The Industrial Revolution. Women in the workplace. The invention of the weekend. There have been moments that changed the face of the modern workplace forever, and there are surely more of them to come. Writing in the Atlantic, Sara Horowitz says that the next great cultural shift will be getting rid of offices entirely.
Horowitz, who is the CEO of the Freelancers Union, believes that the growing acceptance of flex time and the rise of people who are permalancers or freelancers in their fields will ultimately bring about the end of the traditional office workplace. “Just as workers left the plow for the assembly line,” she writes, “they are now leaving the cubicle for the coffee shop.” Horowitz refers to the “Gig Economy,” where people work on discrete part time projects for multiple companies – sometimes in multiple industries – rather than at one job for one specific company. In many cases, this new workforce model came about because of the bad economy, which caused many workers to diversify their skill sets in order to protect themselves in the case of an industry failure. And Horowitz isn’t the only person observing the new freelance-style career path. Most people credit The Daily Beast founder Tina Brown with coining the term “Gig Economy” in a famous 2009 column. “Now that everyone has a project-to-project freelance career, everyone is a hustler,” the article warned, and Brown added that returning to a “piecemeal”-style economy was going to lead to inexperienced people making errors and not having enough dedicated employees to manage them and catch mistakes. In particular, she wrote about freelance journalists and wondered if all publications would now be rife with copy errors. But is that the fault of the workers opting out of a full time career path, or the fault of companies who continue to lay off high-paid workers and replace them with benefit-less part timers in order to cut costs?
Horowitz goes one step further than Brown, saying that “the post-cubicle economy” will soon be a reality. While she’s not suggesting dismantling businesses, she points out that the accessibility and ease of technology make it easier for people to balance their work and personal lives. Now, is there really a need for everyone to be in the office for a quick meeting when they can save money on gas, electricity, and office space by doing the meeting over the phone or in a protected chat room? Unlike the model Brown describes, which is a Wild West free-for-all, Horowitz envisions a model that saves money and time without sacrificing professionalism. Would you rather work while sitting at a desk in your home office, surrounded by all your own stuff, able to let in the plumber and take the dog out for a walk and pick your kid up from school, or in a cubicle where it’s so loud you can barely hear yourself think? Blaming employees for the decline in the economy is absurd. Instead, Brown and the other hand-wringers of the world should think about why employees have chosen to opt out of the traditional work schedule and create their own careers – and lives. Working from somewhere other than an office doesn’t automatically equal “slacker who works less.” Instead, it recognizes that today’s citizens have other meaningful things in their lives in addition to their jobs, and that they intend to balance all of those things (family, work, personal relationships, outside interests) rather than sacrifice them to earn money for someone else.