014 / Future Work
July 11, 2021

“The only condition of fighting for the right to create is faith in your own vocation, readiness to serve, and refusal to compromise.”–Andrei Tarkovsky

When I left Philadelphia I worried that I would not be able to find work in the Netherlands. Or that it would be difficult to maintain contact with clients back in the US. Four years later, the opposite has proven true. Things have only gotten easier in many respects thanks to ever developing software based infrastructure and to a number of changes in the way we work and how we view our work. Many of these mini-revolutions were fast-tracked on by the Covid pandemic. 

The past 18 months have caused us to reconsider many facets of our life that seemed to be permanently ingrained, but when faced with the pandemic were completely reimagined. I was shocked at how suddenly it was completely normal for us to not all get into cars and trains and buses during the exact same hours in order to commute to work. Many of us learned that we were just as productive, if not more, working from home as we were in the office. Yet as we emerge from the darkest Covid months, there is much to read about how we are reconsidering the workplace, and about the trend of companies recalling employees to the workplace to assume the pre-pandemic 9 to 5 status quo. It will take some years before we know what truly has changed. 

Of course, there are two sides to every story. When we work only at home, we lose direct contact with our coworkers and we miss out on the presence of the body and all the communication that it subconsciously emanates. For me I mostly enjoy working at home or in cafes, but there are times where the presence of a team and coworkers is critical in certain stages of a project. I believe that in the future we will have some mix of the two approaches to work when possible.  

My experience returning to freelancing work during the pandemic has proven that it’s an interconnected world. I continue to work with clients back in the USA regularly. It matters less and less where clients and employers are geographically located, and the global quarantine situation has accelerated this. More and more companies will allow their employees to work from home, and you’ll need to develop a skill set that lets you do this well. It’s a skill set that many freelancers may already have because they are used to being mobile and working without an office. However, all of us will need to get better at working remotely, communicating more clearly, collaborating asynchronously and documenting our work and process in a transparent manner. There are a lot of tools out there that enable us to do so, and I think the new landscape we find ourselves in will fundamentally change the role of design, the day to day life of designers, and create an opportunity for designers to play new and more strategic roles.

I think that this type of multidimensional, flexible and cross-category way of working is the future. We know that Artificial Intelligence is already having a major impact on the world of work, influencing everything from job training and recruitment to beginning to actually replace drivers and cashiers (for now - I think most jobs will be heavily impacted by better machines in the next 20 years). However, what I am mostly interested in, and something that AI can’t replace (at least not yet) is the ability to critically think in one domain, learn from it, and then apply what you’ve learned in a completely different domain. This is where design has a unique position and ability to bring new insights into projects in both the business and cultural worlds.

It’s also clear that the way we work in the future will be asynchronous and geographically agnostic, for the most part. This rang especially true to me the other day when I received a rent payment from one of my tenants back in the states. She was on a film shoot in Alaska, and sent me the money via Venmo. I woke up and checked the receipt of the payment from my kitchen table in Haarlem and sent the money to my personal bank account, which has a physical location in Kensington, Philadelphia. This was a simple interaction, but all coordinated through apps and with very little effort. This type of software based infrastructure allows me to live in a way that was not possible ten years ago.

Some other things I’ve been thinking and reading about which are related to how working in the future might look: 

Work hours should be flexible

Sometimes you might come up with an idea that changes the entire direction of a project in seconds - often this won’t happen when you are sitting in front of a screen, but when you are out for a bike ride or reading a book. It’s important to understand this - the value of work, especially knowledge and creative work, isn’t intrinsically linked to the number of hours you put into it. You only penalize yourself financially if you link output to input as a 1 to 1 ratio. Good creative ideas scale, and their worth isn’t defined by an hourly rate. My point is not to downplay hard work. There are times when you need to be in front of a screen, grinding for 10 or 12 hours straight. But if this is your everyday practice, something is wrong.

Better planning

Not going into an office makes it important that we plan better. Because employers don’t have their employees sitting at a desk just a few feet from their offices, they need to plan and coordinate better. It’s even more important for a freelancer working in a different city or time zone than your client. Good planning, status updates and a clear overview of the project will result in high levels of trust, which typically result in low-stress, high creativity work environments.  

Working in different geographic locations means team leaders and managers can’t assume everyone is working at the same time. This is part of the transition to asynchronous work, and part of why there is some resistance to allowing people to continue to work from home. However I believe with some planning and foresight, this problem is easily overcome and that allowing people to do the work when they best see fit will have a higher payoff, and result in workers with a better life/work balance. I like software like Google Docs, Trello or Figma, which allow me to collaborate easily with clients and collaborators regardless of where we live. This way of working also forces me to clearly explain my thinking around a project and explicitly document its status for my collaborators. This helps me to gain a better understanding of the project and really know it inside and out. 

Building my work around my life, not the other way around

Pre-pandemic we went to work at 9 and finished at 5 (if we were lucky) This schedule is a holdover from the industrial revolution, and no longer makes sense. We now can arrange our day around other tasks in our life, be it doing the laundry, picking up kids. This can extend well beyond our daily routine. There is no reason to work non-stop until retirement. Now we can envision different rhythms to how we plan our life and work, and are free to imagine how we spend our time. 

I’ve always liked the graphic created by Stefan Sagmeister that illustrates different ways of modelling the time spent at work, learning and retiring. It’s not exactly how I would go about it, but it gets the point across.

Stefan Sagmeister Graphic

Considering new directions

Now (it’s always now, but this now is particularly fecund) is a good time to reconsider what it is that you do. I don’t mean start over from scratch necessarily, but take time to consider your work and what your relationship to it is. What role does it play in your life and in the life of others? The cool thing about any type of work is that it provides an opportunity to have an effect, however big or small, in the life of someone else. We used to call it a vocation, or a calling. These things can make what we do more than just a job that earns money or passes the time. Instead, we can approach what we do for work as a means of communication and connection, as a chance to realize our creativity. We have an opportunity to serve others and to connect with something larger than ourselves, something more meaningful than just a paycheck. 

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