The Quiet Renaissance
What does a top engineer at Volvo in Sweden, a creative director at Nike in Sao Paolo and a senior consultant at EY in Jakarta all have in common? They are all folks I’ve recently met who have made the leap.
They’ve abandoned their cushy jobs in the pursuit of something unknown, something exciting.
The ability to navigate under ambiguous circumstances is an asset in today’s complex business world and an absolute necessity when it comes to directing your own career. Driven by eternal curiosity and square shaped thinking, the new kaleidoscope careerist is an amalgamation of all her expertise and experiences.
Ask me, I should know. Rather absurdly, what I do for work is think, write and talk about it. Fusing my experiences and expertise — I help people, teams and organisations do their best work.
The idea that work should be based on an activity rather than a location is the premise of Activity Based Working (ABW). The concept, first coined 25 years ago by Erik Veldhoen is no longer a novel concept.
When we speak about flexibility today though — we do so not just in terms of location. We’re increasingly thinking about it in terms of time. The pace and fluidity of the Anywhere Worker is anchored around bursts of uninterrupted time to get her best work done.
And there is no better office for this than wherever she wants to be. So as more people choose themselves, the balance of the workforce will tip in their favour. Macro trends point to the entire working world moving towards a leaner and freer way of operating. Research shows that by 2020 more than 65% of the professional working world will be independent contractors.
In other words, the limited talent pool for full time workers is only getting smaller while the contingent external workforce is growing. As work continues to change and evolve the impetus will shift from being part of a workforce to belonging to a community.
The anywhere worker wants what many businesses simply cannot provide: autonomy, mastery and purpose. So a plethora of upstarts are catering to this emerging segment. Vestd permits experts to contribute to startups in exchange for equity in the business. Colony employs blockchain technology (the same platform that enables bitcoin exchange) to enable a new type of creative collectivism. Other notable platforms helping independents flourish include Workmarket, Toptal, The Backscratchers, 10x Management, Lystable and Bonsai. The alternative workforce they feed — the gig economy — in turn fuels organisations as they contract and expand indefinitely.
In many ways, the tables have turned from companies picking select individuals as prospective employees to those same individuals now deciding for themselves where and how they want to work. When I peer into the eyes of those folks that have made the leap, with a twinkle they reveal: ‘I’ve chosen myself’.
Balanced together, independents are creating a renewal in work. The next wave of organising, employment, and value creation will spawn from them — and we should all be stoked for the ride.
“So what do you do for work?” has changed to “What are you working on?” Everybody has a side hustle. The fortunate ones are those that made their side gigs their main gig. As a direct consequence: work no longer feels like work.
It also means that an inordinate amount of discipline and focus is required by today’s worker. Digital work — that is working with your digits on a computer — enables all sorts of freedom, pursuits, luxuries, opportunities and more. And with it comes a first-world-styled burden — that of knowing when, where, and how to do your best work. In this age of distraction, what you do with your time is infinitely more important than where you do it.
Operating as a WIFI fuelled anywhere worker also means knowing when and how to turn off. This is the new working smart. The fallacy of time management is that if we can get more done in less time, then we should by virtue just stockpile more work. A recent piece from Oliver Burkeman explains:
“Time management promised a sense of control in a world in which individuals — decreasingly supported by the social bonds of religion or community — seemed to lack it. In an era of insecure employment, we must constantly demonstrate our usefulness through frenetic doing, and time management can give you a valuable edge. Indeed, if you are among the growing ranks of the self-employed, as a freelancer or a worker in the so-called gig economy, increased personal efficiency may be essential to your survival. The only person who suffers financially if you indulge in ‘loafing’.. is you.“
The subjective nature of personal productivity means knowing (and in some instances pushing) your own limits. While Keynes’ 15-hour work week may have slipped through our fingers as a common practice, recent studies point to more than 25-hour work weeks making some of us, well, — just plain stupid.
The next wave of workers will need superior self-management abilities to do the deep work the innovation economy will demand. Armed with can-do attitudes, growth mindsets, and the versatility to learn on the fly — this generation will thrive in the new world of work.
In stark contrast to their Western counterparts, nearly every worker has a pep in their step. Pride in work is visible everywhere you look. The Shokunin (which would appear to have been democratised) is now ubiquitous. Japanese author, sculpture, and teacher, Tasio Odate, explains it best:
“The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness..The shokunin has a social obligation to work his or her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfil the requirement.”
There are worrying concerns in Japanese work culture (job shortages, lack of feedback, not firing unfit employees, AI taking over white collar jobs and the unchecked power of bosses to name a few). But to a foreigner like me, they are all overshadowed by workers’ distinctive attitudes and social obligations. Work is not so much work as it is a practice; an art form.
When you’re continually improving at something and approaching mastery— you are automatically engaged. You have meaning in work. Although the job itself may not always be that glamorous, the cultural norms in Japan make it so that you, and others, value what you do for a living.
The West can learn a hell of a lot from the Japanese, if only we can take the cue and do something about it. Sadly it might well take a bigger economic crisis than the Great Recession for us to take any meaningful action other than reading the memo.
Examples of modern day collectivism are widespread. Take free, open-source Apache software for example, running on over 35 million servers and powering half of all the web pages in the world (dwarfing Microsoft). Corporates like P&G work with an open innovation platform called Connect and Develop, freelancers use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace to work on what they want when they want, and anyone with the inclination and time on their hands, can contribute to Wikipedia.
A human impulse amplified through technological sharing is enabling open collaboration and collectivism at unparalleled scales. By definition, in these distributed networks individual freedom as well as the power of working together is optimised. Youtube has over 1 billion users a month producing and watching an endless stream of videos. Black Duck Open Hub which tracks open source projects has a record of nearly 4 million contributors working on over 700,000 projects. No longer just users, the individual becomes an active stakeholder in the system.
It’s also happening offline at lesser scale but notably with more social cohesion — with communities that attract members with creative, intellectual and adventurous inclinations. Modern day transitionary ways of working will continue to spread because its where anywhere workers find the freedom to do their best work. And these ephemeral places will permit industries to merge, disciplines to blend, creativity to flourish and innovation to happen.
If you’re not aware of the plethora of emerging co-living or retreat styled getaways of this ilk, take a gander at some of these:
Many of the people fueling these organisations are chronicled in a new film; One Way Ticket. TLDW? This nomadic way of working is not so much a new impulse as it is a natural one facilitated by the networked world. It’s a phenomenon that is here to stay.
Step into any hipster coffee shop from Toronto to Tokyo with sultry music in the background, strong artisanal coffee, and even stronger WIFI —and see for yourself. What’s more striking than the proliferation of the anywhere worker is that observing these busy workers, reveals something that looks a whole lot more like pleasure than labour.
As individuals working in concert with the global brain, our shared progress can be extraordinary. Today’s knowledge worker is blossoming into the next renaissance artist. Her paintbrush her digits, her signature style her versatility, and her canvas, the network. We peer ahead to our future selves and are simply green with envy.
I welcome your thoughts in the comments section below
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*A version of this article first appeared at Hyper Island here
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