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.