be.  So it’s interesting to see W & P tie these themes together in a book of business advice about the future of work.

First of all, the authors discovered that this isn’t really about remote work, per se.  It’s about how people work.

“The true issue at hand is not where we will work but how we will work.” (p. 232)

The main theme throughout is that work is broken, and that “flexibility”—at home or not—has generally come to mean working all the time.  This is bad for workers, obviously, and for families and communities. W & P argue that it’s mostly bad for organizations, too. 

This book is a useful survey of the ways that “flexible” work is broken.  Even after decades in the workforce, I learned stuff, including the terms “Hustle Porn” (p. 86) and “LARPing your job” (p. 169).  (These have nothing to do with “gamification”, although, worst case, I guess they could.)

But it’s hard to break out of these patterns, to get off “the treadmill” of continuous, precarious, work.

“We are trying to get off the treadmill so we can remember all the purpose and dignity that can come from the whole of our lives.” ( p. 239)

W & P argue that real flexible work means working less, not working more.  And workers must be allowed to choose when and how to work. 

Achieving this requires guardrails: real rules and norms that prevent “flexible” from becoming “infinite” work.  This also requires trust, between workers and managers, and among workers.  We have to trust each other to get things done well, in the ways they choose, without penalties for taking time for other things.

What do W & P  have to tell us about the future of coworking?

From W & P’s POV, much of the coworking and freelancing propaganda is definitely the wrong stuff

‘Flexibility’ (e.g., renting a bare bones desk by the hour) that mainly enables more work rather than less work is bad for workers, bad for everyone.  From this  point of view, freelancing is mostly the wrong thing for workers, organizations, and society.  The whole gig economy is the logical end of a long history of negative trends.

On the other hand, as I have consistently argued, real coworking is about community, which is mostly the right stuff.  Especially when the solidarity is real, not just rhetorical cover for reduced pay, benefits, and security.

On the other other hand, a coworking community may or may not be connected to the wider surrounding community.  To the degree that coworking communities are self-selected groups of people with similar interests (which is a big part of why workers like them), they are hardly representative of all workers, let alone everyone living in the area. So that’s not good. 

The book discusses the rise of “Zoom Towns”, including the rather lavishly intentional Tulsa project which curated and paid workers to move to Tulsa to work remotely.  (I had not heard of this project.)

It is important to note that, while coworking spaces were involved in Tulsa, and were probably very valuable to some workers, they were only a tiny, relatively insignificant part of the overall effort. Most of the work went into selection of candidates, housing, child care, connecting to non-work activities, and so on. Working at home or in a coworking space or any other workspace was nearly irrelevant to the big picture.

At the moment, it’s still far from clear how coworking mixes into the ‘hybrid’ organizations emerging.  Obviously, remote workers might benefit from working in a coworking space at least some of the time. 

But what happens when your company selects and assigns you to a coworking space?  This is increasingly popular. Is this anything other than a poorly resourced satellite office?  

And to the degree that the worker participates in the culture of his or her local coworking space, they are not participating in the culture of their own organization.  Is this dual loyalty good or bad for workers and  organizations?  I dunno.

In any case, a coworking space, per se, hardly addresses the issues of guardrails and the flexibility to not work.  There are no guardrails in coworking, and the trust, if any, is between otherwise unaffiliated co- workers, not within working groups. 

So, coworking as conventionally designed seems largely irrelevant to W & P’s program to improve work and life.

Hmm.  I didn’t expect that.

  1. Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, New York, Alfred A. Knopft, 2021.

My Book Is Obsolete

This blog has slowed to a crawl this year.

The pandemic has been a brutal blow to the global economy, and no sector has been hit any harder than coworking.  A coworking space has only one business, bringing workers together in a face-to-face community.  And that’s the one thing that just isn’t safe to do.

In addition, the customers of coworking spaces, freelancers and independent workers, have been pounded by the shutdown.  And, worse, these independent workers generally work at home part of the time, so they are positions to WAH 100% if needed.  So the customers of coworking spaces are uniquely prepared to forgo the service for extended periods.

Coworking spaces have closed, and many will never reopen.

All this means that my book, “What is Coworking?” (2018) [1] is pretty thoroughly obsolete.

“What is Coworking?”  It’s over, is what it is.

What’s Next?

Okech on VR for Freelancers

I’ve been using Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality for decades now, so I was particularly intrigued by Derick Okech article, “How virtual reality can make freelancing even better” [1].

As Okech points out, VR is cheap and ubiquitous now, available to home workers and individual freelancers.  So, VR technology is available for innovation, including for remote work and freelance.

OK—I’ll bite.  What can freelancers do with VR?

Okech basically tells us that freelancers can do what anybody can do:  have fun and learn stuff.  He phrases this in operational terms,  suggesting that you can fight writers block, inspire new ideas, learn stuff, and fight boredom.

Try virtual reality today, and see how it inspires creativity, knocks down constant burnout, and improves the way you discover and develop content.

This all makes sense, though it isn’t exactly unique to freelance work. The same benefits would accrue to any creative worker.

However, Okech suggests that VR experiences can help fight loneliness and isolation, significant challenges for freelancers.  And with in-person coworking severely restricted, these will be bigger problems than ever.

Of course, everyone is using 2D digital media to meet and talk and work together.  The idea is that VR is different and, presumably better.

Well, maybe.

Honestly, I don’t know if VR fights loneliness and isolation or not.  For one thing, there are plenty of solo VR experiences and these can be, well, really lonely and isolated.  For another, multi-person VR is pretty iffy, at least in my own experience.  Is a digital conversation in a 3D immersive environment more compelling than a 2D video conference?  I dunno.

In fact, I would expect different people will have different preferences.  So, who knows?

Freelancers should explore technology for sure.  It’s certainly a way to share certain kinds of information, such as 3D models or spaces.

But watch out—the other stuff Okech talks about is basically goofing off.  You can call it “fighting writers block”, bit playing a video game is still playing a video game. : – )

  1. Derick Okech, How virtual reality can make freelancing even better, in Freelancers Union Blog, October 27, 2020.

Noah Rue on Freelancing Full Time

One of the attractions of freelance work is the flexibility to work as much as you want.  There are many workers who freelance part time, perhaps alongside conventional employment.  But freelancing as your sole source of income is a big step.  Many workers find independence and fulfillment, but it can be a tough road.

This fall Noah Rue suggests four questions to consider before you take the “leap” [1].  He asks four very personal questions:

These are great questions.

“What Are You Trying to Accomplish?”
“Are You Ready to Separate Your Personal and Business Lives?”
“Do You Have a Short- and Long-Term Financial Plan?”
“Are You Emotionally Prepared?”

(From [1])

On the first question, Rue warns that going independent out of boredom or to escape an undesirable gig could be a mistake.  Full time freelancing is hard work with plenty of boring and undesirable stuff.  It’s not utopia.

The second question is not about work-life balance, though that will be a challenge.  What he is talking about is essentially incorporating yourself, to create a clear separation of accounting for work and personal.  This includes opening bank accounts, filing paperwork, and stuff like “paying yourself”.   This amounts to a lot of “unglamorous, unpaid activities that come along with the money-making stuff.

Plan?  I don’t need no steeking plan!  In addition know why you want to freelance, you need to understand how you are going to make it work.  What expenses do you have to meet, how much money do you need, where will the money come from and go to?  When you go independent there is no one other than you to handle all this stuff.

And finally, are you prepared to actually do it.  Sell yourself.  Face rejection and conflict.  Long hours.  Ideally, you’ve done some freelancing so you have some experience.  But when you are 100% in and you lose a big gig, that’s disastrous and potentially psychologically crippling.  And you have to get really good at selling yourself, and also making good deals.  It takes skill and discipline and a certain amount of thick skin.

The reader may detect that my own answers to these questions are pretty much “no way in the world”.  I have never been tempted to “leap” to freelancing, and I think Rue’s list really clarifies some of my most critical hesitations.  I had financial planning and paper work, I hate selling myself, and so on.  No wonder I haven’t wanted to go independent!

Now, Rue phrases this move as a choice, “If you decide to go full-time”.  Unfortunately, many freelancers can’t get enough gigs to be full time living wage.  And others might have lost other jobs and have nothing other than freelancing to earn money.  And, of course, in many industries, conventional employment is nearly impossible to find, so freelancing is the only option.

So I sincerely hope that you do have a choice in the matter.

But even for those who are forced by circumstances to go freelance, Rue offers some sensible guidelines for things you’ll want to do and do well.

  1. Noah Rue, 4 questions to ask before you begin freelancing full-time, in Freelancers Union Blog, September 24, 2020.

What Should Coworking Become? Bring Your Own Cubicle?

Is this “The End of Open Plan Coworking Spaces”?

Most coworking spaces offer open plan office spaces.  (Tellingly, other options usually cost extra—the clearest possible indication of the relative value of open office space.)

Unfortunately, sharing a table with strangers is pretty much the worst possible thing to do during the pandemic.  Most coworkers work at home some of the time, so I’m sure that many have transitioned to working at home almost completely, even if their coworking space is open (which a lot are not).

If workers ever needed a respite from our isolation [1], we need it now. So what can be done?

The Global Coworking Un Conference (GCUC) folks have been seeking solutions (mostly through virtual connections). 

This fall they are promoting a gadget that might help.  As in many retail settings, the idea is to add a transparent screen, so coworkers can be near each other but not breathing on each other [1].

To me, this is basically a DIY kit for converting an open plan desk into a (cruddy) cubicle. Is this a step backwards? 

I.e., both the hardware and the safety protocols that go with it must surely negate much of the benefits of the open plan coworking. 

No hugging.  Very limited “looking over the shoulder”.  No standing around in the break area.  Heck, there may be no break areas.  So, basically, very, very limited coworking.

Still, needs must.  Even this limited social interaction may be better than nothing, and may help us get through this very bad two years.

Now, I personally still wouldn’t go into a coworking space, screens or not.  Indoor safety depends a lot on the air flow.  In a big room with shared tables, we’re probably all sharing each others’ used air and touching the same surfaces. That’s not safe, and these spit guards don’t do anything at all to change the air circulation or clean the air or surfaces.  So, these screens are really not that useful.

The bad news is that really good internal air quality is hard to achieve and generally very expensive, and cannot be reverse engineered into an existing building. The odds that a given coworking space has really good air are slim.

I guess the good news is that a large open plan space could be relatively safe, provided you keep the number of occupants low—and they don’t get close to each other.

So, you probably can think about entering a coworking space, but only a few at a time.  But it really cannot provide most of the critical social interactions that are the vital, beating heart of coworking communities. 

It’s going to be a hard two years for coworkers and coworking operators.

I don’t really know what things will look like on the other side.

  1. GCUC, CoScreen by GCUC, in GCUC Community – Shop, September, 2020.
  2. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014.