Category Archives: “The Future of Work”

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,
  2. Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat, Designing positive platforms: a guide for a governance-based approach. Institute For The Future, Palo Alto, 2017.


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.

Liz Elam on the Future of Coworking

Liz Elam is the visible face of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, and a major advocate for the coworking “industry”.  This fall she wrote about Coworking Megatrends for 2018.

Sensei Elam makes some interesting observations.  She gives four trends:

  • Demand (especially, large corporations)
  • WeWork (is expanding and diversifying and aggressively marketing)
  • Scarcity of Resources (especially, community leaders)
  • Health (wellness and loneliness)

Elam is excited that “15% of the SP 500 have entered the coworking world”, though I’m not really sure what all “enter” means.  One thing it means is investment in coworking in a variety of permutations, “with more brands adding in coliving, coffee shops, retail and build to suit arrangements”.

WeWork has been aggressively expanding, underselling competitors, and generally being bad neighbors.  Elam comments that they are also diversifying and “losing focus on the original workspace vision”. (I have never heard her criticize any coworking operation before this.)

She sees a “scarcity of resources”, by which she means that investors are finding a dearth of investments, “they’re not finding enough operators that are willing, and able to scale.”  (Conversely, this means that there is a glut of money available.)  The most critical resource of all is community leadership, and experienced people are “in great demand and hard to retain”.

Finally, Elam continues to emphasize wellness. She echoes the growing concern about loneliness (which, by the way, has been a problem since the invention of cities).  She points out that “Coworking is the solution” to loneliness.

In a follow up with Sensei Cat Johnson, Elam emphasizes that health is at the end because it is the most important trend. This is a trendy topic, and who isn’t in favor of “healthy”?  But she emphasizes that there needs to be a serious commitment, not just boxes checked. Operators need “to make sure nobody is actively thinking about committing suicide in your space”.

Elam also has frank words for coworking operators who face fatal competition from WeWork.

When WeWork does start to hurt you—and they will—you’ve got to be able to survive it. You just need to survive because members will come back, and they’ll come back in droves because you offer a more meaningful and smaller community…We have a very clear advantage, but you’ve got to survive to be in the game.

This is a somewhat apocalyptic vision, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this contradicts her own rosy conclusion “that Coworking will continue to thrive, evolve and take over the world.

Elam is usually a loud advocate for the coworking industry, so it is very interesting to see her rather tough critiques of the industry. Despite her often corp-speak rhetoric, she seems to understand the original and true innovation of coworking is community, community, community.

I hold that coworking was invented to deal with the isolation of independent workers, and when it works well, it probably is a “cure” for loneliness.  Implied but unsaid by Elam is the question whether piles of corporate money, branding, and diverse “services” are likely to deliver community and happiness.

My own view is that they are antithetical to authentic community, and Elam’s comments about “a more meaningful and smaller community” is telling.  So is her use of the word “We” in the next sentence.  She seems to think so, too.

One wonders what may unfold at the 2018 GCUC meeting.  Elam promises a “really frank discussion” of the WeWork threat.  But will the rest of the meeting be about authentic community, or about how to clone WeWork?

  1. Liz Elam, The Coworking Megatrends for 2018, in LinkedIn – Pulse. 2017.
  2. Cat Johnson, Digging Deeper Into The Coworking Megatrends Of 2018: A Q&A With Liz Elam, in AllWork. 2017.
  3. Cat Johnson, The Evolution of the Shared Workspace Industry (and Where We’re Going Next), in Cat Johnson content. 2018.


What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017 Real Soon Now.

Tyra Seldon on “co-working with virtual strangers”

Sensei Tyra Seldon muses this month on “co-working with virtual strangers”.

These days terminology about work is confused and ambiguous, and it turns out that she is not specifically talking about “coworking” in the sense of physically sharing a coworking space.  And “virtual strangers” is not the metaphorical “as good as” strangers, but rather strangers known only through digital communications.

In short, she is describing digitally enabled distributed work groups. And her point is that freelancers not only can but should work in such teams.

we become members of shared virtual workspaces without leaving our homes or offices.”

Seldon sketches the plethora of software that makes these collaborations possible.

(Aside:  you youngsters have no idea how lucky you are. In my day, we built all this stuff from scratch – making it up as we went along, and with only 1% of the storage and bandwidth you have on your tablet.  Kid’s today have it easy. : – ))

Sensei Seldon advises that there are benefits, including “skills gained, resources generated, and relationships established”. She hints at the risks to be watched, such as contracts and payments.  The important thing to note is that these are really no different than the risks and benefits of any collaboration.

working with virtual strangers is going to be a significant part of the future of freelancing and gig economy jobs.

Seldon is correct, though I would say she understates the case by far.

First of all, the gig economy is pretty much designed with virtual teams in mind. Freelancing today is, almost by definition, going to involve virtual teams. So, no news there.

Second, these technologies were developed in conventional organizations which have geographically dispersed teams. There is a vast academic literature about the benefits and limitations of these work practices. My own summary would be that it has its strengths and weaknesses, but it is extremely cost effective so it is here to stay.

Third, I’ll point out that the contemporary Coworking Movement is a response and antidote to the isolation of working “without leaving our homes or offices”.  In a coworking space workers will find a face-to-face community of collaborators.  There the teams will use the digital tools as Seldon describes, but will also be able to talk in person and generally be less “strangers” to each other.  For many workers, this is the best part of working in a coworking space.

I would say that coworking spaces were developed to try to get the benefits of digital collaboration while mitigating the perils of isolation and distrust of virtual strangers. It’s a lot easier to establish trust and mutual respect face-to-face.

In short, Coworking spaces are designed to be where freelance workers collaborate.

I’ll note that the coworking movement has elaborated the perceived benefits of these collaborations far beyond Seldon’s own testimony, including enhanced happiness, productivity, and serendipity.  See perhaps [1-3].

So, I would agree with Sensei Seldon, though I honestly don’t think Freelancers have the option to not work in virtual groups. And I would strongly encourage freelancers to explore local coworking spaces (don’t stop at the first one, find one that fits), which may well be even more beneficial.

  1. Lori  Kane, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015.
  2. Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015.
  3. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0. 2012.
  4. Tyra Seldon, Can co-working with virtual strangers enhance your freelancing business?, in Freelancers Union. 2017.



What is Coworking

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017 Real Soon Now.

Crowd Sourced Research Projects

There are many “citizen science” initiatives, and many of them are variations on crowd sourcing. One prominent example, Zooniverse, is a veritable cottage industry creating one crowd sourced project after another. These projects employ ordinary people, AKA “citizens”, in real scientific research.

These collaborations can be very effective, magnifying the efforts of our few remaining professional scientists and research dollars. Unfortunately, in most cases, the civilians are employed in routine, low skill roles. In the case of Zooniverse, the projects are almost exclusively visual (or aural) recognition tasks, asking people to look for significant objects in visual (or sound) data. These internet volunteers occupy the ecological niche that we used to pay students to fill, back when we had money for scientific research.

Is it possible to have more people participate in science in more interesting ways?

In the last couple of years, a Stanford-Santa Cruz project has deployed digital collaboration tools to create “Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories,” [1] The idea is to involve volunteers from around the globe in the full array of research activities, including decision making, problem solving, and professional publishing.

Most important of all, the projects were not reduced to “Mechanical Turk” microtasks, but functioned more like actual science labs. The projects were organized akin to conventional university research, directed by a professional Principle Investigator, with institutional techincal support. The participants were recruited through open calls, and invited to study, investigate, propose, and critique the research problems.

The Crowd Research project uses techniques and tools familiar from virtual organizations and collaborative on-line work. Each project developed milestones, which were reviewed in periodic (weekly) meetings. These tasks might involve many familiar research activities, including reading papers, interviewing informants, generating ideas, or prototyping.

The large number of responses are peer evaluated to select a handful to discuss in the video conference. This process is essentially the same as reddit-style upvoting. It is interesting that “randomized a double-blind assignment, anonymous feedback was needlessly negative and evaluative” ([1], p. 834), so they use completely public reviews.

A small group of participants connects to the live video discussion, others can participate through digital comments and anyone can view the archived meeting. The weekly meeting discusses the top submissions, and decides what to do next. The PI may assign reading or other training activities. In some cases, an individual may be designated to lead execution of a particular milestone, e.g., when multiple efforts need to be coordinated.

I note that participating in the video conference is a “prize” for submitting a high rated response to the milestone. This converts the mandatory, “oh, no, not another meeting” situation, into a sought-after opportunity to meet the PI and top colleagues. I.e., this is an improvement over many collaborations, virtual or physical.

The project results are written up to meet profession style and standards. The contributions of individuals are visible in the digital collaborations, so the paper can assign credit as due. This is a significant opportunity for the participants to achieve visible academic credentials that usually are only garnered by students at elite schools.

The Crowd Research project created a decentralized system to assign credit to the contributions of each person. This helps the PI write letters of recommendation, even when the research group is too large and distributed to know every individual.

The Crowd Research Initiative has evaluated these techniques in a metastudy [1]. The digital infrastructure makes it possible to not only track participation, but also who did what. They document that most of the final ideas originated from “the crowd”, and most of the writing also was done by the crowd. It is important to note that this is about the same as a university lab, except the participants are not limited to selected enrolled students.

While there was little formal screening of participants, there was high attrition that filtered out the majority of initial sign ups. Many were not able to commit enough time due to other commitments, though there are also indications that some lost interest in the work as it developed.

The researchers document the relatively democratic spread of access and benefit from the experience. With publications and letters from PIs, many students gained admission to programs of study that they otherwise would not have.

The reputation system was correlated with the assignment of authorship and acknowledgement on the publications. Their algorithm (similar to PageRank) tended to reflect concrete contributions (such as checkins), though it was still possible to game the system to increase personal credit.

In their recent paper, they draw conclusions about “How to run a bad Crowd Research project” ([1], p. 838). They note the need to expect drop outs and conflict, and suggest that the project be carefully selected to match the strengths of the format. Also, as noted, they don’t recommend a competitive vibe.

This is an interesting and somewhat heroic project, harking back to the good old days when university researchers were generously supported and could tackle ambitious projects involving dozens of students.

One very important point to emphasize is that these projects were much more like “regular research”, and absolutely not the usual trivial crowd sourcing tasks. I would also say that they strongly resemble many software projects, and also collaborative non-profit projects (e.g., organizing a community workshop). I think this is not a coincidence, in that these virtual collaborations are similar social groups. As such, the lessons of Crowd Research probably should apply well to other digitally enhanced collaborations.

There are a couple of important caveats about this approach.

First, as they intimate in their anti-patterns, not every research topic or project is a good match to crowd research (or digital collaboration). A good project should “leverage scale and diversity to achieve more ambitious goals” (p. 838) I would also say that the project needs to have primarily digital deliverables. Obviously, it would be difficult to coordinate and share a single physical prototype or materials, with any digital technology.

Second, the high satisfaction of the participants, professional and non-professional, has to be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, the participants were self-selected at the beginning, and through attrition. Crowd Research is well designed to create a sense of commitment and ownership in the project, at least in those who persist. However, it isn’t possible to extrapolate these results to people in general.

Even in these experiments, more than half of the initial recruits dropped out. Whatever the reason for leaving (generally, lack of time), these drop outs did not benefit and could not have a very high satisfaction with the experience. This was a great experience for a tiny, select group of people. The successful participants were highly motivated, and had skill and interest matches. This is a natural feature of collaborative research, and crowd technology neither can or should change that.

A third point to consider is that these young (mostly undergraduate students) were surely digital natives, quite used to social media and communication media such as reddit and reputation systems. This study showed that these technologies can be used effectively, at least for a self-selected group who are proficient and comfortable with these digital interactions.

It isn’t clear how universal this sort of digital literacy may be, or whether there are different styles. The study had to deal with cultural and personal conflict, but it could only deal with them within the digital arena. People who could not or would not play the game were simple not in the sample.

Obviously, technical and language limitations could preclude effective participation. In addition, people with limited vision or motor skills would be at a disadvantage. And, of course, people who lack confidence or are just shy will be hard to get.

These challenges are important issues for all digital life and digital work. Indeed, at its best, Crowd Research is a great approach, because the PI and RAs offer positive and encouraging leadership. My own view is that the attention and leadership of the PI probably spells the difference between the successful CR project and the hundreds of failed digital collaborations. In this, CR is recreating one of the ways that university education succeeds through mentoring and exposure to professional role models.

  1. Rajan Vaish, Snehalkumar S. Gaikwad, Geza Kovacs, Andreas Veit, Ranjay Krishna, Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Camelia Simoiu, Michael Wilber, Serge Belongie, Sharad Goel, James Davis, and Michael S. Bernstein, Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories, in Proceedings of the 30th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. 2017, ACM: Québec City, QC, Canada. p. 829-843.


What Shall We Teach The Next Generation of Gig Workers

In this age of the Gig Economy, what will happen to our children? Much of what passes for “work force readiness” is alarmingly backward looking. Pretending that kids in high school today will employed in retail, manufacturing, or transportation seems naïve. Worse, teaching how to be a good “employee” seems to be all the wrong skills for a freelancer.

Assuming that the opportunities of the future are going to be freelance contracts, independent start ups, and coworking synergy, what should we be teaching kids?

With these questions in my head, I was interested to read Jeriann Ireland this week, on “Preparing children for the freelance economy” [1]. Writing in the Freelancers Union blog, she has the perspective of a parent who is a freelance worker.

So what are the important points?

It is interesting that her first point is “boundaries”, i.e., life-work boundaries. This is a critical challenge for freelance workers, but she makes the interesting point that children need to understand the boundaries, too. (Hoping that cats will respect boundaries is beyond reason.) She says that a parent must “set examples of positive boundary setting”, including family-only times (no calls or email).

One side effect of this is that it sets an example of work ethic. Seeing that mom and dad have to spend time, work hard, and meet responsibilities can be an amazing lesson—and one that kids might not see when parents work in an office.

The second point is teaching business skills. (Ick!)

It’s never a good idea to force your child into anything, but if they show passion for a certain activity, get them thinking about how they could monetize it.

The third point is educating about finances. Whether connected to work or not, kids need to learn and practice handling money, planning budgets, and ideas about saving, borrowing, and investment. Freelancers have to learn this stuff, and are in a good position to teach by example.

Sensei Jeriann seems to be speaking from experience, and makes sense. Not that I’m seeing any thing “disruptive” or rocket scientific here.

It is kind of a cool to flip the difficult challenges of working at home with kids, and turn that into an opportunity for home schooling by example. I can’t think of anything that is likely to prepare a kid for “the workforce” as much as seeing parents work.

I’ll add another topic that might be worth thinking about: collaboration.

Successful business and freelancing require working with other people, sharing and contributing to the group.  Again, work at home parents have an opportunity to show how this works by example. For example, explain that the reason you need to finish this task today, is because your collaborators need it so they can do their thing. And explain that you are working with “Alice” and “Bob”, who are really smart so together you all can be great. And that is why you need to talk on the phone to them today, so we can all be great together. Etc.

Finally, I’m a bit worried about the “business skills” part of the lessons. I’m not saying it isn’t important and useful, but my own view is that once you know the word “monetize”, childhood is over! :-(.

Yes, everyone has to grow up eventually and learn about “monetizing” their time and passion. But I hate to see them grow up too soon!

  1. Jeriann Ireland, Preparing children for the freelance economy, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017.

What is Coworking? It Can Be Rural

Coworking is generally associated with urban or suburban settings, serving dense populations of independent workers and start ups.

What about rural areas, with much lower population densities, and correspondingly sparser social networks?

It is certainly possible to do digital work anywhere, including out in the country. Many rural areas have technical infrastructure to support remote working, and talented workers. However, in there are fewer people overall, and therefore fewer workers. In addition, many workers migrate to commercial centers.

So, can coworking succeed in a rural area?

Tim Ford blogs about Cohoots Coworking in rural Australia. Cohoots is located in a small town in a rural area, so it has been a struggle to get enough members to pay the bills.

The facility itself is conventional; featuring desks, networking, and events. But they advertise that if you “scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find some magic”. These “magical” features includes the memorable tag, “Members Who Want To Be Here”, i.e., a community of like-minded workers.

Ford is clear that the emphasis and the value added is community. Given the small population (and lack of competition), they have found little point in advertising ‘we have the best space’. Instead, they take what he calls an “inside out” approach. Community is not something that happens inside the coworking space, it connects out into the whole region.

I think this workspace is another example of how flexible and diverse coworking is. The physical and social setting is quite different from urban centers, but there is still entrepreneurship and community happening.

To my mind, this reflects the most important features of coworking. The space itself can be in the Bronx, Santa Clara, or Castlemaine, Victoria; and it can look and feel a lot of ways. What matters in every case is the presence of a thriving community; a group of people with shared interests meeting face-to-face, helping each other.

I’ll also note that this space almost certainly would not exist without the leadership cadre, who are all worked up about coworking and community. You can have the coolest office space in the world, but nothing will happen without community leaders.

Clearly, finances and low population are a challenge for any rural business, not just coworking. However, rural areas have some distinct advantages.

The cost of living is generally lower, and the lifestyle can be attractive. A small town already is a community and a regional center of social networking, so a coworking space fits naturally into the historic cultural patterns.

One of the best things about rural coworking is that it offers opportunities for people, especially young people, who want to stay home. Digital networks make it possible for kids to have a career without splitting for the city. Coworking, in turn, can be the social infrastructure that is a “respite from our isolation” (to quote Zachary Klaas [2]).

One thing that won’t work is a ginormous space like many operations are developing.  Think small and intimate, not large and generic.

But I’m sure that competent local leadership will understand this necessity well enough.

  1. Tim Ford, Rural Coworking – Our Journey, in Cohoots Blog. 2017.
  2. Zachary R., Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014.


What is Coworking

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.