Category Archives: “The Future of Work”

What is Coworking? It can be impactful

In recent years, coworking has come to be associated with a very corporate mind set, seen as part of “the hospitality industry” or the “Service Office Industry”.  The rapacious, debt-fueled expansion of WeWork has become the most visible face of Coworking.

But the truth is that coworking can be, has been, and still is organized in many different ways [2].  Coworking operations are organized as for profit, non-profits, not-entirely-for-profit.  Coworking spaces are organized as independent businesses, as franchises, and embedded in other organizations.  Coworking is even done in living rooms and other informal settings.  (For more on this, see perhaps Chapter 4 of “What is Coworking?” [2].)

In fact, the current highly corporate vibe belies the peer-to-peer, community development spirit of early coworking, clearly reflected in the Coworking Manifesto [1].  The “Coworking Movement”, loosely inspired by open source software, is about workers banding together to reinvent the future of work, improve cities, and bootstrap a new, sustainable economy.

“We are reshaping the economy and the society through social entrepreneurship and innovation. Our communities are coming together to rebuild more human scale, networked, and sustainable economies to build a better world.

“We are the world coworking movement!” (from [1])

This vision is hard to discern in something like WeWork, which “offers companies of all sizes the opportunity to reimagine employees’ days through refreshing design, engaging community, and benefits for all.” (quoted from WeWork website).

Regardless of conferences or corporartions, coworking still is whatever workers want to make it.

This summer Ruby Irene Pratka writes for Sharable about coworking spaces that “positively impact local communities” [3].  Not just low cost, on-demand workspace, these organizations connect with their local community “by launching scholarship programs, offering space for local groups, and hosting public lectures.”

Her list is:

  1. AllGoodWork — New York City, New York
  2. Co+hoots — Phoenix, Arizona
  3. The Coven — Minneapolis, Minnesota
  4. The Beahive— Beacon, New York
  5. Spacecubed— Perth, Western Australia
  6. 312 Main— Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

These examples are mostly, but not all, non-profits, and they have quite a variety of participants.  It is telling that in the write up most of them view their coworkers as a “typical” coworking community, though they are pretty diverse in many dimensions, reflecting their different locations.  (The major exception is The Coven in Minneapolis, which is self-described a community of women and non-binary identified workers—their work is probably “typical”, if not the demographics.)

The common thread is that all of these organizations have a major focus on having a positive impact on their local area. This means different things to each, but obviously goes far beyond “reimagining employees’ days”, to reimagining a better world outside the doors.

Besides the potential good for the world that these collaborations may do, there is also an important benefit from having these contemporary workers visible and engaged with their city, especially with local kids. Kids need to know about what working is like, and to be inspired by adult examples. If coworking is where the future of work is happening, then kids (and everyone) need to know people who are doing it.

This commitment to community impact is also an asset for the both the coworking organization, and for the workers. The workers are invited to participate in a narrative about work and life, and take up a larger purpose as part of a like-minded community.  Going to the office is much more than just showing up, it’s helping make the world better.  (I’ll also speculate that when you are worried about helping other people, you are a lot less likely to be depressed.)

(For more on these ideas, see perhaps Chapter 7 and 8 of “What is Coworking?”, the book.)

  1. coworking.org. Coworking Manifesto: The Future of Work. 2012, http://coworkingmanifesto.com/.
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking” A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community. (in preparation), self, 2017. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.com/
  3. Ruby Irene Pratka (2018) These 6 groups are showing how coworking spaces can positively impact local communities. Sharable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/these-6-groups-are-showing-how-coworking-spaces-can-positively-impact-local-communities

 

What is Coworking?


Hey, hey!  My new book “What is Coworking?” is (finally) available at online stores.

Check it out

 

Tracking the Gig Economy

This month the US Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its first ever report on “Contingent and Alternative Employment”, AKA, “The Gig Economy” [2]. The BLS survey found a relatively small proportion (circa 10%) of US workers are “contingent”.  This number contrasts sharply with the most widely reported number to date from the Freelancers Union, which claimed over 30% of the US workforce, including more than 60% of “millennials”.

In an earlier posts, I criticized the FU survey for its overly broad definition of “worker”.  (For example, they count people who have a full time job and moonlight as “freelance workers”—which is at least double counting, if not conceptually wrong.)  My own reading of the FU survey gave numbers not that different from the BLS survey, when I excluded some of the categories I questioned.

The new official survey suffers from the same problem of definitions.  Who should count as a “contingent” worker? The relatively low numbers of contingent workers reported by the BLS in part stems from their restricted definition of who should be counted in this classification.  The BLS does not count moonlighters (which I think is correct).  They also appear to not count independent workers who are employed as “sub contractors”, e.g., of an employment service.  These workers really should be counted as freelancers, in my opinion.  And so on.

Caitlin Pearce of the Freelancers Union (which produced the earlier reports) raises these and other issues [1].  She also points out that the BLS survey specifically asked workers for how they worked in the last week, which might well will miss many workers with irregular schedules.

Pearce (and the FU survey) argue that “diversified” workers, i.e., people with multiple jobs, should be counted as independent workers.  The FU tends to count them as freelancers, no matter what their mix of work is.  (They project that more than half of all workers will be “freelancing” soon—though since this includes more than one part time job per worker, this number is hard to interpret.)  The BLS is probably biased to counting workers only once, generally for their “steadiest” job.   (This would seem to include at most one job per worker, which does not capture the real diversity of independent work.)

Clearly, there is a tricky counting problem here that deserves some thought.  In particular, there needs to be some concept of “an adequate income”, regardless of how many separate contracts or days of work a given worker puts in to achieve it.

Overall, it looks to me like the BLS and FU surveys are fairly consistent on the fundamentals.  The contracting headlines reflect different decisions about how to classify and count workers.  These differences stem from the reality that independent or contingent working is a complicated way of work.

And I completely agree with Pearce that getting a clear picture is important.

Building a better future for freelancers starts with learning as much as we can who freelancers are and what challenges they face.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The government must do more to understand the freelance workforce, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/06/13/the-government-must-do-more-to-understand-the-freelance-workforce/
  2. US Departmen of Labor, Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements Summary. Economic News Release, 2018. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/conemp.nr0.htm

 

Seldon on AI and the Future of Work

Sensei Tyra Seldon generally has her head screwed on right.   I hate to disagree with her, especially since she is usually right [here, here, here, here, here, here].

But this month she blogged about AI and the job market [3].  Don’t be afraid, “The future won’t be automated,” she says.

Uh, oh.

Actually, I’m afraid it will be.

Of course, Sensei Seldon is hardly naïve.  She knows that digital technology (AI or otherwise) has and will continue to change life and work.

One point she wants to make is that being afraid of these changes isn’t the right approach.

“There is no need to panic, but there is a need to be prepared.“

She draws lessons from industrial automation.  Panic, denial or resistance isn’t effective.  Embrace and make the best of new technology.

“Many of my friends in the automotive industry have shared with me that the key to their job security isn’t competing with technology, but it is learning how to leverage technology more effectively to accomplish an end goal.”

Seldon herself works with words, and hopes to continue to get paid to work with words. Taking this model of auto workers, the question is, what will AI be able to do, and what will humans be able to do better than–and alongside–AI?

Seldon argues that “there are certain things that AI cannot do and that revolves around uniquely human traits that make us, well, human.”  In short, we puny Carbon-based entities should understand their own strengths, and let our Silicon-based masters do the rest.

What are humans uniquely good at?  Seldon quotes Frida Polli, to say “Creativity. Empathy. Compassion. These are uniquely human traits that no AI guru is claiming are going to be automatable anytime soon.”

Here I have to disagree, at least partly.  Our intuitions about what can and can’t be automated have proved to be wildly inaccurate over and over again. Personally, I still don’t believe that it is possible for computers to generate and understand speech.  But they do.

Depending on the definitions and context, there is no reason why digital systems might not provide adequate “empathy” and “compassion”.  They already are giving puny mortals a run for the money in “creativity”, at least in certain contexts.

Basically, I never bet against AI.


So let’s refine this thought.  I think the thing that AI can’t match is embodied intelligence, and face-to-face interaction.  On the internet, noone can tell if you are a dog, a human, or an AI.  In the flesh, everyone can tell, and everyone cares about the differences.

The implication is, whatever you do, make it personal and, to the degree possible, in person.  Match that, Siri!

So: don’t try to compete with computers for speed or price or even language skills; but do try to challenge them on being there, right now, in person.

Unfortunately, there is another aspect of this issue, and that is the “making a living” part of it. Whatever the competencies of humans, can they be monetized or otherwise turned into food and shelter?  It’s not just what can humans do that computers can’t, it’s what can humans do and get paid for in a decent way?

Here, the challenge is capitalism, not technology.  And here, you should be afraid.  Siri isn’t after your job, but Apple sure is. It’s nothing personal, they’re just interested in the money. All the money.

This is why there needs to be a Freelancers Union and other efforts (such as Platform Cooperativism [1, 2].)


The future will be automated.  The question is, how will we run the future.


  1. Trebor Scholz, Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: New York Office, New York, 2016. http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/platform-cooperativism-2/
  2. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, eds. Ours to Hack and Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A new Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. OR Books: New York, 2017.
  3. Tyra Seldon, AI and the job market: Why we shouldn’t be afraid, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/05/16/ai-and-the-job-market-why-we-shouldnt-be-afraid/

 

Disclosure:  I have been a client with Seldon Writing Group in the past year.  Opinions expressed here are my own.

What is Coworking? It Can Be On A Co-op Plan

There are many ways to organize and operate a coworking space.  (See my new book, “What is Coworking?” [2])

These days, things have become awfully corporate feeling, and it is hard to remember the early days of coworking, which was much more of a worker owned enterprise.

The fact is, coworking spaces have been successfully run not just as for-profit companies, but also as not-just-for-profit, non-profit, embedded in other enterprises (e.g., libraries), and around kitchen tables.

And a coworking space can also be operated as a worker owned cooperative.

This month Cat Johnson reports on Coworking Niagara, “the only English-speaking coworking co-op in Canada” [1].   The workers who use the space are coowners of the space. Actually, paying members own the space, however much they use it.

Founder Trevor Twining indicates that the choice of a coop reflected the desire for mutual commitment. However, “cooperative” does not have to mean “non-profit.”

In the interest of financial sustainability, CN is organized as a for profit cooperative. This requires seeking income to sustain the space, which has led them to offer revenue generating services.

For profit status has both benefits and limitations.  Non-profits can have some kinds of relationships that for profit cannot (e.g., with public and other non-profits).

The main point, of course, was to align the formal governance of the space with the egalitarian spirit of the coworking community. “[W]e wanted members to not only feel like they were involved and had a say, but to actually have a say.

Twining says that a big benefit is that the members’, AKA customers’, interests are aligned with the space, and with each other.  This mutual interest strengthens this aspect of the community.

“We wanted to commit ourselves to them and we wanted them to be committed to us.”

Of course, cooperatives can be difficult to set up and operate. The legal framework is not trivial, and a patchwork across different jurisdictions.  And democratic decision making can be difficult.  On the other hand, Twining says there are generally other cooperatives in the area which are eager to cooperate.  So there is an existing ecosystem of mutual help among coops.


Is a coop a good model for running a coworking space?  Yes, for some, but not necessarily for all.

The plusses include the close alignment between the community and it’s spirit; and the operation of the facility. In particular, there won’t be a question of a corporate rake-off or other potential conflicts of interests between the management and the members.

This alignment is also a potential weakness. A coop is a commitment, and this may not suit every worker.  (A coop is all pigs, no chickens.) There are plenty of independent workers who desire a place to work, but not the hassle of helping run a workplace. It also may be harder to leave, or to split time with other coworking facilities. If you are part owner, you can’t walk away as easily.

A cooperative organization is not a guarantee against conflict. Indeed, a serious conflict among members will automatically be a conflict within the management, with potentially serious consequences.  We’ve all seen organizations disintegrate in factional fighting, and a coop is just as vulnerable to this, if not more so.

In the end, everything depends on the members and the leadership. In particular, with the right leadership, pretty much any formal organization will work.  And a good community will work well no matter what the paperwork says.

From what I have read, all things equal, booting up a coop is probably more work than a corporation.  But, as Twining says, “there are long-term rewards”.


  1. Cat Johnson, Bringing The Cooperative Business Model To Coworking: A Q&A With Cowork Niagara’s Trevor Twining, in allWork. 2018. https://allwork.space/2018/05/bringing-the-cooperative-business-model-to-coworking-a-qa-with-cowork-niagaras-trevor-twining/
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community, Urbana, Robert E. McGrath, 2018.

Hey, hey!  My new book “What is Coworking?” is (finally) available at online stores.

Check it out

And if you are in the area, come on out to the Book Launch, June 1.


 

What is Coworking?

What is Coworking? It’s A Book!

I’ve been blogging about coworking since at least January 2015,  and for more than a year, I’ve promised a forthcoming book, “What is Coworking?”

The wait is over!

Just in time for this year’s Global Coworking UnConference (GCUC 2018), the long awaited book is rolling out.

What is Coworking? is a new book is a look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community.

Find out more here.

It’s a gradual launch.

The paperback and ebook are available via Lulu today, and will be available through more channels in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned for local events and other updates.

 

 

What is Coworking?

Manzanedo and Trepat on “Positive Platforms”

Many people see the gig economy to be the “new way of work”, enabled by a variety of software “platforms” implementing on-demand labor markets (think ‘Uber’) (e.g., this, this, this).

Whatever the merits of this platform technology might be, it is clear that they are often not particularly beneficial for the workers or local economies.  The prospect of a future of marginal, exploitative employment is certainly problematic, and more efficient peonage is scarcely the original promise of the internet.

It is important to note, though, that these labor platforms are enabled by contemporary internet technology, but are not determined by the technology. By that I mean that there are many ways that such markets can be organized, operated, and governed while using the exact same ubiquitous digital technology.

The door is open to experimentation.

For example, the Platform Cooperativism movement proposes to use the same technology with user/worker owned cooperative models. The disrupters are easily disrupted.  “Seize the means of production“. Etc.

Platform Cooperativism is scarcely the end of the story, though.  Just what should we build from this technology?

This fall, Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat published a report for the Institute of the Future, “Designing positive platforms” [2].  Their focus is “governance”, i.e., how the operation is run, and how decisions are made. While they take internet technology as written, they believe that it can be used in “positive” ways, by which they mean positive from the point of view of the workers, i.e., those who create the value via the platform.

The gig economy runs entirely on online social platforms that connect people, knowledge, and opportunities for meaningful collaborative work.” ([2], p. 2)

What they want to do is come up with and promote concrete design principles, to transform the gig economy for the better.

By breaking down the designing of positive platform into concrete steps and actions, Manzanedo and Trepat hope to persuade more start-ups, cooperatives, nonprofits, and even corporations to integrate positive principles in their governance — and potentially transform the gig economy for the better.” [1]


They define “positive” to mean shared decision making and adequate benefits from the work.  Their approach focuses on governance, which is the design of decision making.  They break this down into three important facets ([2], p.3):

  • Ownership (property of capital and its entailed rights / accountability instead of ownership in the case of networks)
  • Value (value generation and value distribution processes within the organization)
  • Power (rights, processes and structures for decision-making)

The paper sketches five design principles (which are related and overlapping):

  1. Inclusion
  2. Participation
  3. Autonomy
  4. Recognition of the Generated Value
  5. Welfare

The report discusses examples from existing organizations, and points out known challenges.  They also highlight “positive practices”, i.e., good examples from the organizations examined.

One recurring challenge is scale. Some approaches work fine for a handful of people who can know and trust each other well.  But the approach may well break down at larger scales, where people cannot know each other.   Similarly, fully democratic decision making that works for a small group is difficult to maintain at large scale for many reasons.

Overall, I don’t think there is anything completely new here, but it is an interesting and pretty comprehensive survey of the challenges and prospects for democratic governance.

Personally, I’m not as sold on digital technology as these researchers are. There is really good reason to think that digital interactions are less personal and less pleasant than face to face.  This may or may not be an issue for governance and decision making.  I tend to think it is inherently depersonalizing and promotes many hidden biases (e.g., by privileging digital skills and amplifying some voices over others).

Nevertheless, digital technology is ubiquitous, so we need to learn how to use it well.  This report is a useful guide to start thinking about better ways to do things.


  1. Nithin Coca (2018) Institute for the Future report outlines a worker-centered design for gig economy platforms. Shareable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/report-outlines-how-gig-economy-platforms-that-takes-workers-rights-into-account
  2. Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat, Designing positive platforms: a guide for a governance-based approach. Institute For The Future, Palo Alto, 2017. http://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/ppj/DesigningPositivePlatforms_for_IFTF.pdf

 

Slow Down, Work Better?

The contemporary “Gig Economy” is said to be the New Way of Working. Freelance workers are “free” to hustle for gigs and work as much or as little as they want.

But people are still people, and work still sucks, mostly.

But workers are on their own.


It isn’t too surprising to me that both the Coworking Movement and the Freelancers Union are coming to talk about mental health.  Liz Elam includes “wellness” and dealing with loneliness as a top megatrend in coworking.

And this month, Sensei Tyra Seldon muses on “slowing down” in the Freelancers Union Blog.

I admit that my reaction to here headline, “Can slowing down make you more productive?” was, “I hope the answer is, ‘yes’?”  For one thing, going slow is definitely in my personal wheelhouse. : – )  But also, advancing faster by moving slower is a natural strength of older workers, who face brutal challenges in the gig economy.

Anyway, what Sensei Seldon is actually talking about is not so much working slower, as living simpler.  In particular, she’s talking about turning it off.

She starts with the ubiquitous problem of digital distraction. Recording how she spends her time yielded alarming results: lot’s of activity, much of it irrelevant.

Whereas I thought my 60-hour weeks were signs of my being a dedicated entrepreneur and being uber productive, this reality check proved otherwise.

She did the obvious experiment, i.e., turning it off.  Spending more time in face-to-face conversations.  She also started to redefine “productivity”, to include “things that were meaningful and valuable”, such as meditation, prayer, and journalng.

And she liked it.

Even better, she worked better.

I don’t think I can fully go back to the person who I was


I’m not in the least surprised by Seldon’s experience.  There is a large and growing literature that tells us that constant digital engagement is bad for you in many ways. (here, here, here, here, here, here)

It is also true that one of the principle reasons that contemporary coworking was created is to deal with the need for face-to-face interactions.  Today’s workers are well connected digitally, but many are more socially isolated than ever.   It is important not just to unplug to take care of yourself, we have to take care of each other. The best way to do that is to talk face-to-face.

These problem have been around for a long time.  Working in a conventional organization is generally just as bad or worse as freelancing in this regard. In a conventional job, it isn’t easy to tell your boss that you don’t look busy because you are doing something more important than her deliverables.

The best thing here is that Freelancers actually can unplug and focus on more than being “busy”.  In this, the contemporary Gig Economy is directly attacking one of the most critical problems facing contemporary workers.  If Freelancing and Coworking end up actually helping people  live a better life, then they will be counted as great and successful innovations in working.


  1. Tyra Seldon, Can slowing down make you more productive?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/01/15/can-slowing-down-make-you-more-productive-2/