Freelancers (and Coworking) in Popular Culture?

This month, the Freelancers Union* asks “Where are all the freelance characters on TV?” [1]  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.


  1. Freelancers Union, Where are all the freelance characters on TV?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/01/06/where-are-all-the-freelance-tv-characters/

 

Leal on The Future of Work

The Freelancers Union* is all about The Future of Work.  More specifically, it is about The Future of Workers, which is something I’m very concerned about.

This is also something that I talk about a lot.  A lot!

So, I was challenged by the title of an article by Krystel Leal, “Do we really need to talk so much about the future of work?” [1]

Hmm.  What is she driving at?

First of all, she doesn’t seem to answer or even seriously address the headline question.  But she, in fact, wants to talk and keep talking about the future of work.  So I guess the answer must be “yes”.

Her main points are that (a) things continue to change rapidly, so a worker will have to be flexible and continue to adapt for her whole career, and (b) everything else is pretty much moot.

More than coworking spaces, remote work, flexible companies, or digital nomadism, the future work model boils down to one big word: adaptability.

OK, sure.

Much of what she says is hardly new, though I have to say that she seems to be projecting recent trends way too far into the future.  Saying that the “terrain” is “digital” is not really accurate now, at least in most places and for most people.  And even if “digital” work continues to be important, the specifics will probably be radically different.  (Just as for instance, we are already seeing the global Internet fragmenting into multiple national and privately run sub nets.)

But this just makes her basic point more clearly:  it’s difficult to know what skills might be needed and what opportunities (if any) might be available, even in a few years.

She does have a good point that coworking, nomadism, and other “work models” aren’t really to the point.  You can do the same work in a lot of different ways, in different workplaces, with different contractual arrangements.

The real question is, what kinds of arrangements to workers like, and how can workers have a decent life.  Some workers like digital nomadism, some prefer freelancing, different workers find community in different coworking spaces, and so on.  As long as workers have good choices and are free to choose, this is the best of all possible worlds.

But is that going to be true?  We already see that the vast majority of workers in certain sectors are freelancers. If you have the choice of freelancing or not working, that’s not much of a choice.

We have seen arrogant companies simply ignore labor laws, eliminating what little legal protections their “contractors” might have as employees.  A contract that only one side controls is not much of a contract, and this is not so much “freelancing” as piecework.

For many workers, the choice is working from home or a coworking space.  This is essentially “bring your own office”, pushing the overhead of a workspace onto the worker. If this is not compensated for, then this is simply another pay cut.  So, actually, it might well matter quite a bit whether the employer or the worker has to provide the infrastructure.


Leal has a pretty positive view of this world, which, no doubt, is what she delivers for her clients.  I’m less sanguine about this brave new world.

Bus we both think it something to keep talking about.  And I’m sure we will continue to natter on, whether you want it or not! : – )


* Disclosure:  I am a proud member of the FU.


  1. Krystel Leal, Do we really need to talk so much about the future of work?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/12/23/do-we-really-need-to-talk-so-much-about-the-future-of-work/

 

Elam on Coworking in 2020

It’s that time of the year—time for recaps and predictions for next year.  One of the pundits to watch is Sensei Liz Elam of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference.

So, what’s on Elam’s mind this year.

Looking back, she sees a lot of girls in 2019.  As in female-oriented coworking operations and the Women Who Cowork alliance.  This is part of the continuing fluorescence of what Elam calls “niche” coworking, which I would just call “coworking”.

As a founder of GCUC Elam has been caught in the cultural struggles between “authentic” coworking and the “service office industry”.  She seems to be regaining her footing this year, flatly declaring:

To be clear: 

“Flex = Space-as-a-service 

“Coworking = Focused on community 

“You choose where you land.

“To be clear, GCUC is a coworking conference.

And, by the way, “WeWork isn’t coworking

So, take that!

Elam has also been a leader in advocating that community coworking is an antidote to lonliness, and therefore is a key part of health and wellness.

For 2020, she has some generic predictions (prices will either go up or down, coworking spaces will get larger and smaller).

Sensei Elam has her own views on what will drive coworking growth in 2020, and these are classic Elam:

  1. Real Estate Costs: Coworking allows you to take it off the books

  2. Worker Disengagement: 66% of their workers are disengaged. Coworking, on the other hand, makes employees happier, healthier and more engaged.

  3. Mental Wellness: The most expensive healthcare issue for all corporations globally is the mental health crisis. If connection cures the disease of addiction then community can cure the disease of loneliness. 89% of coworkers reported being happier in a coworking space.

  4. Attracting and Retaining Talent: Gen Z not only doesn’t want to work in your dated office, they won’t. They need space that they choose.

She predicts a recession someday, which will “hurt”.  My own view is that it will hurt fast and hard, because the gig economy is basically designed to shed workers in an instant.  Coworking will dive early and sharply, and I can’t help but think that many operations will fail.

Elam argues that “community” still is “is the secret sauce of coworking” (which it always was).  She also asserts that “community” “can’t be measured, seen or touched”.  She wants to “level up”, and “figure out how to measure community”.

Excuse me.  I was an Anthropology major, and have a degree in Social Psychology.  We actually can observe and measure community.  <<Call me.>>

She also wants to “scale it [i.e., “community”] in a teachable way”.  I’m not sure what that means exactly. However, I do have to point out that “community” is something that doesn’t actually scale up.  And, for my money, I wonder why you even want to scale up.  The point of community is that you know each other, which is generally limited to 200 people or less.

IMO, the goal is to go wide, not big.  We need lots of opportunities for small, local communities (i.e., niches).

Maybe that’s what Sensei Liz is thinking, I’m not sure.


My experience has been that Elam has her head screwed on right, so everyone should pay attention to what she says.

“How long have we as an industry been explaining that WeWork isn’t coworking?”


  1. Liz Elam, Coworking Megatrend Predictions for 2020, in GCUC Blog. 2019. https://gcuc.co/coworking-megatrend-predictions-for-2020/

 

Coworking Researchers Meet In Warsaw

The Coworking Library held a “meetup” in Warsaw in November [1].  The speakers discussed their current research on coworking in Europe.  I’m very glad to see that coworking is (finally) attracting attention of social scientists.  I’ve been saying for a long time that there is a lot of interest here, and these investigators are taking interest.

This particular meetup was fairly informal, a sort of “what have you been working on” session, rather than refereed papers.  (There are papers associated with the research, but those are reported elsewhere.)

So what have these folks been working on?

The overall impression is that the big picture hasn’t changed.  Coworking is still about “community, community, community”.  And the reported benefits are about the same as reported many times before, including in my book.

One of the speakers (Marko Orel) discusses a taxonomy of coworking, i.e., what do people mean by the term?  As he points out, the terminology has been evolving and mutation rapidly.  And, I would add, the terms were never sharply defined in the first place.  While creative ambiguity is beneficial for marketing and Internet yapping, it is problematic for academic research.  It’s not clear that any two studies are even talking about the same thing.  I look forward to his result in the future.

Another speaker (Viktoria Heinzel) is looking at “rural” coworking, which I’ve written about.  It’s not clear from the slides how this concept is defined or which specific “rural” areas were studied.  The summary of points seems consistent with other work on the topic, including the potential for ”recruitment & return of skilled workers/ young talents”.

Anita Füzi examined what attracts workers to a specific space.  The basic finding is that social factors; i.e., “community, community, community”; are what matters most.  And she points out that “One space is not better than the other”.  As I have said many times, there is no one right way to do it.

The fourth speaker (Miryana Stancheva) explores the idea of looking at coworking spaces as “a living organism”, specifically, through the ideas or Erik Erikson.  I’ve never studied Erikson in any detail, though I am familiar with the general topic.  This approach requires applying concepts such as “ego development” to coworking.  She seems to be trying to create improved coworking communities through this analysis.

I strongly agree with the importance of a developmental model.  She also considers the development of satisfaction and happiness, not just numbers and revenue.  But, I’ll have to reserve judgement as to whether this particular interpretive framework works well.

I mean, maybe a coworking community is like a child or a family, in some ways.  But maybe not in others.  For one thing, coworkers can walk away at any time.  For another, there is usually very little hierarchy.  And for another thing, the community is usually largely self-selected.  These features probably have a major impact on both happiness and the development over time.


Overall, it is useful to have this kind of academic exchange.  Too much of the discussion of coworking is Internet-grade natter, with little attempt at academic rigor or clarity.  Me, I like footnotes.

It is unfortunate that there isn’t an equivalent effort on this side of the Atlantic.  Perhaps it would be possible to add a virtual component, for those who don’t mind video-ing in from far away.


  1. Coworking Library. Researchers Meetup Warsaw November 13 2019. 2019, https://coworkinglibrary.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Researchers-meetup-presentation-2019-Warsaw.pdf.

Making It As A Freelancer

The Freelancers Union and GCUC report that one reason that people like freelancing is because you get to work on what you want to work on, when you want, how you want.  Gig workers are free to pick their gigs, and coworkers pick their own work environments.

But gigging is hard, and, frankly, even the glass-half-full surveys of freelancers and coworkers show that the pay is short, and the hours may be long (assuming you can get the work).

Looking closely at the surveys over the years, it is clear that many of the respondents were enthusiastic newbies, happy with their first experiences. (We were all rookies once! : – ))

But I have long questioned how viable gig working will be for the long run, for a whole working lifetime.  (I discuss this in my book, “What is Coworking?“)

For this reason, I was interested to see several posts from experienced freelancers, who have rather more sanguine view of gig working.  It’s not all roses and unicorns.

To be sure, these senseis want people to freelance.  But…they have some important things to tell you.


First of all, Hannah Edmonds posts yet another discussion of time management.  (This is a perennial topic for freelancers and coworkers.)

Everyone has trouble managing their time.  One good thing about working for an organization and having a boss is that these things provide structure and other people to help enforce the structure. However, an independent gig worker is on her own [1].  Edmonds points out the need to structure your gig work, and offers tips on how to do it. This takes self-discipline, which I, for one, am not that good at.


Sensei Tyra Seldon has more tough advice:  freelancing isn’t meant to be free  [3].  In particular, gig workers need to know the value of their work, and need to charge appropriately.  Anyone who has worked with Sensei Seldon knows that she is very clear about terms of payment, and demands appropriate professional levels of compensation.

She tells us that this is “what 10 years of freelancing taught” her:  talk about money clearly and demand to be paid.  Say “no” if necessary.

I’ll note that this is another good thing about working for a conventional organization:  someone else sets the terms and compensation, and there is a contract that defines it.  There is no need to negotiate every piece of work separately, so there isn’t a need to explicitly worry about the value of each piece.

Gig workers have to make demands and get paid.  That’s not all that fun, but it is for sure necessary.


What does this mean?

Sensei Naomi Nakashima tells us that she had to learn “that it’s not enough to love what you do” [2]

It no longer felt like I was getting paid to do something I loved, it felt like I was barely scraping by. I felt underpaid and undervalued (because I was).” (From [2])

What she found is that, however much she liked what she was doing, it was necessary to earn enough to actually live.  She recounts how one of her clients refused a patently absurd low bid from her, and told her “no matter how much you love what you do, if you’re not making enough to live on it, you will end up resenting it.”

Think carefully about this.  She is telling you that getting paid isn’t just necessary for survival, it is necessary for your sanity and morale.

Sensei Nakashima’s suggestions are good advice for any job, freelance or other. I can testify that poor pay and lousy work will definitely make you hate any job, no matter how cool it might seem on paper.

She elaborates:

1) It’s not enough to enjoy what you do – you also have to enjoy the project you’re working on.

2) It needs to do more than just pay you – it needs to be worth your time.

3) It’s not enough to simply work on clients’ projects that you love – they need to help further your career in some way. (summarized from  [2])

I would say that #2 is the crux of all of this.  Freelancing might seem like a great thing, but it really must be worth your time or you’ll never survive.  This isn’t even a matter of money (though Sensei Seldon is right that you need to be paid), it’s a matter of life and death.  You only have so much time, you can’t really throw it away doing things you hate.

I would add a further bit of advice.  My own experience has shown me that the most important thing is who you are working with.  Working with good people is generally worth your time, even if it might not be perfect for other reasons.  (For example, I’ve been very happy doing unpleasant (but important) work with people I really care about.  I’ve also been happy working with good people, even when it didn’t particularly advance my career.)

I think this is one of the reasons why coworking is so valuable to many freelancers.  If you find a good coworking community, everything will be so much better because just showing up and doing your work with good people will be worth your time.


Gig working isn’t easy, and it’s not guaranteed to make you happy.  I doubt that you will get rich (at least not from the gigs).

But these experienced freelancers are here to tell you that it can be a good life, if you are disciplined and take care to do work that is worth your time.

What is Coworking?  It can be an opportunity to work with good people all the time.  And that’s a really good thing.


  1. Hannah Edmonds, How to keep freelance work from eating up your life, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/23/how-to-keep-freelance-work-from-eating-up-your-life/
  2. Naomi Nakashima, How one freelance writer figured out that it’s not enough to love what you do, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/30/why-its-not-enough-to-love-what-you-do/
  3. Tyra Seldon, Pay now or pay later: what 10 years of freelancing taught me, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/17/what-10-years-of-freelancing-taught-me-about-payment/