The Future of Work is Independent
There is so much talk these days about The Future of Work, but I don’t really know what is happening with all that theory, speculation, and conversation. I don’t know how it applies to the masses.
On one hand, there are the intellectuals who are positing what our economy and workforce will look like in 5, 10, 25 years. On the other hand, there are business leaders who are talking about how they believe in remote work, flexible work, “bringing your whole self” work, and human-centered workplaces that take care of people and their needs as they arise, instead of treating them like resources to be managed.
I’m guilty of both tracks, and I’d like to continue my thought explorations of what work could look like in the future. And for me, the future is the next 5-15 years. Beyond that it’s tough to predict. I may end up writing about that some time, but for now I’d like to keep it to a more realistic vision of what I believe is to come, instead of painting a broad, “it doesn’t feel real”-type vision for 25-75 years from now.
When I look at myself, and my past four years of independent work, I can pick out quite a few trends.
Independent workers have many different labels
One, I have met SO MANY PEOPLE who are independently working in one way or another. Whether as a freelancer, consultant, coach, business owner, entrepreneur — the number of people I’ve met who are “doing their own thing” is astounding.
Independent workers find support through online communities
Two, I have found my way into many online communities of people who are in these roles and working in an independent manner. Examples:
- Leapers is a community of people supporting those who are making active decisions about the future of their work. It's full of support, camaraderie, and honest conversation about the challenges of working independently.
- Independent.work is another community of freelancers, designed to operated independently from the big tech platforms, and in service of people connecting with one another—because this life is hard!
- The Hoxby Collective provides consultancy and agency services for clients around the world by tailoring teams based on the work to be delivered. They're not an agency or consultancy, but a networked collective of professionals coming together to meet client needs.
- The Fawnbrake Collective is a new operating system for brands to find better ideas and smarter strategies by once again turning to a collective pool of independent talent.
I’m sure there are dozens if not hundreds more, but for now I’ll leave the list at that. I find it pretty incredible to see so many opportunities for independent professionals to engage with and support one another. Some groups are more active and intentional than others, but each provides a space for the person who is out there on their own, alone and isolated, yet full of ambition and desire to live their life on their terms.
Gig worker, freelancer, contractor, consultant, whatever
Three, there’s a lot of conversation about the gig economy. Is it good? Is it bad? Do workers like it? Are they taken advantage of? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get that many plus one different answers. I’ll differentiate “gig economy” workers from “independent professionals” because I see the gig worker as one who finds their work through platforms like Uber/Lyft, Fiverr/Upwork, Instacart, TaskRabbit, Postmates, and all the other platforms that connect consumers with the things they need, from groceries to transport to services performed around the house.
The difference I see between these gig platforms and the independent professional is that the people working the “gigs” are technically working for the platform, and not for themselves. Yes, they may work their own hours, and yes, they may be a contractor (that’s a whole other conversation we can have some time), but they are still getting their check from the larger corporation of Instacart or Uber, and not from a client or their own creative endeavors.
Differences aside, the similarities between the two are important to note as well, because both represent a model that may become the model in 5-10 years.
Both models allow a person to take control of their time, which is arguably what people who work independently want most: control over how they spend their time.
And in both of these models, you do your work when you want. With Lyft you can clock in/out whenever you want. As a product creator you can work on your product whenever you want. If you have freelance clients you can do ops in the morning and creative in the evening, and have your whole day open to whatever.
Alternatively, maybe you’re freelancing within an agency, and you need to be on-site from 8a-6p. That’s more like a temp employee disguised as a freelancer, and it’s where I started my journey towards independence, but it’s not the model I would like for my future.
You can't run from what's inevitable
I’m sure there are many more points to cover when looking at the future of work and what it means for the independent worker and professional. However, the big takeaway I want to leave you with is that this is happening, and whatever role you fill and whatever job you have, you should consider how this growing trend affects you and your business.
- If you’re a business owner who is regularly hiring people, what happens when the best talent is all independent, yet you’re requiring them to fit into the 9-5 full-time employee model?
- If you’re an agency who regularly employs freelancers, do you have helpful processes and policies to bring that person into your culture and help them feel welcome while finding ways to support them in doing their best work? I say this because most of the agencies I’ve “freelanced” at have been HORRIBLE with their handling of me as a third party. They just don’t understand the difference between me and an FTE, which would actually cause some problems in the way we got our work done. There weren’t clear guidelines, the team members I worked with had no idea of my scope of work, so they’d try to throw me everything and when I would push back it would cause rifts, and I never really felt like a part of the team, especially when I was standing around during a company’s celebratory “look at how much we’ve grown as a company!” gathering one day.
- If you’re a team lead or functional manager, are you doing what you can to create a positive, uplifting, engaged team that’s high-performing and offering better value to your employees than they could get if they went out on their own?
- If you’re an executive overseeing a department and in a position of power and authority, what are you doing to create a culture and environment where your people feel empowered to make decisions, take risks, experiment, and continuously steer the organization forward? Or are you commanding them to do things your way and removing their sense of agency and autonomy? — two things that absolutely come along when one becomes an independent worker.
Now is the time to be thinking about how you can adapt yourself, and your business, to better interact with the growing independent workforce.
I share all this and ask these questions because this has been on my mind for a while and I feel it’s valuable for people to explore what the future of work could look like for you, as a human, and not the collective us, as a society. The actions we take and choices we make as individuals are what will determine the societal evolution into “the future of work.”
I’m sure I’ll write more on this, but for today, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts to explore on your own time:
- What are you doing to prepare yourself, or your team, or your organization for a future where people are making active decisions about how, when, and where they do their work?
- If you run a business or team, how might you find ways to work with people who want to work on their terms?
- If you are, or want to be, an independent professional, what do you think you need in order to continue to build the career and life you want to have?
- In both scenarios, how might we all learn to work together so that everyone’s needs are being met, and we’re coming together to collaborate in fresh, fun, and exciting ways?
The future is not yet written, so nobody knows what it looks like.
The beauty of it is, we can actively create what we want.
We just need to be intentional about it.