The Future of Work Rethought

I recently did two things I hadn’t done before. One was to cancel my membership at a co-working space. The other was to meet, face to face, my virtual assistant of seven years. I belatedly realised the two events were connected: the freelance world, once a parallel universe hidden from view, is fast switching places with the real one, and governments, companies and families should take note.

It’s tempting nowadays to think that technology is redefining work, and not in a good way. AI and robotics are stealing away work from top to bottom, from lawyers to assembly lines. Gig platforms like Uber and Deliveroo are slicing up jobs into ever smaller chunks, making robots of us before the jobs are actually handed over to robots. And technology outsources what can be outsourced.

But I realise this is just one side of things. Who are all these people to whom this work is outsourced? By 2020, the number of self-employed in the U.S. will triple, to 42 million people. Freelancers are the fastest growing labour group in the European Union. Behind these statistics is a story, not just of harried drivers and deliver guys, but of knowledge workers who have chosen their own lifestyle, who have defied the disintermediation of the so-called platform economy. They offer a counter-narrative to the usual technology story of innovative disruption.

Take co-working spaces. On the one hand such spaces have proliferated. I recall looking for a co-working in Singapore space back in 2009 and finding only one, on the campus of one of the universities, and when I turned up one morning there to find the curtains closed, bodies all over the floor and a distinct odour of unwashed students. Now, every other floor in the tower blocks of the business district are co-working spaces, though the business looks nothing like it was originally imagined to be. Just don’t expect to find many freelancers there.

Co-working sounded like a freelancer’s dream — a place for those working alone and from home to find space to work, to mix, to find work, to find comradeship. It may have started out like that, but you won’t find many freelancers in a co-working space nowadays. Respondents to a survey of 99designs freelancers, for example, showed only 4 percent of them used a co-working space.

I asked Patrick Llewelyn, CEO of 99designs, why this was. One reason, he said, was that most of the designers on his platform are primary care givers, looking after either their kids or a family member, and so tend to keep less formal hours. As co-working spaces have become substitute offices, they keep office hours which don’t suit most freelancers, most of whom want to get away from the 9-5 grind.

I also realised there was little that was appealing. I abandoned mine when I realised I didn’t enjoy going there. I had returned to working for myself a year or so ago and long admired co-working spaces as a vibrant, tasteful, colourful alternative to the dour, dusty and downbeat newsroom I worked in. But I realised that co-working spaces were too self-conscious, too brimming with hipness to be genuinely convivial. And expensive.

So freelancers choose their own path, and it doesn’t fall easily into any fancy new disruptive model.

And then there’s the other thing: my virtual assistant. She’s real, but based in a Philippines town far from the madding crowd. I had always imagined that one day I’d make the pilgrimage there to meet her, since when she started working for me, she didn’t have a passport. But by now she, husband and two kids in tow, was the peripatetic one, carving time for me in her hectic tour of Singapore.

This is the other thing that struck me about what Patrick told me. When I asked about how his freelancers find social fulfilment if they’re working from home, he said that’s the point. By staying home, often looking after family, they’re able to retain those physical connections that those working in an office tend to lose. And being able to support themselves gives them a sense of contribution as well as a creative outlet, which in turns give them confidence.

When Patrick recently went to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia and one of 99designs’ biggest markets, he attended a meet-up of freelancers who clearly knew each other and felt a kinship and warmth you’d be hard pressed to find in a co-working space. Amarit Charoenphan, cofounder of Thailand’s first and largest co-working space Hubba, told me that in the rush to grab market share and protect themselves from competition, many co-working players had lost the human touch, of fostering a community among their members. He sees the future in algorithms, co-working 3.0, where spaces draw on technology to address the emotional benefits of being together.

Freelancers might argue they already have that, using apps to connect to friends and colleagues, while staying or moving to the places they love. My virtual assistant continues to work from her seaside home, bouncing her two-year-old daughter on her knee on conference calls with her main client, a friend of mine based in Texas. She worries about brownouts and the occasional typhoon, but with internet connectivity improving, she’s rarely offline for long.

She’s part of a massive, gradual shift in knowledge work, from the big city to the smaller towns and villages. This shows up in the data: Less than a quarter of the 99designs freelancers live in urban hubs of more than a million people — just as many live in towns or villages of less than 20,000. This is true more or less across the board: In the U.S. and Indonesia the number falls to be low 14% who live in a metropolis. Data from Upwork, a general freelancing site, shows that for a lot of specialised work even those based in remote towns in the developing world can command decent USD rates.

For sure, freelancing isn’t for everyone, and it’s not always easy to get your first client. And platforms that break down basic tasks like delivery and driving will always be a race to the bottom. But for those with skills, or those motivated to acquire them, the freelance economy has grown in the past decade to be a vast continent in the landscape of the future of work, mostly unnoticed by governments and immune to Silicon Valley’s eviscerations. Which reminds me; I have to go, my virtual assistant is reminding me we’re due a virtual brainstorming session.

For the tech hubs of the future, look to Asia’s smaller cities

This is an update on a piece I’d written for Reuters six years ago on remote freelancing in emerging markets. It was written in part for a new Cisco report on Technology and the future of ASEAN jobs (PDF), launched this week at WEF.

 

Much of the disruptive change in Southeast Asia in the past five years has been been by adding formalized systems and layers to existing sectors, most of that in what broadly be called mobile commerce. Think Grab, Go-Jek, Lazada.

The investment has been concentrated, in country, sector and in companies. But the real change in skills and work in the long run may come more from the backroads of Southeast Asia, tapping into a vibrant but hidden economy of online knowledge workers.

According to data collected by Google last year, the majority of investments in Southeast Asia have targeted companies based in Singapore and Indonesia — together accounting for 92% of funds. In turn most of that money ($9 billion — 73%) found its way to unicorns — those companies with more than a $1 billion valuation — while companies worth less than $100 million got $1.9 billion and those between $100 million and $1 billion attracted $1.4 billion.

These figures are good, in the sense that it had taken some time for Southeast Asia to attract significant venture capital attention, but it illustrates how slanted the overall picture is. Those unicorns are: Go-Jek, Grab, Lazada, Razer, Sea Ltd, Traveloka and Tokopedia. All are essentially platforms for retail selling: transport, consumer goods, travel etc. All capitalize on inherent problems in the free flow of goods and people in Southeast Asia, because of inadequate infrastructure, be it physical, financial or social.

And most are now trying to extend their presence beyond the major regional cities. But I think what has been happening in these smaller cities and towns for several years may be the more significant development in the long run. Indeed, when these platform players bring their services to these cities, there may be an interesting confluence of improved infrastructure and pent-up B2C or B2B demand. It should be here that companies and governments are focusing their attention — on building infrastructure, on tapping into these self-replenishing skill pools, and hubs of quiet entrepreneurialism. In the long run these skills are going to help to even out and possibly reverse the long term trend of migration to the cities, or megacities.

Take, for example, 99designs, an Australian crowdsourcing design company. They’ve been operating for several years, providing a platform for graphic designers to submit their work and earn business. I interviewed their CEO six years ago and he told me he was awestruck by how one city in Indonesia — central Java’s Yogyakarta — consistently beat other cities for quality and contracts won. He eventually went to see for himself, and was greeted like a rock star by the city’s 99designs community — one of the biggest in the world. Those young men and women were tapping into a deep well of artistry that stretches back hundreds of years, and can still be seen in carvings, batik and other artwork around the city.

I asked 99designs for an update, and they told me the trend has only increased: 95% of the Indonesian designers on the platform live outside Jakarta. Nearly 70% of them live outside the country’s top five cities. This is not just an Indonesian phenomenon: In fact the numbers are higher in the Philippines and India, two other big contributors to 99designs.

I checked Upwork, one of the main providers of freelance services and I lost count of the number of services being offered by freelancers based in Yogyakarta (and in other Indonesian cities like Makassar and Medan.) These services are not basic, either: they range from Ruby developers to 3D rendering artists.

Another important thing to note about these freelancers is that they are constantly taking on new skills. For this piece I caught up with a Philippines librarian I had met when I wrote my story six years ago. Back then Sheila was using her library skills to work with clients in Australia and the U.S. to enter metadata as they digitised their libraries. Now, she tells, me she’s taken some online courses in personnel management and is now working as a project management for a startup. Freelancers are well-motivated to acquire skills and their clients are keen to help them do it because they like working with them.

The implications are clear. As technologies emerge and develop more quickly so will companies have to look elsewhere for skills. This benefits freelancers like Sheila because they can more readily and rapidly identify what skills they should acquire and position themselves. The top fastest growing skills on Upwork in Q2 2018, for example, included blockchain, Google Cloud, ecommerce software volusion, risk management and rapid prototyping. While most of these skills are likely to be found in the U.S., they can also be found in Southeast Asia, where rates are significantly lower: rapid prototyping in Southeast Asia fetches mostly $10-30 an hour, whereas in the U.S. evenly between $10-$30 and 30-60 and 60 and above). Of course there are many more in the U.S. offering that skill, but expect that to change.

This hidden economy is growing, and is impressively independent. But it could do with support. This will come in part as Go-Jek and others further expand beyond the big cities, bringing improved transportation and better support services. But governments too, could lend a hand. Internet connectivity is still patchy in some parts, and a lot of those hoping to switch from a long commute to working at home often find it hard to get that first job. If those who do succeed can be encouraged to help build out these communities and share their skills, a whole new generation of home-based knowledge workers could lift towns like Yogyakarta and even further afield into hubs of the future.