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Chosen Family in a Freelance Nation: The Rise and Meaning of Coworking

“We are not only ‘bowling alone,’ we are increasingly ‘working alone.’”

Or so says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford, who was quoted in economist Adam Grant’s piece in The New York Times that explored the preponderance of new studies indicating Americans are less likely to be friends with their co-workers compared to people in other countries. There’s nothing worse than feeling lonely in a sea of people is there? Well, except maybe feeling lonely in a sea of people in a sea of cubicles.

Part of why so many people are turning to freelance work is not just because we crave flexibility, but because we long to have some control over the kind of social worlds we spend so many of our waking hours in. When you are a full-time employee, to a large extent, you are obliged to collaborate with whomever ends up on your team or project; the culture of the company is something you can try to influence, but — especially at bigger companies — it can feel like you are shouting into a hurricane.

Some of our country’s greatest satire of the last decade has been set in office environments about just this phenomenon. Shows like The Office make for gut-busting viewing, but only because they speak to something deadening that too many actually endure in real life: boneheads running businesses, creating cultures of competition, cattiness, and bureaucratic bullshit. Is it any wonder that a lot of people prefer to socialize outside of that setting?

In contrast, when you are a freelancer, at least once you get the stability necessary to have some discretion, you curate your own team of collaborators. You pursue clients that you find interesting, fun, courageous. You launch projects with your real friends. You say no to those that seem like they might create unnecessary drama in your life, even if the work might be lucrative. The bad news: if there’s a bonehead about, it’s you.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment surveys were designed back in the 1940s. They’re notoriously out of step with the real ways people are cobbling together their work lives, but the Government Accountability Office recently reported that in 2010, 40.4 percent of workers were contingent employees. There’s no way to account for how many of the nearly 53 million freelancers in the U.S. feel like they have enough financial stability to have the kind of discretion I describe, but surely many of them do.

For too long, the cultural archetype of the freelancer is the 22 year old, still in his boxers at 2 p.m., eating a slice of pizza in front of the numbing blue glow of the computer screen in his filthy apartment. And, in fact, 38 percent of millennials are freelancers; so, too, are 32 percent of people over 35. “I am so much happier in this new stage of my career,” Mikki Morrissette, a single mom with two kids who left corporate publishing to become a freelancer 15 years ago, told the Freelancers Union. “I get to choose the projects I work on and mostly work with other eclectic entrepreneurs like me.”

More and more independent contractors are working side-by-side at co-working spaces. It’s hard to come by reliable statistics, since it is such a decentralized movement, but Deskmag does an annual survey of nearly 3,000 people across the world. In 2014, they found that seven out of ten co-working facilitators report that the availability of desk space in co-working spaces can’t keep up with the public’s demand in general. WeWork, which is hitting headlines for its potentially questionable labor practices (an irony, to be sure), has built a co-working empire of sorts, with 52 locations in 16 cities around the globe (recently, valued at billion!). Most co-working spaces, however, still have a mom-and-pop mentality — one-off spaces with a highly local, customized spirit.

In a sense, freelancers are scraping the parts of company life that sucked the life out of them — toxic culture, compulsory collaboration, unnecessary busy work, rigid business hours — and rebuilding the parts that fed them in friendlier, more flexible form. And it’s working. Researchers Gretchen Spreitzer, Peter Bacevice, and Lyndon Garrett wrote in Harvard Business Review:

“As researchers who have, for years, studied how employees thrive, we were surprised to discover that people who belong to them [coworking spaces] report levels of thriving that approach an average of 6 on a 7-point scale. This is at least a point higher than the average for employees who do their jobs in regular offices, and something so unheard of that we had to look at the data again.”

It all checked out. They found that there was a wide variety of sources of co-workers’ happiness, and one of the most central were communities characterized by authenticity, autonomy, and diversity. They write:

“Unlike a traditional office, co-working spaces consist of members who work for a range of different companies, ventures, and projects. Because there is little direct competition or internal politics, they don’t feel they have to put on a work persona to fit in.”

These spaces are not just glorified Starbucks, as one might imagine. There’s some powerful intention behind the environment created by coworkers in these spaces, starting with the manifesto (collectively created and now signed by people all over the world working in 1,700 different coworking spaces). It begins, in part: “We envision a new economic engine composed of collaboration and community, in contrast to the silos and secrecy of the 19th/20th century economy.”

It isn’t that Americans don’t want to be friends with their co-workers. In fact, it seems that we all crave community — both on and off the proverbial clock. But we want community born of bottom-up serendipity, not top-down mandates. We want to collaborate with people who work in fields and mediums totally unlike ours, people with different styles and backgrounds, people who push us to grow — not because they’re anticipating that quarterly evaluation, but because they want to do impactful work in the world. That’s the sort of social capital that a company picnic once a year simply can’t create, no matter how good the hot dogs.

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