Freelancers and the shifting foundations of work

Last week I read — and was influenced by — the oDesk Spring Online Work Survey (see ODesk Spring 2013 Online Work Survey is out), especially the data related to freelance work. The survey was directed at self-selected freelancers, so the results are not impartial.

What the results show is that freelancers view the freelancer model of work as being a way to be independent and entrepreneurial. Seventy-two percent of the freelancers who work in a full-time job (perhaps freelancing on the side, or in the past) would like to be entirely independent, and 61 percent say they likely will be within two years. Eighty-nine percent said they prefer to work where and when they choose.

It would seem that companies that would like to retain these employees could do themselves good if they at least allowed people the option to work where and when they choose. However, the traditional closed business model wants people in the office 9-to-5, for a mixture of reasons. But building a business ethos out of how easy it is to call a meeting at the last minute is pretty strange. Alternatively, companies may want their employees in the office so they can be monitored. This is part of the Theory X thinking still prevalent in many businesses.

via Wikipedia

“In this theory, which has been proven counter effective in most modern practice, management assumes employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can and that they inherently dislike work. As a result of this, management believes that workers need to be closely supervised and comprehensive systems of controls developed. A hierarchical structure is needed with narrow span of control at each and every level. According to this theory, employees will show little ambition without an enticing incentive program and will avoid responsibility whenever they can. According to Michael J. Papa, if the organizational goals are to be met, theory X managers rely heavily on threat and coercion to gain their employees’ compliance. Beliefs of this theory lead to mistrust, highly restrictive supervision, and a punitive atmosphere. The Theory X manager tends to believe that everything must end in blaming someone. He or she thinks all prospective employees are only out for themselves. Usually these managers feel the sole purpose of the employee’s interest in the job is money. They will blame the person first in most situations, without questioning whether it may be the system, policy, or lack of training that deserves the blame. A Theory X manager believes that his or her employees do not really want to work, that they would rather avoid responsibility and that it is the manager’s job to structure the work and energize the employee.”

Douglas McGregor came up with Theory X, and the more enlightened twin, Theory Y, as a way of characterizing management polarization with employees.

In any case, I ascribe the desires of freelancers to become independent as one half desiring the personal autonomy and entrepreneurial opportunities of being a freelancer, and the other half is a prison break from Theory X stress factories.

The survey got me to reflect on the nature of more open businesses, ones where people are working out of a desire to cooperate toward overlapping ends, and I happened upon a story about the Pop Up Agency experiment:

The agency is made up of six creative students who take up residency at companies or agencies for 48 hours and rapidly develop a new concept or strategy, then get back on the train or plane and head for the next pop-up gig. They do not charge for their time, which works out to about four days of work for each gig, but they do require travel and living expenses. This is just an experiment – they are on tour right now, working 15 weeks in 15 countries — but it demonstrates a general concept, nonetheless.

That story made me recall an idea I had a few years ago, if businesses were more open, people might just show up and start working there. This isn’t really “just showing up,” since the group makes arrangements with the companies in advance, but it is indicative of new ways for cooperative work to take place.

I also explored the Two Factor Theory of job satisfaction, which was proposed by Frederick Herzberg, an investigation again sparked by the sense that freelancers want to be free of the constraints and dissatisfaction of the traditional, closed workspace. Herzberg’s insight was that job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction were not two ends of a single spectrum but were actually two independent factors, each influenced by different aspects of the job. In brief, people’s job satisfaction is driven by personal considerations: challenging work, responsibility, autonomy, and the respect of others, while job dissatisfaction is principally tied to shared, community concerns, like working conditions, management style, low salaries, poor benefits, and so on. My bet is that freelancers can decrease job dissatisfaction by being able to pick and choose who to work with and to minimize time spent there, and they likewise increase job satisfaction because they immediately have significantly increased autonomy, and they increase the number of coworkers with whom they can more quickly gain mastery of their discipline. At least they can potentially do so.

So a large degree of thinking and writing last week about freelancers and the shifting nature of work. This was reflected in part by my last post last week, “Beyond social: the rise of the emergent business,” in which I propose that trying to discuss the changing contours of today’s business only through the lens of “social” is too limiting and undervalues the impact of other forces at play in today’s business environment, like ubiquitous computing (“mobile”), the 3D workforce (distributed, decentralized, and discontinuous), and the fast-and-loose style of business, including the rise of freelancing. These forces are interrelated, and the complex system that arises has emergent properties, because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So I am going to be talking about the emergent business moving forward, not the social business. In my thinking, social should no longer be pursued as an independent goal separately but only one of a complex of practices and technologies that have to be balanced and applied in concert for any real advantage to be gained.

Other doings in the growing freelance economy included the news that Work Market, a freelance labor “placeform” (marketplace +  platform = placeform) raised $10 million in additional capital to continue its expansion.

In somewhat related news, the new Sharepoint Online services — including a closer integration with Yammer — were announced ( New Sharepoint Online services are “coming soon”), BlackBerry has finally announced BBM will be supported on iOS and Android this summer, and Yahoo will be acquiring Tumblr in a 100 percent cash deal for $1.1 billion dollars. The last story is the least connected to the major themes of last week, but I hypothesized that someone — Yahoo? — might decide that a “Tumblr for the enterprise” might be the next advance in coworking tools (see Yahoo rumored to be in negotiations to buy Tumblr), since Yammer was initially positioned as “Twitter for the enterprise.”

 

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst, future of work Gigaom Research and stoweboyd.com

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