For companies and managers, the rise of freelancing implies the arrival of plenty of new changes. It is no longer possible to organize work like in the times of Fordism. It is also no longer possible to manage the same way. Freelancers are pushing for a radical transformation in managerialism, which also affects employees. This is the subject of a study carried out with Malt (formerly known as Hopwork), which will be released next month.
Jobs were simpler in the Fordist economy. As in classical theatre, work followed the three unit rule: time, place, and action. Since then, globalization and digital transitions have broken down these work unit rules. The unity of place no longer exists; value chains have become global and complex: not all employees belong to the same organization and they can increasingly work remotely. There are no longer units of time and action: multiple actors, including freelancers, participate in “projects” on behalf of increasingly numerous and diverse businesses. Outside factories and services provided directly to customers, time is becoming more flexible and a permanent internet connection has blurred the boundary between work time and leisure time. Management is trying to adapt to this new situation as best it can.
In many ways, freelancers are a step ahead of all these different transformations. They have emancipated themselves from the three-unit rule. In fact, this is why most of them have chosen to become freelancers. They have understood what it is to work in “project mode”, outside the units of time, place, and space. They know how to use collaborative tools (GitHub, Slack, Workplace, etc.) and project management tools (Trello) that have made it possible to work in teams scattered over different areas. Sometimes, they were even the one that invented how: we owe our open source programming to developers (freelancers or not) who gave their time to develop free code within communities that share idealistic values. Once again, the ability to bend the rules explains why freelancers can help companies adapt to this new era — especially when helping them break free from the traditional rules that dictate units of time and space.
The transformation of space by knowledge workers
In the 20th century, workers from the “creative class” (as per Richard Florida’s expression) transformed the workspace. When Douglas McGregor published The Human Side of Enterprise in 1960 (one of the most influential management books in history), he popularized the idea that companies must allow employees to develop as individuals in order to create value and innovate. The new workforce, increasingly made up of knowledge workers (which is Peter Drucker’s expression), calls for new workspaces.
For this era, everything reminiscent of a factory and Taylorism has gradually disappeared: time clocks, visible separations between those who think and those who execute, identical furniture as far as the eye can see, etc. Ergonomists have in fact looked into the conditions of productive work in creative trades.
How is one “productive” when it comes to writing computer code or designing a company logo? Which space is most conducive to creative activities? From the 1950s onwards, it began to be understood that there was a difference in the nature of two forms of work, whereas in the past, office work was seen as a simple variation of factory work. The ability to mobilize one’s cognitive abilities and to concentrate on a demanding task requires a particular work environment.
The changing work conditions of this new workforce is the subject of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World, published in 2016. He argues that the ability to focus on “deep work” is the rarest and most useful skill in today’s economy. Distractions and notifications are omnipresent in our lives. Being able to dismiss or ignore them in order to concentrate on a demanding task is precisely what enables some of us to create value. The problem is that for a long time, workspaces have been used to do exactly the opposite: encourage interaction between employees and “serendipity” — at the expense of concentration.
According to Newport, the solution to this problem is to use multiple spaces. Within a company, there must now be several spaces: a room for deep work where conversations are banned, but also a convivial space where ideas can be exchanged over a coffee, and another where one can do “superficial” work, such as answering one’s emails. In practice, even when this isn’t expressed in a contract, most employees actually use several spaces to get things done. Many managers bring work home to finish a difficult task in an environment that is more conducive to concentration. Informal telework is certainly difficult to measure. But for many workers, the home has become the deep work space of choice, while the office has become the space for more or less superficial interactions with colleagues.
The fragmented workspace in the age of freelancers
The golden age of traditional offices is behind us. Freelance work and entrepreneurship certainly concern only a minority of the French working population however the relationship to space has already changed for everyone. Digital tools make it possible to be permanently connected and give everyone a sort of gift of ubiquity. Moreover, the possibility of teleworking, even partial teleworking, is becoming a recruitment argument for companies that suffer from talent shortages. It has become difficult to recruit certain talented profiles (such as IT developers) if they are not given a certain flexibility in terms of working hours and location!
The proportion of employees working outside the office is steadily increasing. With an increase in the number of freelancers and with the rise of “project mode” management, more and more workers are being lured out of the office. The number of “nomadic” offices has multiplied in recent years. Some companies have even taken the decision to give up on offices altogether… to reserve space only to bring together their dispersed teams. The trend to stray away from offices is the result of three simultaneous phenomena: the deployment of a more digital work environment, the rise of “on-demand” work, and a spectacular rise in property prices.
Freelancers cannot completely free themselves from being anchored down in one place or another. “The fantasized image of a nomad traveller working on a beach in Thailand is quite far from the statistical reality of freelancers. Most often, freelancers keep a close geographical distance with their clients,” says the Malt-Ouishare study on freelancers. In fact, many freelancers spend several days a week in their clients’ offices, or at least regularly meet at their clients’ offices for meetings and briefings. The most successful teleworkers are those who travel frequently to discuss with their client (or employer) and interact with the teams involved on the project they are working on.
If co-working spaces have multiplied in large urban centers, it is because they offer their users a form of critical centralization — a special framework for networking and exchanging the rights practices with peers. The success of the American startup WeWork is based on the need for centralization for some semi-nomadic freelance workers. The locations chosen by WeWork are always located in city centers, generally where startups are concentrated. That being said, freelancers work less than one day a week in a co-working space on average (according to the Malt-Ouishare study on freelancers). Co-working spaces are also occupied by employees… who telework in these types of spaces, or who are sent there by their company for “acculturation”. Co-working spaces help blur the boundaries between workers who have different statuses, who share a number of things in common.
Flexibility in terms of time management and place of work is becoming an increasingly important criterion for workers, often more important than the comfort of offices. It goes without saying that a comfy office is always appreciated. It is however less important than management styles and the ability to work independently. A company like Google takes great care in optimizing their office design and encourages their employees to spend more time at the office. It also gives them the freedom to organise their workload as they see fit and to work from home from time to time whenever they have finish the so-called deep work that is so crucial to the success of a company’s projects.
Companies must adapt to this new reality in order to remain attractive. They are now trying to offer their employees a personalized and flexible “combo” in terms of work space, with a nice office, adequate equipment so that they can work from afar, and the possibility to use co-working spaces when they are on the move, etc.
For a long time employees and external workers did not share the same offices. In order not to risk reclassifying someone as a salaried employee, it was important to not treat employees and external workers the same way: it was impossible, for example, to provide a designated office to a service provider! Workspaces are changing in order to adapt to this new situation. Open spaces have become the norm and desk sharing has now become widespread. It is now much more common for freelancers (and external service providers) and employees to share the same space, to the point where it has become difficult to distinguish between the two. For today’s companies, a shared space between them has become essential for sharing culture and transmitting knowledge.
Working time, a notion that should be redefined?
Historically, employment has seen a transformation in terms of its relationship with time as it shifted from being paid-per-task to time-based pay. The employee no longer sells the fruit of his or her work as such; he or she is now selling his or her time to their employer. This new relationship with time initially applied to blue-collar and lower-skilled workers, but then extended to all workers alike.
Throughout the 20th century, the “blue-collar workers” campaigned to reduce their working time and improve their work and living conditions. In both the United States and Europe, laws were painstakingly fought for to reduce working time. In the 19th century people had to work constantly in order to hope to survive, but in the 20th century, a new form of time, leisure time, appeared. In France, as in many European countries, the second half of the century (from the 1930s onwards) saw the advent of paid holidays — that is, non-working time paid by the employer.
The “white collar workers”, whose numbers very quickly outnumbered blue collar workers, adopted some of the “ gains “ of blue collar workers. However many of them also distanced themselves from blue-collar working hours. In a situation where competition is fierce in order to to move up in company hierarchy, white-collar workers sought to prove their value and dedication to the company by devoting more time to their work than other employees. The higher they are in the hierarchy, the greater the level of interference between work time, leisure time, and time off. Taking files home to work on Sundays became a sign of importance and power.
For the vast majority of workers — blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, employees, or tradespeople — the 20th century marked a sharp increase in the amount of time off work. We saw the arrival of a society (and an industry) of leisure and holidays. Different periods of life were progressively separated. As life expectancy increased, workers now had access to years in their life where they would not work, thanks to pension systems set up at a time when workers were dying much younger.
Since the end of the 20th century, the widespread use of information and communication technologies has once again changed our relationship with working time for a large proportion of the workforce. Equipped with telephones and laptops, connected all throughout the day, these workers are experiencing a disruption of working time that was separated in the 20th century. Other workers however, in factories, restaurants, supermarkets, or even in all “front office” jobs, remain constrained by defined schedules. In short, digital technologies have divided the workplace in two: those for whom the question of working hours no longer exists; and those who are not able to escape them.
For workers who are able to emancipate themselves from work schedules, the overlap between work and leisure is almost non-existent. As Henri Isaac, a professor at the University of Paris-Dauphine, writes, “we have entered a second phase where the notion of working time no longer makes sense. More and more, time spent away from work has a decisive influence on the productivity of people and, therefore, on the efficiency of an organization”. If an employer is unable to distinguish between working time and leisure time in certain occupations, then the employer shifts his attention to the results. Work then stops being a quantity of purchased time and is transformed into a service whose quality can be measured.
For freelancers, personal and professional time are almost inseparable. Most freelancers appreciate not being subject to timetables and having their time freely at their disposal: this is often one of the main reasons why they choose to become freelancers. Since their time is not monitored and their income depends on the number of assignments they manage to accomplish, freelancers are not immune to burn outs. To be a freelancer, they have to learn to re-establish a certain degree of separation between leisure and work, to “discipline” themselves to concentrate better. Freelancers are often very concerned about the best ways to spend their time: they are responsible for many of the thousands of articles on “ways to be more productive”!