A few years ago I sat down with Antoine van den Broek, one of the founders of Mutinerie coworking in Paris, and talked about the future of work. At that time what he was telling me was revolutionary.
‘Soon,’ he said, ‘we’ll return to a model of work that’s closer to the time of the artisans.’
That is to say that a greater proportion of the workforce will be freelancers and entrepreneurs, and people will embrace their strengths and outsource the rest to the relevant specialist in their contemporary neighbourhood — their coworking community.
There’s no denying the growing number of self-employed people in big cities like London and Paris but amidst such a large population, it’s easy to miss the change as it happens. It’s just not making a visible difference in our day-to-day lives. And hence we sometimes forget that the world of work really is evolving, right before our very eyes.
So it was encouraging that a key theme of this year’s Coworking Unconference Asia in Ubud was this shift towards more flexible ways of working, such as remote teams and the gig economy. Where the West has typically been considered the leader in professional endeavours, this particular trend is more evident (though not necessarily more prominent) in other parts of the world. Across Asia, for example, digital nomad hubs are forming and the need to seek out and connect with like-minded people is felt more strongly in the juxtaposition of cultures.
The term ‘digital nomad’ in itself has descended into buzzword territory, perhaps explaining why most of the conference crowd was hesitant to assign themselves the label despite it being an accurate description of their lifestyle.
A lifestyle which, according to Pieter Levels of NomadList, will have been adopted by a billion people by 2035.
By these calculations, in 20 years, over 10% of the world’s population will be location independent, free to build their businesses from the beach. Instagrammers everywhere rejoice.
But despite the growing number of people in the same luxurious boat, there remains an inherent loneliness in this way of living. Doing things differently, whether whilst working remotely, freelancing locally or starting your own business, can be isolating. This problem became a real focal point of many of CUAsia’s discussions because, quite simply, loneliness is the very reason coworking exists.
Loneliness isn’t known to boost one’s productivity. Or inspire creativity. And beyond being generally unpleasant, loneliness makes it incredibly hard to stay motivated in tough times, which — let’s face it — are not uncommon amongst entrepreneurs.
Perhaps all loneliness does do well is give people the drive to seek out a community. And this is where the village of artisans found its strength. The desire to maintain the strength of a group, whilst doing their own thing, brought together an ecosystem that could support itself and help individuals thrive. For some people this will mean joining a gym or social club or online collective, for others it’s moving into an artsy neighbourhood and for the entrepreneur, nothing beats holding the company of similarly ambitious minds.
As more and more people move away from the structure of traditional corporate ladders and rigid 9–5 frameworks in favour of freedom, flexibility and purpose-driven work, we’ll return to seeing the real social value in building communities. The advantage we have now, in this new world of work, is that we get to choose to spend our time with people who share our values, not just our demographic fingerprint.