A few weeks ago, I rented a spare desk from a small, local company and returned to cubicle-farm land after five feral years in
the wild coffee shops. Two as a virtual employee, three as a free agent. Looking further back, I’ve been writing about virtual and mobile work, lifestyle design and free agency from the earliest days of this blog. My earliest (and most embarrassing) posts on the subject are from October 2007. I was also researching the subject for work and leading a technology project inspired by it at the time. And looking even further back, I was flirting with the ideas and practices at least as far back as 2004.
Strangely though, cubicles feel different to me now that I’ve voluntarily chosen to return to one. Amazing though it might seem, I can actually work in them now. Apparently, I’ve returned to cubicle-dom with superpowers acquired in the wild.
There’s nothing particularly unique about my path though. For the better part of a decade, somewhere between 20 and 40% of working adults in America (depending on how you count) have been doing something similar. Dan Pink’s Free Agent Nation, published in 2002, is now more than a decade old. And he was calling out a phenomenon that was already nearly a decade old at the time. The book now reads like a history book rather than an account of a contemporary phenomenon.
The transformation is over. We are no longer pioneers establishing a new lifestyle pattern. We are a twenty-year-old demographic, sandwiched between the creatively unemployed and the paycheck class, complete with our own stereotypical behaviors, vanities and delusions. We just haven’t acquired a Dilbert strip to mirror our lives yet.
So it’s about time we defined free agency on its own terms, rather than as a reaction to, or exile from, the paycheck world.
Seeing Like a Free Agent
It took me a while to find a workspace I liked. A deal to barter consulting services for a desk about a year ago fell through. Several places I considered turned out to be either too expensive, too full of frills, or too inconvenient.
But finally, I found the perfect space. Besides meeting all my checklist requirements, I got an unexpected bonus: a water view, complete with passing container ships.
Having an office feels both familiar and strange.
This is visually exactly the same sort of cubicle-farm world I left behind in November 2008 (though technically, I left behind a shared 2-person office rather than a cubicle), but it doesn’t feel the same. The office does not seem oppressive to me as it once did. I feel no urge to put up Dilbert cartoons or snarky demotivation posters (to my credit, I’ve never succumbed to either that urge, or the opposite urge to put up motivational posters and uplifting slogans).
I can actually work here. I don’t feel like dumping my backpack and jacket and immediately heading somewhere else with my laptop.
There are objective differences too, of course.
For one thing, my coworkers are also different. The primary lessee of the space is a small software company that has about half a dozen more desks than it needs. They seem to get most of their work done by orchestrating an invisible staff of virtual freelancers.
Besides me, there are a couple of software engineers working for a different software company in Europe, who have also rented desks.
There is no complex IT infrastructure, just a WiFi password and a discoverable wireless printer. Consumerization of IT and BYOD aren’t hand-wringing CIO debates here, just matter-of-fact realities.
Workspaces as Signal Spaces
My new desk is in a functional workspace with all of the basics and none of the frills. And priced accordingly. Cloud mouse over metro mouse. It is somewhat unique and charming, but simply by virtue of being a repurposed older building, not design. Crucially, I am not paying a premium for either standardization or uniqueness as a feature. The uniqueness is simply part of the natural variety of real estate in a large city with buildings of different sizes, ages and original purposes, and from different architectural periods. Real estate being an economies-of-variety market, there is an element of pot luck to what you get. You pay extra for predictable outcomes.
From my year of lazy and casual shopping around for a space, it seems like you end up paying for more than just a workspace if you want your workspace to also serve as a signal space. The predictability people pay for is signaling predictability.
Going by what’s on the market, it seems most free agents either want to signal conspicuous production in an artisan economy, or a certain kind of threadbare oak-panels-and-cheap-suits respectability to an old industry clientele.
Those two kinds of signaling requirements map respectively to the modern cottage industry of coworking spaces (which offers curated uniqueness) and its parent from the industrial age, the not-so-cottage executive-suite industry (which offers industrial-age standardization at different price points).
The reason I don’t want to pay the premium is not some kind of I-am-above-signaling hauteur, but because pretty much all my signaling needs are satisfied online. All my vanities are cheap, digital ones. And I am not averse to paying for a physical signaling space when I need one for special occasions.
So my new desk isn’t in a branded coworking space that makes a huge deal of offering a unique and local alternative pattern of working life, complete with bean-bag chairs, a calendar of meetups, barcamps and talks by visiting social media gurus (and 3d printers). Over the last few years, I’ve visited several such spaces, and every time, I’ve been instantly put off by the rather smarmy we-are-special-chosen-people-pioneering-a-new-world vibe. I certainly don’t want to pay a premium for the privilege of wearing my free-agent lifestyle on my sleeve and associating with others with whom the only thing I have in common is a certain amount of income volatility.
Neither is it in an executive suites building. It does not have the sterile, transient and impersonal feel of a hotel or airport lounge. I’ve visited several of those as well, and every time, I’ve been struck by an instant vibe of shady shell corporations, fly-by-night operations and middle-aged conference-attending consultants in cheap suits.
My new desk is just a part of a regular piece of commercial real estate that appears to have joined the free-agent world via a simple Craigslist ad, without making a huge fuss about it. And without charging a big premium for social frills and self-consciously over-designed interiors.
You could call it a pajama workplace. Comfortable and functional. No frills. Looks decent enough in a low-resolution video-conference.
Physical workspaces, unlike say the files on your computer, are by definition full of visible things that embody functional capabilities. This means everything in a workspace has signaling capacity, whether or not you need it. But not everything has a function besides signaling.
The key to understanding the distinction between signaling and non-signaling functions is the idea of a frill.
I’ll take a stab at defining the term here.
A frill is neither an obviously non-functional aesthetic touch (that would be a flourish) nor a clearly unnecessary functional capability (that would be wasted functionality). Rather, it is a functional capability you want to signal as being a part of your life, but not actually use.
This means you are indifferent to the optimality with which a frill does or does not perform its nominal function. In part because you cannot meaningfully estimate optimality at all. How do you know whether a budget low-end widget will suffice or whether you need a quality high-end one if you don’t actually use it or intend to? So a frill is meaningless functionality that exists purely for signalling purposes.
For instance, somebody who actually wants to research or learn 3d printing will likely spend a lot of time researching which ones fit their needs, which maker spaces sport which models, and whether it might make more sense to buy one and rent space at a non-maker coworking space.
But somebody who merely wants to signal, either to others or to themselves, a vague association with the Maker movement and being “with it” (should we call them wantamakers by analogy to wantapreneurs?), is happy with any old 3d printer that encodes the appropriate status signal.
So a frill is a functional, but non-load-bearing element of a lifestyle design. A piece of physical Frankfurtian bullshit in your life. I have been guilty of putting frills into my work life in the past, most notably a Wacom Intuos tablet that I bought for $300 and used exactly once for a drawing I actually needed to make.
Frills vs. Options vs. Learning Accessories
It is important though, to distinguish between frills, learning accessories and options. Frills are functional capabilities you will likely exercise rarely or not at all. Options are also things you will exercise rarely or not at all. Learning accessories are things you might get around to using intensely for a period when you have a window of opportunity, but will likely outgrow if you persist.
Non-trivial functional capabilities generally require a certain level of skill to utilize. Even staplers or printers, which involve little direct learning, only make sense for literate people who read and write.
So a good way to tell these three kinds of low-usage capabilities apart is their learning state.
A learning accessory is for a skill you haven’t yet acquired. Chances are, if you are serious about learning something, you’ll buy a cheap, beginner accessory because you realize you might not last through the learning curve and don’t know enough yet to make the choices a skilled user might make. For instance, I recently bought a cheap beginner squash racket. I’ve used it quite a lot in the last year, but it is clear I am unlikely to ever graduate to a better one.
An option is a capability for exercising a skill you have already acquired and can deploy at moment’s notice, but don’t need to deploy every day. Chances are, you will pay for the capability at a level reflecting your skill level and expectations of future skill-maintenance and upgrade needs. My decision to shell out for a Matlab license a few years ago (which many readers criticized me for back when I blogged about the purchase) is an example. I fire it up for fun and skill-maintenance occasionally, and have occasionally used it for bits and pieces of consulting projects. It’s pure optionality: keeping up those existing skills is cheaper than acquiring new skills (such as Python) which would involve “free” tools but vastly more time investment.
But a workspace frill is something concerning which you have no serious intentions at all. So your choice is likely to be unrelated to your skill level. In the case of my Intuos tablet, I am actually decent enough at drawing that if I’d been really serious, I’d probably have bought the more expensive Cintiq instead. That’s how I know it was a frill purchase. Ironically, I now find myself doing my lazy doodling on an iPad app. That’s the actual level of my seriousness with respect to drawing. I can’t even recall if I still have the Intuos or gave it away.
Reading a Workspace
If your workspace has a proliferation of frills, you are either a hustler (not the good kind), or worse, you’re bullshitting yourself. Here’s how you can tell whether your work-life design is full of frills or meaningful functionality.
If your choices are aesthetically and financially consistent (premium of everything, budget everything, minimalist everything, showy everything, maximalist everything, blue everything, paisley everything), there’s a good chance you are creating a workspace full of frills. If you make choices based on anticipated real patterns of use and learning, there will be a good deal of variability in your choices. Solid, premium choices for frequent-use things, cheap and flimsy choices for things you want to have in hand just in case for non-critical emergencies, must-work-when-needed choices for option capabilities, beginner choices for learning projects, and so forth.
Non-signaling usage concerns lead to non-trivial capability trade-offs within a budget based on some sort of work-life strategy. Signaling concerns on the other hand, lead to visible aesthetic consistency.
I suspect most free agents pay for a lot of frills they don’t need, because they are actually shopping for validation of their work-life choices rather than just a place to work. It is a more expensive expression of the tendency that drives newbie free agents to obsess over business cards, the ancestor of all modern free-agent frills.
So a business card is a good benchmark object.
If your workspace is as legible as, and aesthetically consistent with, your business card, you should suspect yourself of living a frilly life. If it is significantly more illegible and aesthetically incoherent, there’s a good chance your workspace is a space of real work.
You should certainly have business cards incidentally, but you definitely should not obsess over them. Having business cards is a cost of doing business because people do occasionally sometimes ask for them in situations where emailing or texting is inconvenient. But I can sincerely say I’ve had exactly zero returns from my business card purchases over the years. Nothing of consequence has ever happened in my life because I either handed out or accepted a business card.
The only actual return is the slight thrill that accompanies cracking open a new box and seeing your self-image validated by a beautiful piece of stiff paper.
I have this vague idea that we should just recognize business cards for what they are, and commission them as little paintings. We can then go around handing them out with the line, “here’s a miniature copy of the conceptual self-portrait I have on my wall.” We could all display our incoming business cards like stamp collections.
Unfortunately, even moo.com business cards (yup, that’s the kind I have) aren’t collectible-pretty.
Signaling for Profit and Validation
I fully recognize the irony of my poking fun at coworking and executive signal spaces here.
I do sometimes put on conservative clothes and do some middle-aged conference-attending, working out of threadbare hotel lounges and airports. And I do sometimes put on more casual clothes and do the whole barcamp-meetup-social-media-guru thing. If there’s enough money involved, I am perfectly willing to wear either a suit or bright green Converse sneakers for an event.
So both kinds of tribal descriptions could easily apply to me (but I am not one of them! I am different! Why can’t anyone tell I am wearing this suit ironically!).
The point is, it is not about how you choose or arrange your workplaces, but why. In particular, whether you are signaling for profit or validation.
If your choices reflect rebellious rejection of an oppressive old narrative of work, or an eager reaching for a new narrative of work you aspire to, they are not free choices, and you are not a free agent. You are bullshitting yourself.
If your particular pattern of work actually requires those signaling capabilities (perhaps you are a graphic designer or CPA whose clients visit your office and expect to see certain established credibility signals), then a coworking space or executive suite might be for you. If you are actually making things, or learning to make things, a maker space might be for you.
You might be hustling others, but in my book, that just makes you a canny for-profit player, not a validation-seeker.
But if you primarily work online and are only signaling to yourself and local kindred spirits who offer emotional support but no economic value, you’re essentially paying a premium to sustain a particular self-image and/or pattern of workplace codependency.
You’re signaling for validation rather than profit. It’s keeping up with the Joneses at work.
For this privilege, you will pay a stiff price. From my informal survey of market rates, on the hipster end, you’ll pay a premium between 50-200% (or wait a long time on a waiting list). On the executive suite respectability-signaling end, you’ll pay a lower premium thanks to economies of scale and the maturity of that industry.
That is why I think bare-metal workspaces, created through reclamation of industrial age buildings for an economies-of-variety local market, are the future. Free agents making free choices in a given large market for office space, and doing most of their signaling-for-profit online, will simply have very divergent needs, with a least-common-denominator definition of bare metal.
Like AWS for computing, or coach air travel, office space is ultimately a commodity. Location, cost and the basics — desks, chairs, WiFi, refrigerators, working heating and air conditioning, coffee and possibly a gym if it is actually used — matter. Everything else is an optional extra. Quite possibly the only real shift we might need is from regular desks to standing desks (doing a lot of standing work over the past year or so has definitely been beneficial for me).
We’re in China now. You don’t call it Chinese food. You just call it food. When a third of the population does it, it won’t be coworking anymore. It will just be working.
Within the decade, I suspect the overwrought, frill-filled, mutual-validation free-agent frontier, as well as the executive suite rearguard of the industrial age, will give way to a much more banal and habitable free-agent mainstream market of varied, no-frills workspaces organized by something like Airbnb. A world that does not look noticeably different on the surface from workplaces of the past, since most of us will be doing the bulk of our signaling-for-profit online rather than with our desks.
So assuming you’ve sorted out the widgets of your work life into signaling capabilities, non-signaling functional capabilities, option capabilities, learning accessories and frills (and hopefully eliminated much of the last category), what do you do do with the ingredients?
One option is to simply stop there. There are people who like the toolkit metaphor. Workspaces as nothing more than collections of capabilities (or affordances as UX people like to call them).
Another is to recognize your own need for non-zero levels of environmental and social validation and attempt to introduce a certain level of frilly aesthetic coherence and social codependency into your working life. This, I think, is what the most talented ironic hipsters do. So long as you are alive to the distinction between frill and function, and recognize the former as a luxury in your budget, you could call this a harmless vice.
But I think there is a more functionally powerful way of looking at a workspace as more than a collection of individual affordances. And it costs no additional money.
To get there, you have to see-like-a-free-agent at an architectural level, and recode the meanings in your environment inside your own head. You might not move so much as a paper clip, but still end up reframing what you see in a dramatically different way. And be happier for it.
I call this process recoding (derived from the idea of codification and embedding that I explored in Tempo). Think of it as the process of refactoring meanings and ideas that are outside, rather than inside your head.
Let’s tackle the cubicle as an example.
Recoding the Cubicle
Open plans and cubicles have come to represent, in our imagination, all the ideological tyranny of cost-cutting Big Brother 9-5 corporations. They seem to be the result of corporations perversely seeking out, over several decades, the sweet spot of maximal misery between old-fashioned private office layouts and the mild intimacy of coffee-shop style layouts. A perfectly Kafkaesque backdrop for three decades of broken promises of lifetime employment and defined benefit retirements.
Yet, the physical form of the cubicle itself isn’t particularly oppressive. Unlike say, a decor based on medieval torture instruments or Hello Kitty imagery (sorry, I repeated myself), which force meanings into the environment with authoritarian vigor, a cubicle is a fairly unrestricted and banal canvas for your thoughts, once you sever the association with the narrative of lifetime paycheck employment.
The neutral, semi-private beige partitions, continuous partial interruptability, and muffled background chatter actually make for a fairly pleasant environment to work in. By contrast, private offices can feel like solitary confinement cells. Coffee shops can be oppressively cheery, especially when the staff makes unfortunate music choices. A subtle point by the way: muffled background chatter is only non-oppressive if it is inconsequential for you personally. Things you overhear at the water cooler or from the next cubicle have a very different impact if the people you overhear work for the same employer.
Cubicles and open plans only seem oppressive to the (slowly shrinking) population with memories of a 9-5-default world because those who historically worked in them had very little control over what the meanings in their environment.
As an example of recoding, consider the factoid that has become familiar over the last decade: that work doesn’t happen in offices. A statistic I recall from Dan Pink’s book for instance, is that 70% of desks are unoccupied at any given time.
Under the imposed narrative of an industrial age corporation (which includes required 9-5 presence), that factoid can mean one of only three things: that the absent people have fled to work elsewhere, been sucked into a deeper circle of hell (such as a death-by-PowerPoint meeting), or are off on vacation.
That would certainly have been true of me five years ago. I only worked out of my office when I absolutely had to (in the interstices of meetings), which wasn’t very often.
But an unoccupied cubicle in a free agent workplace could mean vastly more and different things. It could mean you use the desk primarily as a control center for storing files and other physical work tools. It could mean you have a large monitor there and only need to come in to do things like visual design that require a large monitor. It could mean you get your mail and process your paper inbox there. It could mean you are working out of one of your other workspaces (why choose between home office, office-office and third place if you don’t have to?). For a free agent, a workspace is not a stimulus for predictable default aversion reactions (of course, that doesn’t stop you from developing entirely unique new aversion reactions).
The cubicle means what you want it to mean. The same goes for other spaces you work out of, such as a home office or a favorite table at a coffee shop.
Same physical vocabulary, different stories. Recoding. A new narrative of work cannibalizing an old, unraveling one for parts. Creative destruction playing out at the level of office equipment.
The Six Freedoms of Agency
The cubicle is just one of many other elements of work that can be recoded to serve within a new narrative without much by way of physical changes.
Free agency, viewed as the ability to treat work environments as a canvas for narrative artistry, is a set of six major basic degrees of freedom in the design of work (each of which is of course a bundle of variables):
- Design of physical workspaces
- Design of virtual presence patterns
- Design of physical mobility patterns
- Design of income security management mechanisms
- Retirement planning (the 65+ version, not the Tim Ferriss mini version)
- Insurance planning
Most other elements of lifestyle design can be reduced to these six. Anything that is not reducible to these is most likely either a frill, or part of the design of a particular gig rather than the overall lifestyle.
There are plenty of blogs and sources offering good advice on how to manage each of these, so I won’t go into them.
The huge learning for me over the past three years has been that the last three intangible elements account for an overwhelming majority of design decisions you need to make. The first three are certainly important, and can on occasion call for significant expenditure, but they are fundamentally easy variables to think about, once you recode physical realities to carry new meanings.
But the last three are fundamentally harder. In particular, everything revolves around item 4. Financially, free agency is pretty much defined by a strong coupling between short-term and long-term financial management. Manage that coupling well, and you’ll survive. Manage it poorly and you’ll crash out. With or without a 3d printer.
Free Agency as an Evolving Technology
Free agency is a technology of integration: a set of recoding practices and design principles that suggest, but do not constrain, patterns of functional choices for to support patterns of work enabled by Internet technologies (virtual presence and small business SaaS tools in particular).
Unlike the industrial age, which required agrarian workspace designs (such as barns) to change dramatically to accommodate entirely different physical behaviors and functions (such as typing and drafting), much of the transformation being wrought by Internet technologies requires little or no change to physical spaces.
But workspaces will change, because we will view them differently. They will mean different things to us, individually and collectively. Twenty years from now, an eight-year-old kid prompted to look at a picture of an office from the 2000s and imagine a story about it will find it familiar, but will make up a story that will be very unfamiliar to the people in the picture.
As a technology, free agency has been progressing for the past decade through an adoption curve. In terms of Geoffrey Moore’s model, we are definitely past the early adopter phase. We have crossed the chasm and are past the bowling alley: labor markets of initial traction, such as graphic design, website development, marketing (we can drop the qualifier “Internet” as in “Internet marketing” now) and media.
We are currently in the tornado, and about to hit what Moore calls Main Street: widespread adoption. Free agency in every industry, in every geography, for every kind of work not intimately tied to either complex physical equipment or extremely intensive demands on face-to-face interaction. And both those categories are shrinking rapidly, thanks to the increasing sophistication of remote operations and virtual presence technologies.
Ironically, as a well-known startup veteran pointed out to me, a Silicon Valley technology startup is one of the latter kinds of work situations: the required level of interpersonal chemistry is too intense to be sustained over the virtual collaboration tools that the Valley has delivered to the rest of the economy.
A sobering note is in order there. My own anecdotal observation suggests that the half-life of a free agent is on the order of about 18 months (which might have something to do with COBRA in the United States). The most common pattern of exit appears to be crash-and-burn due to rough cash-flow patches (exacerbated by low-flexibility apartment leases) and/or healthcare concerns.
Website hiccups and lousy execution aside, I think healthcare reform in the US is sort of the starter pistol signal for mainstream free-agency. Incredibly banal though it might seem, I suspect the lack of affordable and portable healthcare has been the main reason the (voluntary) free-agent lifestyle has been accessible primarily to the young, healthy and childless in the past decade.