2022: The year independent knowledge work goes mainstream
Own your work, and how your work gets done, in the new distributed work economy
Welcome to the Winter Dispatch. When we started publishing in 2020, it wasn’t clear that 2021 would be any brighter than the preceding year. But according to our survey data and anecdotal vibe checks across the network, the last year has been marked by hope, security, and more and better business. Despite the sudden rise of the Omicron variant, we expect 2022 to continue in this trend as the widespread availability of vaccines and boosters continues to drive down infection rates.
But as we’ve discussed in previous editions, the pandemic revealed all kinds of tensions involved in modern knowledge work. Even though offices are starting to open back up and conferences are coming back online, it’s clear that some things changed permanently. Now that knowledge workers have had a taste of the flexibility and convenience of remote life — and a bit of distance from micromanaging bosses — they are going to expect to have more say in how the work gets done.
In seemingly every industry, workers are fed up. “We are witnessing the biggest strike wave in a generation,” Vice trumpeted in the thick of “#Striketober.” The back half of 2021 saw the threat of large strikes, with agitating workers numbering in the tens of thousands. These occurred in disparate industries, from manufacturing to movie production. What’s particularly interesting about this wave of worker discontent is that it’s not limited to “blue collar” work. Also known as the “Great Resignation,” this period has seen all types of workers demanding better conditions.
There are a few factors driving this phenomenon. A tight labor market has given workers more leverage to demand better conditions and pay. The pandemic brought a sense of everpresent workplace danger, and some workers realized that risking their lives wasn’t worth their paltry wage. Executive compensation has been on the rise, along with corporate profits, and meanwhile workers are expected to deal with demanding schedules, exhaustion, and workplace safety risks.
Pundit Kurt Eichenwald cast the moment in stark terms in a Twitter thread:
“The Great Resignation” is not about people not wanting to work. It is about a dawning recognition that, for a larger and larger portion of this country, the American dream is dead, and with it, the inspiration of working toward a better future for oneself. Instead, work becomes not the means towards reaching an aspiration – a spouse, children, a home, vacations, personal growth, a retirement. Instead, the greed culture has turned work for millions into just a means of survival, with wages stagnant, healthcare unaffordable, insurance treated as a luxury, paid free time an impossibility, children unaffordable, homes a dream.
Eichenwald goes on to suggest that many workers are paid so little that their jobs simply aren’t worth it. Whatever the reason, millions of Americans have quit their jobs since summer.
“It’s like the whole country is in some kind of union renegotiation,” said economist Betsey Stevenson to The New York Times. “I don’t know who’s going to win in this bargaining that’s going on, but right now it seems like workers have the upper hand.”
For knowledge workers, it’s often less about wages and more about flexibility, benefits, and company culture. Today’s firms are filled with workers who are expected to be always on, perpetually surveilled, and pressured to work nights and weekends. So-called “Hustle Culture” has them overbooked and underslept, wearing the exhaustion like a badge of honor. They have to jump through hoops to do something as trivial as seeing a doctor during the workday, or cut out early to pick up their kids from school. And after so many quit their jobs in 2021, some remaining workers are expected to pick up the slack with no proportional bump in compensation.
With unemployment benefits expiring for many and schools reopening, fall was expected by some experts to bring an end to the labor shortage that has stalled the U.S.’s post-pandemic economic recovery. But instead, the labor force has continued to shrink. And the balance of power in the knowledge economy is shifting in favor — perhaps for the first time since before the industrial revolution — of the worker.
We expect all of these factors to contribute to the continued expansion of freelance knowledge work, which gives more leverage to workers to set the terms of their relationships with clients. Twenty years ago, calling yourself a “freelancer,” or an “entrepreneur,” or “consultant” might have been perceived as code for “unemployed.” It probably wasn’t the sort of thing you’d announce at a party without plenty of caveats and explanations. But in 2022, these types of jobs will be, more than ever, perceived as normal, even desirable by the mainstream. Upwork reports that 20% of survey respondents are considering freelancing. That figure represents around 10 million Americans. Among those, 73% cite the ability to work remotely or flexibly as a reason why.
Companies are scrambling to retain talent with mandatory companywide “mental health” days, remote relationship-building activities, and blackout periods during which meetings are banned. But the burnout that seems to be driving the Great Resignation is not going to be sufficiently addressed by these stopgap measures.
What we believe workers are really looking for is agency — control over how they do their work. Some of us want to work less, some want flexible hours, some want to be in the office, others at home. There is no isolated policy change that’s going to fix this widespread dissatisfaction. But a mindset shift among both workers and firms could help push us in a direction of mutual satisfaction.
As long-time independent knowledge workers, we feel we enjoy more agency than your average working stiff. To help conceptualize this mindset shift, we asked our network about how they think about agency in their careers, how they navigate the sometimes tumultuous nature of independent work, and how they’ve achieved success on their own terms.
When we talked to the Gather Network about workers taking control of where, when, and how they do their work, a few broad recommendations emerged. These recommendations come from the perspective of independent workers, but we would argue that awareness and understanding of these best practices can benefit firms and full-time employees as well.
Many new remote workers have lamented over the last two years that it’s difficult to know when work stops and home life begins. In other words, there’s a lack of clear boundaries. Sometimes this fuzziness is due to the nature of living in the same physical space in which we work. But for independent workers, it’s often also the result of juggling multiple gigs at once. In our attempt to fill up our work days, we are tempted to say “yes” to more projects than we want to, because we don’t know if a paying client might suddenly disappear. We often feel we need to overwork ourselves with many projects because at any moment, our workload, and thus, our income, might dramatically drop.
One method that Gather as an organization sometimes uses to address this problem is an independent worker’s trick we call the “32 hour work week.” It’s a simple approach to setting up commitments on a new project. Even if 40 hours are available, we tend to commit a maximum of 32 hours each week per individual. 32 is the magic number because it’s one 8-hour day less than a full 40-hour work week. It’s 80% of your work week, leaving the remaining 20% for all the stuff you need or want to get done, but can’t bill. It’s not about the number of hours so much as a commitment to delineated, protected time each week. We think eight hours is a good target, but we’re not religious about it.
Forty hours a week is considered to be “full time.” But any salaried worker will tell you that in practice, full time means much more than 40 hours. At the end of the work week, “full time” means whatever your manager wants it to mean. Booking 32 hours per week is a way to safeguard the worker against the expectation that their entire week is owned. There’s no pressure for workers to clock unpaid overtime.
Plus, 32 hours gives workers some flexibility. You can take a day off or enjoy a long weekend. You can spread those 32 hours across the week any way you choose. You can spend that fifth day doing business development — lunching with potential clients or otherwise scaring up new work to avoid stretches of downtime. It’s much less stressful when biz dev is baked into your weekly schedule than when you’re performing it in panic mode after a contract fell through or ended, and you’re eager to take on anything that pays. Ongoing background biz dev means never having to prolong a crummy gig, and maybe never having to take such a gig in the first place.
At 32 hours a week, you are buying yourself calendar protection, since clients know that your time commitment is firm, so it gives them less of a reason to pull you into unnecessary meetings and timewasters. Those meetings magically transform into emails or Slack conversations.
And when things get especially nuts, and the client needs to pull off an unexpected last-minute project, you have enough time in your week to offer a Velocity Sprint — a defined period of time where you can contribute additional hours if more of your time is needed, without work bleeding into your nights and weekends.
“There are three pillars of the 32 work week,” says Gather’s Head of Innovation David Gaspar.
1. Clear boundaries:
32 hours a week as a baseline
2. Ongoing career maintenance:
Dedicated time for always-on learning and business development
3. Extra help when needed:
Protected time to contribute to Velocity Sprints when needed
Together, these pillars describe how this concept is much more than an arbitrary number of working hours, but a framework for re-envisioning how workers and clients can work better together. Worker time is conserved for sprints, ongoing biz dev, or personal time. Everyone’s on the same page, workers are compensated according to their contribution, and managers are incentivized to respect the worker’s boundaries.
Sometimes independent workers simply must work a job we hate because it’s the only income stream available to us. But when the economy is roaring (like right now), it’s important to shift away from survival mode with a more discriminating approach to the work we choose take on. The aforementioned 32-hour work week principle can help you allocate time toward developing your skills, your network, and your portfolio so that you can afford to pick and choose good gigs.
But what makes a gig good? Gather Head of Content Jason Oberholtzer (and editor of The Hustle Economy: Transforming Your Creativity Into a Career) argues that each new gig should meet at least two of three criteria for it to be “worth it.”
The first: Make money. Simple enough — your gig should pay you as much or more than what you could make doing some other gig.
The second: Be successful, or, in other words, achieve results that are meaningful to you. Apart from earning you money, a gig can earn you clout, or serve as a shiny case study to help you find more work. Or it could be a passion project that you enjoy so much that you’re willing to do it for less than a gig you don’t enjoy. Or it could be a “social good” project that positively impacts the world.
The third: Be excellent. We all want to be proud of what we do, and deep inside, we know when we’re doing mediocre work. Often that’s not a function of your work ethic, but the nature of the project due to forces outside your control. Sometimes it’s OK to do your best in a difficult situation even if you don’t feel great about the results. Get that money. But you don’t want to look back on a decade (or worse, an entire career) of mediocre output. Enough of these kinds of compromises can lock you out of exciting future opportunities.
There are gigs that pay well that yield results you won’t want to include in your portfolio. And there are others that don’t pay well, but will make you feel good about your impact in your community.
“If life gives you the opportunity to do one of those things, you should consider the project,” says Oberholtzer. “The great projects you remember, which will define your career, do two of these things. You probably only get the opportunity to work on things which do all three a few times in your life, if that. Do not let those go by.”
It’s easy to feel lonely when you’re an independent worker, and social isolation (compounded by the pandemic) can make us feel adrift in our professional lives. Community is critical not only for combating loneliness but also for providing you with mentors and mentees, as well as access to new work and learning opportunities. It’s also helpful to have a sounding board populated by people who know your work and your world, so you can navigate the intricacies of client management, accounting, and more.
There are ways to overcome this sense of isolation, but it takes more than the occasional LinkedIn post. Yes, social media has created wonderful opportunities to network. But meaningful connections with folks who are invested in your development and success are not going to fall into your lap because you share your favorite reads and congratulate old colleagues once or twice a week.
Our recommendation: make your learning collaborative. When you have an opportunity to share your knowledge with the younger generation, do so. As demonstrated in the resurgent artisan/apprentice model we discussed in a previous Dispatch, you are only as good as the next person to whom you teach your craft. Keep learning, and spread that knowledge around with the younger workers you come into contact with in the course of your professional life. A large portion of Gen Z never had the chance to experience institutionalized mentorship within large organizations, so they’re hungry for opportunities to learn from more seasoned colleagues.
Today, there are more platforms to learn and teach informally than ever. Say what you will about the eccentric, self-aggrandizing Gary Vaynerchuk, but the guy has reinvented himself on TikTok, Discord, and elsewhere as a wealth- and career-building guru by making himself accessible to young people and encouraging them to ask questions that they might otherwise feel uncomfortable asking. He’s put the ups and downs of his life as an entrepreneur on camera since 2006, and younger people are responding as much to that openness and candor as his gospel of ‘crushing it.’ Recently he learned everything there is to know about NFTs and DAOs and then immediately set himself up as a top influencer in the space.
A lot of folks don’t realize how much they have to offer to the younger generation, assuming that they don’t have the credentials or the skills to contribute value. Millennials especially suffer from self-doubt in this area because many of them came up in a professional environment similarly characterized by a lack of formal accessibility to mentorship. They may wonder how they can be good mentors when they never had a chance to see what good mentorship looks like.
You don’t have to be as brash or as already-successful as Gary Vee to serve as an informal mentor, and sometimes it’s as simple as making yourself open to young seekers of professional wisdom. A ‘fake it till you make it’ approach can work, where the act of mentoring will help you build the skills you thought you needed in the first place. Furthermore, teaching younger independent workers the ropes can help you to recognize gaps in your own knowledge — it’s a good external yardstick for your own professional development.
There is a fourth tip that we would like to share with you, but it’s such a big one that we’ve decided to dedicate an entire issue of the Dispatch to the subject. The tip is simple: “Get someone in your corner.” It’s a principle that undergirds our theory of modern organizations and animates us as a collective of professionals coming together seamlessly for collaborations. For us, it’s the key to making independent knowledge work — work.
Independent knowledge workers choose this life because of the flexibility and autonomy that it affords, but it comes with significant challenges. Freelancers can feel socially isolated, precarious, and stagnant in their careers. We think that independent workers need a person (or persons) to advocate for their interests, to support them in their careers, to serve as a sounding board, and to help to lubricate the grind of business development. It could be an agent, a mentor, a guild, a union, or a collaborative talent network. Any of these can serve as an advocate — someone in your corner.
Being a contractor, or freelancer, or entrepreneur, or consultant — whatever you want to call yourself — doesn’t have to mean going it alone. We’ve spent the last few Dispatches arguing that work is moving in a decentralized direction, where today’s independent knowledge workers represent a return to the artisanal model, where autonomy and flexibility are paramount, and their dedication to craft rather than any individual employer is what defines their careers. We feel that we’ve made that case, and trends are bearing this prediction out.
As we move into 2022, we’re going to be changing gears to explore more about what independent knowledge work should look like, and how firms and workers should adapt to these new conditions. We’ll hear more from voices around the Gather Network who’ve been doing this kind of work for longer than most. From them we’ll learn about what works, what doesn’t, and what excites them about this brave new work life. They’ll be opinionated and honest about their anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams about their changing professional lives. We hope you keep reading and discovering the future of work with us.