It’s been just over a year since I first started working remotely full time.
In that time I’ve become a regular at every coffee shop within a 2km radius, stolen the wi-fi passwords for every library, co-working spot, and bar in the west end of Toronto, and once went a full week without leaving my apartment.
It’s a common story for anyone freelancing or working remotely.
The flexibility and autonomy of working wherever you want, whenever you want, can be both freeing and rewarding, as well as deeply lonely and difficult.
Yet by all accounts, this is the future of work.
In recent years, the number of freelancers and ‘non-traditional’ workers in the US has jumped to 53 million, or 34% of the workforce. And that number’s expected to increase to 40% by 2020.
More and more, it’s becoming clear that ‘work’ is no longer a place.
But with this change in our work lifestyle comes more changes than just where we work. The very structure of how we’ll work in the future is being formed right now. As a freelancer, company guidelines and any sort of planned career advancement are pretty much nonexistent and the type of mentorship and guiding hand that past generations had at their disposal is now up to us to hunt down.
Time Magazine, predicting the future of work way back in 2009 prophesied that:
“We will see a more flexible, more freelance, more collaborative and far less secure work world.”
Freedom and uncertainty certainly go hand in hand.
So, how do we handle this new era of work with efficiency and grace?
Over the past year, I’ve spent time looking for resources and stories from people who have shed the 9-5 office culture: How they stay motivated. How they work well on their own and with their team. And how they find balance and meaning in their lives.
You may be able to work wherever you want, but choose wisely
Human beings thrive off of routine. When we don’t have a ‘place’ to call work anymore, it can be easy to fall into a sense of chaos, letting the winds of the day take you where they will. But where you work ultimately has a profound effect on how well you work, as writer, entrepreneur, and remote worker Belle Beth Cooper found.
Your personality and the type of work you’re doing will ultimately define what work location works best for you.
Need long stretches of deep concentration? Find a quiet place like a home office or library.
Looking for that creative spark? Try somewhere with more ambiance and action like a co-working space or coffeeshop.
Fighting against your environment will only make the day that much harder.
And don’t forget about the ‘home team’ advantage. A 2006 Harvard study of heart surgeons showed that performance improved drastically more over time when they worked in their home hospital and with their regular team than if they switched location or personnel. While freedom to work wherever is great, there are perks to having a steady office routine.
Virtual teams will outperform face-to-face teams
Major companies may still be flaunting their latest office space or corporate headquarters, but more and more studies are showing that the future will be built by those who work on their own.
A 2009 survey by Cisco of thousands of teleworkers found 69 percent said their productivity was higher when they worked remotely and 83 percent said their communication with other team members was either unaffected or enhanced by being dispersed.
And in 2009, a research team led by Frank Siebdrat assessed the performance of 80 software companies around the world and found that more dispersed teams often outperformed ‘co-located’ teams. But working remotely doesn’t automatically lead to higher performance. Siebdrat and his fellow researchers for that the most important factor for success was having a process in place to make sure each member contributes fully and has enough access to communication and support.
Trust will become your greatest asset
With so much of our work lives being moved to impersonal mediums like Slack or other group chats, it may seem impossible to really know the people you’re working with (or for) and to trust in them. In fact, some biologists believe that we’re evolutionarily hardwired to distrust everyone except for our own family. So what chance does ‘that new guy at work who’s name you see pop up once in a while in the #music channel’ have?
Your success will ultimately depend on how trustworthy you are to the people you’re working with.
In our changing work landscape, consultant Keith Ferrazzi, writing in the Harvard Business Review, explains that consistency, communication, and candor will be the keys to building trust when you work remotely. Be regular and consistent with updates about what you’re working with. Be open and honest about your personal life to help build empathy. And give others the benefit of the doubt just as you would hope they do for you.
Your next job won’t be a role. It will be a project.
In the future, we won’t just say a change in how we work, but the very fabric of what a job is will shift.
And even more so than it already has. If the gig economy of companies like Uber represent one end of the spectrum, and a full-time secure role the other, we’ll begin to see more and more of a rise in the middle-path of what’s deemed the project economy.
Adam Davidson, writing in The New York Times Magazine explains how “more of us will see our working lives structured around short-term, project-based teams rather than long-term, open-ended jobs.”
Davidson says we’re at the end of a ‘hundred-year fluke’ where big businesses offering essentially the same identical products dominated the economy, with competition coming largely by focusing on cost—through making production cheaper and more efficient.
The information revolution has changed all that, and now, instead of rising to the top by cutting costs and tweaking your production flow, companies are approaching tasks with a more modular view: bringing in the pieces they need, when they need them.
You and your work will become even more one and the same
While previous generations searched for a work/life balance, the future of work is quickly becoming more and more entwined with the future of life. With the dissolution of the 9–5, that ‘balance’ is no longer measured in hours, but in effort. Work no longer happens only in the office, and our new balance is that of being ‘on’ and being disconnected, wherever we are.
And with the blurring of lines between when you’re working and when you’re not, comes a blurring between personalities. Before, where we might once have acted differently in and out of the office, today and in the future, your personality is part of your job.
Joan Kuhl, who founded Why Millennials Matter, a consulting firm that advises employers like Goldman Sachs on hiring and retaining recent college graduates explains that:
“Millennials are pushed to create a strong personal brand to land a job, so asking them to tone it down once they are employed sends a lot of mixed messages.”
And with ‘millennials’—those aged 18 to 33—overtaking the previous generation as the dominant group in the labor force, this will only continue to become the status quo.
Just look at the rise of lifestyle marketers—the freelancers, writers, and speakers, who now make their living more off of talking about the work they do rather than actually doing the work.
Or the constant articles on Medium about Quitting your job to follow your passion or Being true to yourself.
In the future, there will always be more room for you in your work.
Over-communicating just might kill you
Whether it’s Slack, HipChat, or one of countless other tools out there, group chat has become ubiquitous in modern workplaces. And for good reason. Not only do these tools allow us to move away from the tyranny of the inbox, but they facilitate more natural conversation—which can build trust and understanding among people that have maybe never even met before.
But as many people have started to point out, this sense of ‘always being around’ is having extremely negative affects on how we work. And it will only get worse if we let it.
Writer and UX guru Samuel Hulick, channeling Medium’s native quit-lit genre, publicized his break up with Slack, citing it’s incessant neediness and ability to turn your day into ‘one long Franken-meeting’.
While Basecamp founder Jason Fried explained all of the reasons why group chat is making us sweat.
What both articles explain is that the tool, whatever it is, preys on our psychological need to check notifications. And worse than something like social media, these notifications are for work. For our livelihood. So we have to check them, right?
And yes, anyone who uses group chat regularly understands these pains. But are they just growing pains? Or have we made a critical error in changing the way that we communicate?
In the future, our success at work will depend on how we counteract these measures. Because as much as we love to blame tools and apps, it is the way we use them that can have a negative affect.
You can have it all (if you’re smart about it)
Why not end on a positive note? Because really, there is a lot to look forward to in the future of how we work.
With the freedom to work from wherever, and more and more companies understanding that results are more important than physically being in an office every day, there’s more opportunity to get out into the world, explore, and expand our minds, all while getting what needs to get done, done.
One of my favorite stories is that of Buffer co-founder Joel Gascoigne who spent 3 months travelling to 11 cities around the world, all while running a $60m business. What Joel learned, is that rather than the 1-2 week vacations that a traditional job might allow, the freedom to work from wherever can allow us to see the world, all while keeping up with our day-to-day.
“I’ve learned as a result of experimenting with 1–2 week visits compared to 3–6 month slow travel, that whenever I have the choice from now on, I will always take the option to stay in a single place for a few months.
“Beyond the productivity struggles that come with being somewhere only for 1–2 weeks, it is also not long enough to create true new friendships or relationships. It’s almost impossible to sustain this for a long period of time and also have any sense of community.”
For those wanting to take on the digital nomadic lifestyle, it will no longer be about selling the idea of sipping margaritas on a beach with your laptop. It’s about being world citizens. Not being tied to a physical location. And letting what we experience and learn fuel our creativity and passion for life.
The future of work isn’t a place. It’s a place of mind.
Understanding how to work efficiently and productively, wherever you are, and with whomever you’re working with at that time, will be the greatest skill any of us can have moving forward.
Image credit: SpaceX