My Book Is Obsolete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.

Online labor markets let people be people

Contemporary freelancing—at least, pre-COVID—has been enabled by digital technology which enables remote work and collaboration.  Freelancers also participate in online labor markets, such as Task Rabbit and Fiverr.  These services matchmake between workers and hirers at a relatively fine grained, task-by-task level.

This technology automates and standardizes the hiring process, collecting descriptions, histories, and evaluations of workers to feed the hiring decision.  In principle, these datasets are level playing fields, with every worker treated the same, and uniform processes across all gigs.

What could possibly go wrong?

(“People” is what could possibly go wrong.)

This month, Nahla Davies writes about her own experience on these platforms which is not that different from a lot of other work and hiring experiences [1].  <<link>> The technology may be “color blind”, but the people using it sure aren’t.

Gosh. Who’d a thunk it?

There isn’t a lot of solid research on these platforms, but some studies show that hiring, pay, and evaluations may well be skewed in favor of white males [2]. The evaluations matter a lot, because these can strongly influence getting future gigs.  And while the differences may be small, in a crowded market even a slight disadvantage can be disastrous.  And with pay at the edge of a living wage, even slight pay discrepancies can make the difference between success and failure.

Davies backs up the limited research with her own observations.  She perceives that non-white workers receive lower evaluations, which ultimately hinders their ability to get gigs, and the pay offered.

In addition, hirers act like bosses everywhere.  They talk down and man-splain to experienced professionals and, worse, hire, as Davies puts it, as “part of a reputation management attempt”.

“I’ve been asked, for instance, to be “the face” of some employers … so they can fairly transparently prove their progressive credentials.”


Now, as Davies says, we can’t really expect online platforms to cure racism, sexism, and blockheadedness.

But I agree with her that it’s not OK for the platforms to wash their hands and do nothing to protect their workers from patently unfair (not to mention unreasonable) outcomes.  If nothing else, this is a waste of human resources, which is the main product of these platforms.

Davies suggests collecting demographic information to document this kind of bias.  She also speculates on using some kind of algorithmic corrections.  The former would make it easier to document the outcomes, if nothing else.  I’d be surprised if the latter would actually make things better, and could easily make things much worse.

She also suggests changes to the decision making, including more transparency about pay and wider participation in the hiring decisions.  These are probably good ideas in any case.  And it seems to me that a digital hiring platform is well placed to enable such modifications.  In fact, why doesn’t the platform offer an array of decision-making processes, in the same way that it offers an array of gigs and workers?

I would add a suggestion that the platform should let workers rate the platform results, similar to how employers are allowed to rate workers.  I.e., if the platform is giving biased outcomes, the workers should be able to ding it, or its processes.  Maybe this should trigger lower fees to the platform, or something like that.  If the platform does nothing to help workers, the fees should be lower than when it serves their interests, no?

Freelancing it hard enough, I hate to see these “level playing fields” making things even harder for some workers.

  1. Nahla Davies, Black freelancers face discrimination on online hiring platforms, in Freelancers Union Blog, August 24, 2020.
  2. Anikó Hannák, Claudia Wagner, David Garcia, Alan Mislove, Markus Strohmaier, and Christo Wilson, Bias in Online Freelance Marketplaces: Evidence from TaskRabbit and Fiverr, in Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. 2017, Association for Computing Machinery: Portland, Oregon, USA. p. 1914–1933.