When I started Storyhunter I imagined one buzzing office in NYC with employees chatting, meeting, and plotting to dent the universe around some hipper version of a water cooler, perhaps an iced latte cooler. As it turned out, we now drink what we want when we want since we’re made up of several remote teams spread across various cities; NYC, San Francisco, Austin, and London, with no central headquarters or beverage station. We did this to be closer to key markets, take advantage of economic incentives, and cater to the lifestyles of our employees who wanted to maximize their own personal fulfillment. What’s crazy is that this has made our company more profitable, our team happier, and has also prepared us reasonably well for this pandemic.
For the interests of public health and economic prosperity, I believe it’s essential for all companies to learn how to be productive remotely right now. This may be a scary transition, but it will likely benefit your company, and the global economy in the long run.
Let me explain.
For generations, the corporate world was a 9 to 5, office bound experience for employees. With the advent of the internet, digital communications technologies, and the flattening distribution of the global talent market, the “office” is no longer confined by walls, ceilings, and a specific zip code. 9 to 5 has been replaced by flexible schedules across time zones. Employees are now a dynamic mix of staffers, permalancers, and freelancers who are mobile, flexible, and can work from just about anywhere.
This is not the future of work. This is the present.
Working from home is now an acronym (WFH) while the freelance economy continues to skyrocket. The gig economy as a whole is expected to nearly double to a whopping $455B in 2023. Industries like transportation (Uber, Lyft) and asset sharing (Airbnb,Turo) have been the most obvious and quickest ones to change. However, professional services as a category is now going freelance in massive numbers as well, with 45% of American freelancers providing services like marketing, IT and business consultingThis will have huge implications on just about everyone’s jobs, with more and more companies moving core functions and knowledge work towards freelancers.
The reason savvy companies, large and small, are taking advantage of on-demand remote, freelance teams for all kinds of functions, from marketing to engineering to content production has typically been economic. If you don’t have to pay a full time salary for a job you need part time, why do it? If you can hire someone in a cheaper market than the one you operate in, why do it? While economic incentives may have been the most clear advantage, amidst the Coronavirus outbreak, the other advantages of flexible, on demand labor have become self-evident. Now, more than ever, freelancers are in a unique position to be a saving grace for companies looking to continue business as usual.
The trap here is to think about freelancers as a temporary fix for the era of Coronavirus. Freelancers should be a permanent fix to make companies more productive, efficient, and happy. We are living in a different economic age than the one that shaped many of the largest organizations still on the planet today. When General Motors started in 1908, for instance, the telephone was a recent invention and most people did not have one. It was impossible for one engineer to Slack another engineer to get on a quick Zoom call and discuss a design feature for a car. Those engineers had to be in the same room together to solve a problem.
Companies today must design themselves differently. Assets like real estate, land, and labor matter less than brand values, a culture of learning, and ability to hire effectively. The reality is that a large percentage of manual, blue collar labor will be outsourced to robots over the next 20 years. Knowledge work, which I define broadly as “thinking for a living”” will be the only thing left for humans to do in the future. This shift will have massive implications on all aspects of society, and we need to prepare now.
How do we prepare?
- Start hiring the best person for the job, regardless of geography.
Effective immediately, companies should outsource their knowledge work to the best thinker for the job, regardless of where they are on the planet or how they classify themselves as a worker. If the knowledge worker prefers the autonomy of freelance, work with them anyways. They can always come on board full time later. Imagine, if you have a problem to solve at your company, and there is someone on the opposite side of the planet who can solve it faster than anyone else, why would you hire someone locally who will solve it more slowly or not solve it at all? This is essentially the blunder that companies make when they bias themselves to hiring locally.
2. Adopt a freelancer-first hiring mentality
Hiring the right full time employees is one of the hardest things companies do. Even the best companies make mistakes. Hiring freelancers offer so many advantages. Firstly, it enables you to see what it’s like to work with someone before hiring them full time. They save you money since you don’t have to cover payroll taxes and benefits. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they offer you specialized skills when you need them. Freelancers are the ultimate, and nearly infinite, Swiss Army tool.
3. Let work happen anywhere
Obviously, if you are producing poultry or airplanes, this is not applicable. If you are not in an industry that requires people in the same room, consider letting people work from anywhere. For most industries, offices certainly should no longer be the primary place where work happens. You may also want to save some money and close yours for good. I know this is a tough decision and goes against many of the things we’ve been taught about corporate life. (If this is a hard decision for you, I highly recommend listening to this conversation between Sam Harris and Matt Mullenweg.)
I know that I personally think better and clearer when I’m out of an office environment. Since late 2019, I have been a CEO who mainly works from my home office in San Francisco. I spend some mornings surfing, playing with my kids, or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge, and often have my best ideas and clearest thoughts while doing these things. This is true for many people I know. Programmers, doctors, architects, designers, marketers and video producers, all are capable of doing their best work outside of an office, and if they prefer more autonomy, in a freelance capacity.
When people are doing their best work, companies benefit with more productivity and better morale. If companies are hiring freelancers for short term, on demand projects rather than hiring full time employees that are under optimized, companies benefit with more productivity and increased profit. When you aggregate the effect of just these two changes, what you see is a more efficient, productive, and faster-growing global economy.
Despite the Coronavirus’s devastating short term impact on our economic order, I am optimistic that we will re-build the economy in a way that’s more anti-fragile, or at least better suited to the future. The beauty of capitalism is that we don’t really have a choice. Those companies who adopt the new way of working will do more than just build economic immunity to future public health and environmental calamities. They will gain a more productive and happier workforce right now.