Michael Erard, a writer and linguist, touched a nerve in June with an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times business section arguing that “remote workers” — a growing part of the overall workforce — are undervalued and that employment laws and policies are outdated in ways that disadvantage these workers.
He goes on to propose a different term — work in place — and to announce the launch of a new organization that will advocate for policies to benefit people who may be teleworking or telecommuting, engaged in flex work or working in shared workspaces, from home or in other off-site locations.” The Work In Place mission is to “change the culture of work through programs and policies that benefit remote workers, organizations and communities.”
In partnership with his wife, Misty McLaughlin, a user experience specialist for nonprofits, Erard founded Work In Place partly in response to their own past experiences working remotely in Maine for employers in Texas and Washington, D.C. They say they want “to provide opportunities for the national, regional and local multi-sector conversations that will make possible smart new ways of working.”
Naturally, Work In Place caught our attention, because “remote” is the default mode for most freelancers, consultants and independent contractors who make up the growing Nation1099. Even though Work In Place focuses primarily on employees, while our focus here is primarily on independent contractors, we share many of the same concerns and indeed connect with many of the same companies.
To talk more about that, we asked McLaughlin and Erard for this interview, which they generously agreed to. Please read on, especially for an intriguing insight about the future of work and the future of self that applies to many freelancers.
You told me that “a lot of the cultural issues that apply to people who work in place also resonate with independent contractors.” What cultural issues are you speaking of?
Erard: Certainly a big shared cultural issue is that many organizations seem not to be that sensitive to making distributed work teams work well.
One VP said to me (I’m paraphrasing), sure, let people work remotely. He had one person on his team who wanted to move to Chicago, so she worked remotely.
How long has she been doing that? I asked. She did it for three years, then she got a job with a local company, he said.
I didn’t say this, but it didn’t sound like a successful work in place arrangement to me. Being open to work in place is more than “letting employees work remotely.” He didn’t seem to understand that the organization has to rewire to keep those people tied in.
What do you mean by rewiring?
Erard: I mean rethinking how people stay in touch and contribute and being conscious of how expectations about communication can change — changing management practices and evaluation, devoting resources to building face-to-face rapport that makes all those IM and email and Skype and Slack conversations more resilient.
Another cultural issue is the old school, top-down command and control style of leadership that sees physical co-location as the necessary precursor to loyalty and engagement.
We’ve heard of a number of organizations — Yahoo and HP come to mind — in which a new CEO cuts back or eliminates robust remote work programs and brings everyone central to get them on the same strategic page, as if that can’t be done in other ways. Think of all the commuting, all the disruption that comes with it, all the frayed relationships.
What do you think “remote workers” and “gig economy workers” have in common?
McLaughlin: One thing they share is that both groups of workers are struggling to turn the constant threat of potential economic and personal disempowerment into empowerment, and they’re trying to leverage aspects of the system for their own advantage.
That’s to say, freelancers have taken the insecurity of a “job” and turned it into an opportunity to throttle their workflow and choose their clients. People who work in place have taken advantage of how knowledge work can happen anywhere.
They also share a need to integrate their work into the shape of their lives. People have extended illnesses; they have to (and want to) care for children or elderly parents. They may want to explore other avenues of life, so being able to throttle a workflow or work part-time is an advantage.
I believe everyone should have a life that is as interestingly shaped as possible, but wedging that shape into the confines of a regular work day, regular work week and commute to an office is highly limiting.
Erard: Remote work and the digital nomad movement have taken the future of work as synonymous with the future of self: unbound, mobile, borderless. But as Anne-Marie Slaughter tweeted in response to my New York Times piece, work in place is about the future of work and the future of care: rooted, oriented toward others.
Do you think there is a larger shift in how work is defined and organized that is driving the phenomena that each of our projects is looking at?
Erard: Absolutely. The shift to knowledge work plays a big role that is well-documented.
There are also clear dynamics that have to do with the size of the organizations. Big companies have lots of offices, and consolidation has made them very spread out. On a lot of these projects, it’s hard to co-locate all the necessary talent, so they become de facto distributed teams. Even if you work in an office, you can be working remotely on most of your projects. A lot of organizations are doing work in place but don’t identify themselves as that — they should!
Also, a lot of these big organizations are so over-leveraged that they need to cut costs, either facility costs and overhead (in the case of work in place) or benefits and other supports (in the case of freelancers and contractors).
McLaughlin: On the start-up side, there are similar advantages in cutting overhead by asking people to work from their kitchen tables. What happens when they get big is an interesting moment. That’s when you really see whether leaders are going to create an organization where co-location is baked into the organization or if they’re going to fall back to a traditional office mode.
What larger workforce and economic trends are you watching or influenced by?
Erard: I definitely keep an eye on the politics of “bestshoring” and what appear to be abuses of the H1B visa program. Some companies are bringing in foreign workers on H1B visas, getting American workers to train them, then firing the Americans for the foreign workers, who return home with the jobs.
I would love to keep better track of automation developments so I know when human writers and editors, like me, are going to become obsolete.
Tell us more about the population you are working with. Are they looking for remote work or falling into those jobs unintentionally?
McLaughlin: What we know anecdotally is that the vast majority of work in place arrangements happen either because, one, someone asked to make a co-located job remote or, two, they work for a fully distributed company that has no central office.
As far as Maine goes, people ask for remote work so that they can come live in Maine because of a family or personal connection. We have a research project ongoing with the University of Southern Maine to find out more about the career trajectory of these people. Do they move from remote job to remote job, or do they transition to local work? And if they do that, do they ever come back to remote work?
Knowing more about that will go a long way toward getting a better sense of what this population might need in terms of infrastructure.
What special career management considerations do they have?
Erard: Remote workers often feel the need to put in 120% so that no one accuses them of slacking off. That can lead to burnout and feeling under-appreciated, so they should keep a handle on that.
People who work remotely should stay aware of their need for social interaction. I asked one guy who works at home for a start-up how he’d know it was time to get to a coworking spot or rent an office with some pals, and he said he didn’t but was interested to know that might be an issue.
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McLaughlin: Another big problem is that people who work in place aren’t visible to each other, either on social media (LinkedIn) or in real life. I can’t scan the supermarket check-out line or the craft beer joint and figure out if people are working in place. That means that if I’m looking for a new situation, I don’t know who might be a good lead-in for a company that I know will look favorably on remote workers.
I also don’t know which organizations to approach with a job application. It would be great to know, before I invest a lot of time and energy in a job application, if they consider work in place arrangements and whether or not they do them well.
What are some of the policy changes you are working for?
Erard: One thing we want to advocate are changes to economic data gathering at the federal level that will help us get a better handle on the economic contributions of this group by state.
We also want to advocate for a shift away from economic development as it’s been done, at least here in Maine, which is about providing tax incentives to firms to locate here. We think that money would be better spent recruiting individual households with workers in key industries.
We’re also interested in advocating for tax incentives for companies that let people work remotely, and figuring out how to make life easier for small organizations with a lot of people in a lot of stats.
Apart from those things, we want the Work in Place Summit, scheduled for June of 2017, to be a venue that will help surface some unexplored policy areas that we can bring to the Maine delegations.
Publisher of Nation1099Robert McGuire is the owner of McGuire Editorial, a content marketing services firm specializing in B2B and tech startups.