Getting the freelance workplace right in the gig economy
As the gig economy evolves, what is the right workspace for freelancers to flourish. After the coffee shop and the co-working space, what next?
People who work in the gig economy can work from everywhere. But not all places are compatible with the contingent nature of their work, meet recommended health and safety guidelines or fulfil their needs when it comes to the social nature of work.
Temporary self-employment is not new, but online platforms like Upwork and Freelancer are enabling an estimated 55 million freelancers in the United States (35 per cent of their workforce) to connect with those that require their skills. A 2014 study estimates 3.7 million freelancers (30 per cent of workers) contribute A$51 billion to the Australian economy each year.
The sheer amount of freelancers – and their significant contribution to the economy – make it important to consider what makes a good place for gig workers to do their gigs.
While workspaces used by freelancers might have similar components (for example chairs and desks) as those used by full-time employees, historical differences make workplaces for freelancers different from the conventional office.
Shaping organisational structures
It’s important to remember that the office is an invention. Contemporary corporate workplaces are the result of conditions that have not only given us the office building, but shaped civilisations.
For example in the US, the office evolved from a variety of circumstances including increased trade produced by the railroad. People could no longer do their business in their heads and businesses progressively needed more space for managers.
Further management inventions, such as hierarchy and bureaucracy, shaped organisational structures. Other developments like a reduction of the cost of steel and the invention of the elevator shaped the physical structure of tall buildings in prime locations in New York City and Chicago.
In Australia, one of the first multinational corporations, the East India Company, contributed to the development of the early office building. In the early 1800s, the first Postal Act of 1825 enabled the New South Wales governor to fix postage rates and appoint postmasters outside of Sydney. This led to some of the first offices of Australia Post.
It’s different for freelances
The technological, economic and social circumstances fostering freelancing are in many ways different, if not at odds, with the context that created the office. However work is a social activity and professional isolation can negatively impact job performance and create adverse psychological conditions.
Another popular option for gig workers is the coffee shop. These have provided a social outlet and have hosted activities similar to today’s work activities –reading, writing and exchange of information – since the 17th century. However, these places are not sites for gainful or productive work.
If not the office or coffee shop, then what?
Co-working spaces are shared workplaces utilised by professionals, mostly freelancers, who miss the interactions (and amenities) of the office but do not want to commit to long and complicated lease terms. These spaces allow freelancers to rent space in a casual fashion and in short terms, even by the hour.
Co-working also allow freelancers to work among others, even if not with them, in other words to ‘work alone together’. What started in 2005 in San Francisco with a software developer who wanted ‘the freedom and independence of working for myself along with the structure and community of working with others’, is now a multi-billion dollar industry.
Some spaces cater to specific professions, from fashion designers and writers to lawyers. Other spaces play host to every profession under the sun.
Some co-working offerings are based on the access economy, taking advantage of under-utilised resources and making them accessible. For example, Spacious is looking into the more than 2,000 restaurants that are closed before 6pm in New York and aiming to open them for co-working during business hours.
Hoffice, an emerging model from Sweden, invites people to work from a more common ‘during-the-day underused resource: our homes’. In Australia, a bank is opening its lobby for clients to co-work.
Which codes or health and safety requirements apply when a restaurant, or home, is also being used as a workplace? As legislation evolves to protect the right of freelancers, design must strive to provide them with safe and good working environments.
An environment for casual work
Several studies from social and physical sciences, on topics as varied as the influence of ceiling heights on creativity or the effects of smelling peppermint on typewriting speed and accuracy, suggest that qualities of the environment can affect work. Quantitative and qualitative studies also highlight the role of physical proximity between people in supporting interactions and transferring knowledge.
Even experiments with divers suggest that information is better recalled in the same environment in which it was learnt (surface or under the sea). Working from a constant, properly-designed space with or alongside others might not only help to provide the necessary contextual cues to remind freelancers what they need to do, but the environment to do it better.
As the gig economy evolves, distinct places for gig workers are likely to change the skyline created by the railroad and busy managers. The advantages of freelancing should not come at the expense of exclusion from ergonomic, social and purposely designed spaces that take into consideration the uncertain nature of their work.