Future of Work - panel discussion
Earlier this year I moderated a manel* on the Future of Work at Outpost, one of the co-working spaces in Bali. My panelists were (left to right, above) Nico Krause, who created one of the first co-working spaces in Europe; David Abraham, co-founder of Outpost; and Paul Millerd, creator of Boundless, a community of people who want to reimagine their relationship with work.
We talked about how people’s relationship with work is evolving; how work is increasingly disaggregated; how collaboration is being done in networks instead of offices; who succeeds as a digital nomad; and more.
The lightly-edited transcript is below. I’ve put in bold a few of my favorite quotes from the discussion.
Have you ever worked in a co-working space, or as a digital nomad? Will traditional offices go the way of Friendster, or will we all realize that we need facetime (the interaction, not the app) with our colleagues? Share your experiences and thoughts with us at email@example.com.
Christine Bader: As you look into your crystal ball and think about the future of work, what's one thing that you see that you don't feel like a lot of people are talking about?
Paul Millerd: I am a retired corporate person like many people in Bali, worked in strategy consulting for 10 years and now... I'm not really sure what I am now.
But I am someone deeply curious about the relationship between people and their work and I write about that. I also have conversations with people all the time, probably hundreds in the past few years, about how you reinvent yourself.
One thing that's emerged for me that is not spoken about is people's relationship with work. Especially in the U.S., work is taken for granted that it shall be done and shall be done at 40 hours per week for a company. A lot of our assumptions start with that rather than starting with the assumption that we should design our life.
Second is that the future of work conversation gets taken over by a media of clickbait, which is focused on trends happening to us rather than the reinvention that's happening with many people: many of the people that are digital nomads, many of the people that are questioning their relationship with work. Instead, all we read about is A.I. is happening, technology is happening, jobs are happening.
Christine: Was there a moment when you realized that that was actually the killer question for you? That it's about our relationship with work?
Paul: Andrew Taggart wrote an article called, "If work dominated your every moment would life be worth living?" Which is a pretty bold question and gets down to a philosophical question that he highlighted that German philosopher Josef Pieper highlighted in the 1940s, which was his fear that after World War II, we were just plowing into a conformist modernity that a lot of people were talking about in the 1950s.
When you use that lens that Pieper uses and that Andrew Taggart is popularizing, it made a lot of the ways we're approaching work and the assumptions we're making on how to live seem pretty powerful. I've focused on that a lot since then.
Christine: In the hundreds of conversations that you've had in the past couple of years, could you identify a percentage of people that are actually realizing that that's at the core of the question? Or are people tweaking around the edge and looking at technology?
Paul: There's a fundamental pain that I'm hearing across almost everyone I talk to. Almost everyone I talk to today seems to be in some sort of career reinvention crisis. The people that have realized this shift typically have gone through some sort of transformation: a health crisis, a personal crisis, deep and meaningful immersion with new friends or communities, which shift their thinking.
But I am pondering, how do you drive these crises without the actual crisis?
Christine: So, assumptions about our relationship with work that need to be called out. David?
David Abraham: Previously I worked in a variety of fields: I used to work in finance, I used to work in the U.S. government, I wrote a book, was in commodities trading. So over 20-odd years, I had the ability to work in many careers. I was working nomadically for the past 10 years, so I'm with Outpost as well.
I was realizing there was this shift in the way people were working. If you look back to the 1960s, 1970s when people talked about the corner office, we saw an evolution of the office. It's moved more to open plans, so people have the ability to interact with each other.
Here at Outpost we believe is that the office is moving less from a physical space and more towards networks. How do people collaborate wherever they happen to be? The office then becomes wherever you may be.
We look at that and think, How can Outpost or how can people who set up offices relate to that changing trend? When people want to have more control over their experiences day-to-day.
The other trend is more of an individual trend: how people relate to themselves and relate to work. I used to work in finance and then I worked in the White House, then I worked at a nonprofit. When I told people I run a nonprofit based in Uganda, people looked at me like, "Oh, wow, you're so noble." Two years before, I told people, "I work at Lehman Brothers," and people looked at me very differently. To me I was the same person, but how people related to me was very different.
Now there's this sense of an individual and an individual's brand. There's a lot more thinking, "What does the company value?" Ten years ago when I was working at Lehman Brothers, people weren't saying, "I want to make sure that Lehman Brothers’ values are the same as mine and how do we work together?"
There's a little bit of brand management when you're managing many different people and what they value individually. We've got this general trend from getting away from physical space with individuals and letting them work in networks; at the same time, we have individuals who are expressing what their values are and how does that align with an organization. Which is slightly different than I think things were 10 years ago.
Christine: Everybody's now thinking harder about their own individual brand and their own individual purpose. And then if you're managing an organization, then –
David: So how do you line those up? Hiring people has become, instead of finding the person on your assembly line, it's almost like a merger rather than hiring people. Because you have to align with them, they want to align with you. The dance is a little bit different than it was 10, 15 years ago.
Christine: I have an assumption that a lot of people who are coming here, who want to be part of Outpost, are people who are working independently and are thinking deeply about their personal brand. What are you creating here at Outpost to support people doing that?
David: I don't know if it's the individual brand; there are people in New York that have a pretty strong sense of identity and what they see as their brand. But people who are coming here are saying, "I want control over my life." One of the biggest things that you can do in terms of control is to decide where you're physically placed.
I can't say that people here are more interested in their personal brand. But I think people are looking for a sense of control. This is one huge step; there are a lot of sacrifices to do that.
Christine: Such as?
David: Such as, you can pick the job that you want, you can pick the location, or you can pick the kind of company you're working for. You really can't pick all three. Or it's very hard to. You can set up your own company, but in general when we're working with others, I think you can choose two of those three.
Christine: Paul, back to your noticing when people are questioning their relationship with work, is there something about what David's just said about how people have to now break it down? The assumption was that you go to an office, this is your job, this is your identity. But now this is getting disaggregated.
Paul: What's happened is what I call the “full-time stack”: your community's embedded, your pay's embedded, your job's embedded, where you go is embedded. All that is thought out for you.
There's a trade off: You can trade off control for security and comfort. Anyone who's reinventing themselves now, on their own especially, you're giving up some of that comfort, or security, or pay certainty, or place certainty, for more control over your life.
I don't think all the trends are good. The gig economy: it's great for clicks, but it's pretty crappy for a lot of people. Even I'm a former strategy consultant, the gigs that get pieced out for people like me can be pretty crappy. It makes sense if you're doing that where your pay is guaranteed over an entire year and you have to do one crappy project to do the cool project.
But it gets a lot harder if you're spending a lot of time trying to piece together these things. Figure out what co-working to do, how much to consume, who are your friends, how do you decide your location, travel, all those things.
Christine: The disaggregation too can be really dehumanizing: The problem is that now that in a lot of workplaces, or in a lot of jobs, we just end up doing this one task. You can because technology allows that, but you're not connected. You're not on the assembly line, which had its benefits because you could see the whole thing. You can see the car rolling off and then you could all go out for beers because you built this car together. But now you do your little thing and you hand it off and you have no idea what happens. It's dehumanizing.
Paul: But even that, some of that immersion is faux connection. I ask people, “In your last full-time job, who do you still talk with once a week?” People will be like, "Well, no one, of course."
So it gives the opportunity, if you're willing to take it and be brave in your own life to develop deep connections and friendships. But it's just another thing you're designing of your life.
Christine: Nico, you've been part of the co-working movement in Europe since its beginning. Can you tell us how a lot of these things came into play as you were setting up co-working spaces in Germany and how you've seen that evolve?
Nico Krause: I’ve been in the IT industry since 1997 and in 2002, there was the crash of the IT new economy. It was a big crash for many IT companies in Germany, and we all had to recover somehow. I was deeply identified with my job, my position at this time. That was me, this position; this position was gone, I was gone. Completely.
It took a couple of years to understand all of this because I was very young. In 2006, I decided to become a freelancer. Because I got a new job every year, because people just needed me for something very special. So I decided, okay, I'm going to do the ‘very special,’ and made at least three times more money than before.
I was living in Leipzig, which is south from Berlin, two hundred kilometers. I had to work in south Germany during the week, but I couldn't understand why I sit in this office, because nobody's talking to me anyway.
Then I was traveling for the first time in my life to India. India was completely trashing my assumptions about the world. There I was for two months and I said, I have to go back. One of my wishes was, I would like to do a project from India. I wanted to work from India just to prove it's possible. I did this in 2009.
Since 2007, I'd been thinking about a model of how I could work from my hometown and not travel every day. And there would be people like me who have the same problem. Finally in India in 2009, I saw people doing this; and I realized, there are other places in Stockholm, in London, in Paris, California, and so on.
So I decided to go back to Germany, came to my hometown and people were excited. They wanted to do this in my hometown, so we did this. I'm the co-founder; we had this co-working space in the city of Leipzig and I was wondering who would come. The first days, nobody would come. I was sitting alone. Suddenly one guy was coming, another guy. So it filled up, slowly, slowly. It was a nice, wonderful experience, but also a lot of fear nobody would come because I was the first.
Then I realized what kind of people would come and this was the interesting part. I saw one girl, she had a job in another German city, not freelancing, just employed, normal marketing work. Her boyfriend had a real job in Leipzig, in our city, and she asked her boss, "I want to keep my job, but I don't want the remote relationship. Can we do something?"
Her boss, a woman, said, "Well, we could try this." Then she came in the co-working space and they are still working there, since 2010. Now she's running the co-working space I was once founder of.
A couple of other people there are software developers, generally working without offices. But these are often very highly experienced people. But still, many people need the customer contact. You need to go to the customer. This is this big issue that is hard to break. People want you to see them.
Christine: David, as you've built this community, are there any stories that have stuck with you of people who’ve made it work?
David: The people who made it work the strongest are those who've come in with some expertise. What I think that this lifestyle gives is the opportunity, the ability to travel and go to different countries. It provides amazing perspective: You can understand what it's like to be in Indonesia and have an argument with a taxi driver. Or be in Vietnam and have an argument with a taxi driver. In Russia and get in an argument with –
Christine: Or in New York.
David: So you build up that perspective because physically you're there. You can close your eyes and understand what the smells are like and how people interact. You're probably missing 75% of it, but you get great perspective. You do that for months, you do that for a year.
But if you don't have something that you feel is a skill or something that you provide, what you lack is that sense of value. Sometimes people give that short shrift, meaning that they don't think about what the office provides or that in a job you have a specific role; you have value. You sometimes lose that if you're just filling something to get by.
The people who stayed with us the longest? Someone who works in an NGO in Sulawesi that runs a nature conservancy type program. Another gentleman whose family is in the Green School comes back here; he's got a job in Australia, but he brings his company out here for six months at a time.
Or the people who come out here for four months for a specific task or specific job. There's a company called Mailer Lite out of Lithuania that travels for several months with the whole team to a location. They've been able to make that work.
But for the long term, it's what value can you provide that will be more fulfilling than the arguments with the taxi drivers in different countries?
Christine: As a former hiring manager, I would get cover letters from people who wanted to join my team and it was about, "I think this is a great opportunity for me because I really want to do this, this, and this." But I'm not here to entertain you; I need to understand what value you bring to me. I'm not babysitting.
David: Well, we have that too. "I thought about my career and I'd love to live, work in Bali." The next line I get is something like, "You're in Bali." But it's really that they're trying to turn it in a different way to say, "I'd like to meet because you..."
You're right: I'm in Bali. But it's not like we're the only two people here. Not to sound curt; I don't need to walk through someone else's epiphany to find out that they're right for me. I would like to know why we're right together.
Paul: If you want to reinvent, one: You have to be willing to give up, or be willing to lose what you have. And be comfortable with periods where you don't know what's next.
This is the hardest thing for people because this is painful; you don't have a story to tell your parents. Your friends are like, "What are you doing?" And you don't know.
David: And you don't have a story for you either yet.
Paul: Two: You need to then define success. What is success in broader life? If it is pleasing what other people think of you, that's an easy problem to solve. Just go get a job. If it is a broader perspective on life that's going to evolve, that constantly takes more reflection and trying to constantly tweak your options.
Third: How do you create mini experiments to test out what's next? This is something I've done in my own life. When I was working full-time, I did a pro bono consulting project, and quickly realized my long experience in industry was almost worthless because I didn't know how to do things on my own.
But I realized I kind of liked it and it enabled me to learn and do this faster. I did a few things like that: I did a couple of coaching experiments where I said, pay me a small amount, fire me if this doesn't work. But I'm going to take it seriously because I want to learn.
So all these learning and internships I created for myself. Then once I took the leap, I had a few data points and said, I can probably make this work. I left without a job; I had no idea what I was doing; I just quit because I was emotionally frustrated with a manipulative manager in New York.
I just kept doing the experiments. I planned a trip to Asia last year and then two weeks before I was leaving, somebody said, "Will you do this project for me?" Really high paying, really interesting for me. I'm like, “All right, well, I'm just gonna go for it, I don't care if I lose this project,” and said, “Alright, I'll do it 25% of my time from Asia for a really good rate.” They were like, "Okay." I was like, sh*t, I am not dreaming big enough.
Christine: They said “yes” too quickly!
Paul: That just blew my brain open. I was in Uluwatu a few days ago and remembered that about a year ago, I did my first day of work on a project in Uluwatu. That day I was like, holy crap, this is really cool.
But I'd spent a year freelancing where my whole conception of taking a leap to freelancing was, I'll just do exactly what I did full-time, which is freelance for that slight freedom. Clearly, I wasn't even realizing what I really wanted.
I do this now with people: How do you design a learning internship such that it gives you a piece of information about what to do next? The goal's not to be successful, the goal's not to create perfection, the goal's not to become that person: It's basically just to figure out what to do next.
Christine: Being ready to lose everything, and having the ability to lose everything for a little while until you figure out the thing that is next, is an enormous privilege. Is this conversation really just one for people with privilege? If so, how do we make it not that?
Nico: In the end, we all must make this experience; I see it as a little step of freedom, a little bit of new freedom for humanity. Because once you are there, what's then? How would the world develop? What is the consequence then?
When we talk about people who need it the most: When I'm lonely, I don't know where to go, whatever. I'm sick, I need to recover somewhere, but I need to go to my job to make a living. Maybe you just should go in a co-working space to do it for a month. It would help so much, because you would see the world suddenly from a different perspective. Maybe some boss in Germany or maybe Russia or somewhere else, could allow this to people who deserve it, to give them the opportunity to go for a month or two to another country.
Now even in Iran, you have co-working spaces. Now Georgia has now co-working. A co-working space is the first step to understand: How is it to be somewhere else? But what is the effect, and the consequences of that? Because it brings us to new questions. Is it only for personal opportunities? Or are there also risks involved? Sure, there are opportunities for your health and personal development and to see other people. But also risks involved because with new freedom, you create freedom and you have great responsibility.
You have more freedom because you need to focus when you can go where you want, where you go. What is the best place for you to go? Once you have experience, you can go anywhere.
Christine: David, are there different socioeconomic profiles of people who end up here?
David: In a sense, poverty or when you're trapped is the lack of choice. The fact is that many of this room are inherently wealthy or wealthy in our societies, have that ability to chose to be somewhere else. So we have that ability.
I was in Batu Bolong at a café. This sales guy was having a Bintang [beer] and saying, "You know, I've worked many years, I'm out of the rat race. It's been too hard. I'm here and I can decide when I want to work, I decide where I want to work. I don't know why anyone has to have a real full-time job."
I was looking at him sipping on a Bintang thinking, he's pretty lucky that the brewery’s working 24/7 to spit out that beer so he can be drinking it. And the chair that he's sitting on came from a plastic factory where I'm sure the people don't have the cushy jobs that allow them to go away for a month. And the sandwich that he was eating was cooked by someone who works six days a week –
Christine: And made less than the cost of the sandwich.
David: Right, worked from nine to eight. You aren't stuck because of the lack of options.
But I can't say that this life is always the best life and the best place for everyone. It's privilege. Because I think that there are people who do live this life because what they lack is something at home. They chose to find it somewhere else.
Bali has a very strong culture and strong sense of family. So you could argue that that is a more a privileged lifestyle. But I think when people have control over their life, that's a very good first step; and say, hey, where I am, it makes sense for me now. People are confident of themselves and realize that their work is a part of it.
Christine: Paul, of the people who come to you and you then have these conversations with, is there diversity among them?
Paul: The people with the most money, the most resources, are the most terrified to take leaps and reinvent themselves.
I do some online learning. I was talking to this guy in Malaysia a couple weeks ago. He's like, "Can I have access to your course? I want to learn all these things so I can do this. Here's what I do for my community. Oh and here's how much I make a month." I created a $49 fee for the course; he said, "This would be half my monthly pay." I'm like, what are you doing? Do not pay me. You're so motivated.
I get people like this who are so motivated and they're just going right to YouTube and learning stuff. I'm obviously not the best person to talk about this, but I see a lot more people getting trapped by opportunity than enabled by it.
The gig economy in places like Britain and the U.S. has turned a lot of good full-time jobs into crappy gig work. However, they've also tapped into huge, great opportunities for people that are able to work digitally in other countries. Because the wages are way higher in those countries.
I've done some stuff on Upwork and I always ask, what's a good wage? Are you sure this is enough? I always try to double or triple it just because it's so amazing. But a lot of these things are simultaneously bad for well-off countries, but great for people working around the world. I see all these people that are just getting started learning, teaching themselves. I mean the opportunities are just starting to emerge and getting bigger.
Nico: This is a question which was important to me, what consequences we have globally in this kind of gig economy. Also, what kind of consequences this has locally to remote work.
I see that remote work can have a very good impact on local communities until suddenly a spot gets so hip when everybody moves there. And the people who used to be there have to go. Then it's the time when I'm going somewhere else, because I don't want to be responsible for somebody else who's losing his home.
On the other hand, you have this global effect of gigs for people from India, from ex-Soviet Union states, South America, low wage countries; they offer their work to a low price. When I was in Russia, it was in winter, and it was minus 30 degrees, no Russians were there, in the co-working space in Russia; but I'm there because I like it. But then, what does it do with the wages of the western guys? It's also necessary that it goes down. Then we end up in the same places for the people from the low-wage kind of place; the people from the so-called privileged countries with the high wages, they end up in countries where they have a great life
I was in Georgia; right now, you can go to Georgia without any visa. Prices are like here, you can rent apartments at the same price as here. For now.
Christine: David, you just opened up an Outpost in Cambodia, so can you talk a little bit about what that's been like? Who's showing up there?
David: There it's mostly local Cambodians. But there's no city here. People local [here in Bali] want to work in the service industry, direct with customers, so there are less locals here[at Outpost Canggu]. But I think there's some of that opportunity that we can spread, with foreigners working with local towns and city centers. So we try to facilitate that.
Nico: Couldn't it be a solution to the people who come from other countries who work in co-working spaces, Cambodia for example, to involve the local community?
David: It happens when the local community is stronger than where we are in Canggu, where there's not much of a city that used to be here, so there aren't that many locals. But if we were in more in a city, then you would see more interaction.
With gratitude to Outpost for hosting, and the panelists for their time, candor, and expertise.