Category Archives: “New Way 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? The Book Launch!

The long promised book, “What is Coworking?” is finally available.  See details here.

It’s been a gradual rollout, so I am having a ‘Book Launch’ on June 1, to mark an official release date.

Book Launch Pop Up!

Come in and help celebrating the launch of a new book, “What is Coworking?” by Urbana author Robert E. McGrath.

Friday June 1, 2018
5 – 9PM
[Co][Lab] Urbana
206 W. Main St., Urbana

 

What is Coworking?

2018 Coworking Survey: Not That Great News

The annual Deskmag survey [1] is presented at Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) every year.  For the past few years, the full report has been proprietary, i.e., you have to buy it.  This is standard practice for corporate research, but makes it impossible for me or any other independent researcher to critique or even comment on their results.   Personally, I think it would be a good idea to release as much of the data as possible.  Maybe release last year when you publish this year, or something like that.

Anyway, the headlines are pretty much the same as usual [4]. The number of coworkers and the number of coworking operations has grown steadily.

In the past few years, the survey has focused more and more on coworking operators, and on projecting the future of the “industry”.  Much of the report is a collection of opinions about what insiders expect in the next year.  These are roughly as useful as any of the junk in the “business news”.

The big news this year, of course, is the aggressive expansion of the WeWork chain [2].  The survey documents the widespread complaints about the impact of WeWork’s anti-competitive behaviors. There isn’t any actual data, just opinions.

This annual survey is one of the most influential reports on coworking.  As noted, it has the privilege of an annual presentation at GCUC, and everyone cites it, including me [3].


This survey is becoming less and less useful over the years.

First of all, the methodology is not published, but seems very weak.

This year, as in the past, it is still conducted as a web survey.  There is no sampling strategy, and it is subject to all the shortcomings of any public poll. The only thing reported about the sample is “1980 people filled in the questionnaire.”  That’s a healthy sample size, but they appear to be entirely self-selected.  It isn’t necessarily representative of all coworkers or coworking operations, and certainly doesn’t represent, say, workers who don’t coowork, or have stopped coworking.

Even the headline numbers are less than they seem.  The reports emphasize a continued steady growth in workers and sites.  Even taking these data at face value (and there isn’t really much support for the specific numbers) the story isn’t all that rosy.

The reported growth in coworkers is something like 33% in 2018.  This is healthy growth, though hard to parse precisely. Does a worker who uses a coworking space one hour per year count the same as a full time, all year member?

But the main point is that this large year-to-year increase is coming off a pretty small base number. If the total number of coworkers really is 1.69 million people world wide, then this is something like one out of every 1700 workers.  (The increase is up from something like 1 in 1900.)  This is a tiny fraction of all workers.

This actually makes sense.  Vast numbers of workers produce physical products and/or deal directly with customers and users (e.g., farmers, doctors, firefighters). Coworking isn’t really a meaningful option for these workers, even if they are independent contractors.

Of course, for some categories of work and workers, coworking is much more prevalent.  I’m sure that a relatively high proportion of freelance digital workers choose to cowork at least some of the time. This workforce has been growing in recent decades, perhaps as much as 26% in 2017.   Similarly, the number of “freelancers” is growing, perhaps by 5%. The reported growth in coworking is roughly consistent with the growth in digital workers, and faster than the general group of “freelancers”.

The 2018 survey also finds “18,900 shared workspaces around the world, compared to 8,900 in 2015.”  Doubling every 3 years is a pretty good pace, though again it is a small base number.  20,000 sites is not really a big number. For comparison, there are something like 25,000 Starbucks sites world-wide (and most coworkers probably also work in one or more coffee houses.)

Overall, coworking is still a tiny, tiny sliver of all workers and workplaces.

With this in mind, the rather gloomy predictions from many of the respondents stand out as serious red flags.  Many operators report difficulties attracting new members, too much competition (e.g., from other coworking spaces), and other signs that growth will be limited.

It may be telling that even in the deskmag survey,  the growth of workers is about the same or slower than the growth in sites.

Altogether, it is easy to believe that coworking is already overbuilt.


I personally take this entire survey with a grain of salt. It is not only self-reports from a self-selected sample, many of the headline questions are actually asking for guesses about the future.   Sigh.

However, taking the data to be at least somewhat accurate, the rhetoric about growth looks like corporate cheerleading to me. The capacity is growing as fast, and possibly faster, than the user base. There is plenty of reason to wonder just how large the pool of potential coworkers actually is, and will be in the future.

This intuition is reflected in the anxieties expressed by the respondents about finding new members and competition.

The signs are that coworking may be “over built”, and may experience a major crash.


  1. Carsten Foertsch (2018) 1.7 Million Members Will Work in Coworking Spaces by the End of 2018. deskmag, http://www.deskmag.com/en/1-7-million-members-will-work-in-coworking-spaces-by-the-end-of-2018-survey
  2. Carsten Foertsch (2018) WeWork harms 40% of all coworking spaces in its close vicinity, however…. deskmag, http://www.deskmag.com/en/wework-harms-40percent-of-coworking-spaces-in-its-close-vicinity-competition-986
  3. 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.
  4. Ruby Irene Pratka (2018) Deskmag survey: More than 1.5 million people to use coworking spaces this year. Sharable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/recent-report-estimates-13-million-people-use-coworking-spaces

For more information about coworking and coworkers, see my new book:

What is Coworking?

A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community,


What is Coworking?

 

 

Study of Self Employment and Satisfaction

Sensei Tyra Seldon writes this week that self-employment leads to happiness [1].  From her own experience, she endorses the finding.

She says that the study “captured what so many of us know to be true: Self-employment can also lead to happiness.

She points out that self-employment provides many non-tangible rewards, including the personal satisfaction of doing good work.  She also notes that her standards as an independent worker are higher than when employed.

This study identifies some of these factors, including autonomy and especially “engagement”. Seldon refers to these as the intangible benefits of self-employment, which are at least as important as productivity and income.


Looking at the study itself, it compares the responses of professionals who are employed as managers, non-managers, and self-employed [2].

The researchers indicate that many previous studies show that self-employed workers are more satisfied than conventional workers.  This study goes further, to compare managers and non-managers, and to try to look at different aspects of “well being”.  In particular, they look at engagement, challenge, and workers’ preferences.

The overall findings are that self-employed workers are generally more satisfied than employees, but that the biggest difference is between non-managerial employees and both managers and self-employed workers.  (One interpretation would be that self-employees are their own manager, which carries the satisfaction of that role.)

Another interesting, if perhaps unsurprising, finding is that the misfit between preferences and job demands is lower for self-employed workers than for all but top managers.  In general, self-employed workers are choosing work that suits them, and have the autonomy to make that choice effective.


This study is fairly careful, but there are caveats to bear in mind.

The data is from an on-line questionnaire.  This means that these are verbal self-reports, which may or may not accurately reflect the feelings of the respondents.  The questions were administered carefully, and there are no obvious biasing factors, but there is always question whether respondents are interpreting the questions and answers the same way.  (For instance, just how meaningful are “average happiness” numbers, accumulated across multiple individuals reported “happiness”?)

A related challenge is that the sampling in this online study is rather opaque. It is difficult to know how representative the respondents may be.  It is a pretty big sample, but we really don’t know who was left out. Some workers may be less likely to volunteer information on this survey, which could bias the results.  For example, if discouraged, demoralized, or marginal workers are unrepresented, then the reported levels of satisfaction would be skewed.

This study did include a very large sample of managerial employees, which is important and often missing from studies of worker satisfaction.

The study reports the average age of the respondents to be around 40, though one wonders about the age distribution.  But there is no longitudinal data here.  How do these attitudes evolve over time?

Notably, the engagement and satisfaction increased with advancement in the organization, which surely correlates with longevity.  And are non-managerial employees less engaged because they are new or because they don’t fit or because their ambitions have been disappointed?

In the case of self-employed workers, one wonders what time frame their responses represent.  In the event they work from gig to gig, are they reporting the current or recent gigs, or multiple gigs over a longer period, or what?  I have to wonder if concepts such as engagement or satisfaction mean the same thing to people in a long-term position, compared to short term.  Engagement and satisfaction are probably not the same after several years in the same job as on the first day.


Finally, I’ll note that there are similar findings from the limited research about coworking:  coworking seems to make workers happy. (this  and see Chapter 6 and 7 of the new book “What is Coworking?”)

This study raises the possibility that coworking has nothing to do with happiness.  Given that most coworkers are freelancers, it could be the case that freelancing makes workers happy, and the workspace doesn’t matter.  I don’t know of any study that tests this hypothesis.

In the case of coworking, there is also a very strong selection bias in the studies.  Dissatisfied coworkers stop coworking, and are almost never sampled.  Reports that “coworking makes workers happy” must be taken with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, coworking spaces were invented to support independent workers.  In particular, they offer social support that conventional employees find in their workplace.  Therefore, it is very possible that self-employed workers who belong to a coworking space are even more satisfied than self-employed workers in general.  I don’t know of any study that tests this hypothesis, either.


Self-employment may not suit everyone, all of the time.

Overall, I would say that this study is more evidence that self-employment, freelancing, and coworking make some workers happy, some of the time.

As Sensei Seldon explains, this has a lot to do with things like setting your own standards, that lead to a stronger personal engagement and motivation.  For many freelancers, these psychological benefits even offset the uncertainty and financial struggles they may face.

  1. Tyra Seldon, A new study shows self-employment leads to happiness, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/04/18/a-new-study-shows-self-employment-leads-to-happiness/
  2. Peter Warr and Ilke Inceoglu, Work Orientations, Well-Being and Job Content of Self-Employed and Employed Professionals. Work, Employment and Society, 32 (2):292-311, 2018/04/01 2017. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017017717684

 

Opportunities for Aging Freelancers

Many believe that freelance working in the gig economy is the “future of work”.

But what about the future of workers?


Many freelance workers find success and fulfillment, though all freelancers need to hustle to find enough good gigs.  It’s definitely a game for young workers with the latest skills.

In my mind, one intensely important question is whether freelancing can be sustained over a lifetime. If freelance working is like video gaming, something that requires sharp eyes, twitchy reflexes, and no outside responsibilities, then how can aging workers or workers with families hope to compete for gigs?

Can older workers successfully freelance, other than as a hobby?


With these questions in mind, I was interested to read Scarlett Gibson’s post, “Top 5 remote jobs for freelancers over 50” in the Freelancers Union.” [1]  What sort of freelance work is especially good for geezers like me?


Gibson’s list of five.

Spoiler alert:  there are no surprises here.

Customer Service Agent

Live chat replaces the phone, so you can work from home. “Anyone can handle customer service jobs with light training”, she says.  Hmm.  Maybe this low bar is why customer service sucks so bad?

Freelance writing

Freelance writing does not require any technical skill.”  I’m not so sure about that.  But it is plausible that experience of a lifetime can be a big plus in fulfilling writing assignments.  There is nothing like actually knowing something about the topic, and older workers can win on that point.

Email Marketer

This seems to be a digital version of the perennial “marketing from home” scam business, which has always been a favorite side gig for older workers.  Sure, there is no heavy lifting, but I’m not seeing how older workers would be better at this than anyone else.

Transcribing

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like the ideal match for aging ears.  (Have you ever tried to transcribe random speech out of context?  It’s really hard.)

Even if this is a viable thing now, given the rapidly improving quality of digital speech processing, it won’t be for long.

Translating

For the multilingual, there may be gigs translating languages.  I guess that older workers may have more years of immersion in the languages, which could be a huge plus.

However, digital translation is already pretty darn good, so I wouldn’t expect there to be a ton of work for humans in the future.


Looking at this list, the opportunities are all common freelancing gigs.  The main theme is “no heavy lifting”,  (“Most of them don’t require special skills and are less physically demanding.”)

I will note that, like most gig work, there is an implicit premium on speed.  For example, transcription or translation services usually require 24 hour or otherwise quick turn around.  And even if there isn’t a hard deadline, these gigs likely pay piece work, so you have to work fast or starve.

The point is, working fast for long hours is not so easy for older folks, and so kids are likely to outcompete us geezers on that front, even if their work isn’t quite as good otherwise.

I’ll note that there are some perennial favorite gigs not on this list.

Notably, software development is not listed, though it is a common freelance gig.

This omission makes a certain sense.  Contrary to what some tell you, there is quite a bit of technical skill needed to create, test, fix, or even document software.  If you have experience with software, you can probably get a gig doing it, and I bet you won’t be reading about “Top 5” opportunities.

On the other hand, software development skills have a half life of only a few years, so older workers (and everyone else) have to top up skills and keep current.  There is no coasting on the glories of great projects you did at the turn of the 21st century!  Odds are that stuff is long gone and no one even remembers.

There are also many “trendy” gigs, such as YouTube video production, “coaching”, and social media support.  I guess these gigs are so youth oriented that geezers can’t really do it.  Would you want your band’s cool video produced by your mother or your grandmother, however technically competent?  I don’t think so.

I was a little surprised to not see copy editing and related gigs (i.e., reviewing and preparing digital materials) on the list. There have always been plenty of freelance editors that practice their whole life. Of course, like software, you need to actually know how to do it.


Overall, it is clear that Gibson was mainly focused on side-hustles, or something to take up as a second job when you are over fifty.  Obviously, if you have actual professional experience, you can try to go freelance doing it at any age.

With the focus on gigs that she thinks don’t require much training or experience, the resulting list is both generic and low paying.  Sure, anyone can compete for these pennies-per-hour gigs, including older workers.  But is it even worth the time?

I’ll note that in conventional jobs, older workers typically not only accrue experience but also shift into leadership roles.  This includes taking up a variety of high skill, high paying roles such as team leadership, project management, strategic planning, and technical consulting.  In these roles, deep experience gives the older worker the advantage over those youngsters, however clever.

Of course, leadership is something that really benefits from face-to-face contact.  So these kinds of gigs are not ideal for remote work.  (But see Scott Berkunm, The Year Without Pants [2].)


 

Overall, Gibson’s list isn’t especially helpful, except for the overall message that, “yes, you can do it”.

Whether “it” is worth doing is a different story.


  1. Scarlett Gibson, Top 5 remote jobs for freelancers over 50, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/03/12/top-5-remote-jobs-for-freelancers-over-50/
  2. Berkun, Scott. 2013. The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 

The New Way Of Work