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The Future of Work

John Nicholas
John Nicholas
8 min read
The Future of Work
Photo by LYCS Architecture / Unsplash

The way we work is changing. The daily commute is out the window, my suits are gathering dust in the cupboard and Zoom meetings are the order of the day.

The Covid pandemic and subsequent work-from-home spells set off a chain of dominoes. Employees have grown used to the freedoms associated with remote work and companies have relaxed their old, school-like rules requiring facetime and working the traditional 9-5.

The Black Death, which raged from 1347-1351, provides an interesting parallel. Many peasants and farm workers died and there were very few people left to work the fields. The remaining workers bargained for better payment and working conditions, leading to a rebalancing of power between the landlords and serfs.

It will be interesting to see how the pieces fall this time around. While workers are pushing for more and more flexibility, employers will also want to make sure they are getting a fair deal. I believe both parties can be better off once the dust settles.

Disclaimer: this essay refers to a specific type of work. Most of the world's front line jobs will still need to turn up physically to deliver their services. Many of these trends won't apply to them.

Can you all see my screen?

The Future of Work will look something like this:

  1. Location independence (est. 2020)
  2. Schedule independence (2022-)
  3. Income independence (2020s and beyond)

As I mentioned above, employees have enjoyed the flexibility afforded by working from home. They have more time to exercise and be with their families.

In addition, the old 9-5 mindset is disappearing. People are working at different times of day, managing their work schedule around their personal schedule. Making sure deadlines are met, but boxing work time to suit their most productive hours each day.

The last change we are seeing is the rise of creators, solopreneurs and side hustlers. People are pursuing other passions in parallel to their “day job”. Some of them are even monetizing these pursuits.

The ground is shifting. As entrepreneur and essayist, Balaji Srinivasan, says1:

I feel really bad for somebody who [...] is extremely nine to five, [who] wants to come into the office every day and high five somebody, essentially the kind of person that the 1950s was built around.
I have nothing against that person. That mentality is just the opposite of the way the world is going. It’s going from synchronous to asynchronous. It’s going from in-person to remote. [...] It’s going from essentially the centralized century to a decentralized century.

1. Location independence

When the pandemic broke out in 2020, most of us were sent home for a couple of weeks, which turned into months and then years. This was the first domino in the chain of events.

Like many other people, I welcomed the move to remote. The time saved by cutting out the daily commute gave me more time to train and work on personal development. I spent more time with my family, even moving back home during the initial lockdown. My colleagues experienced similar benefits. They could play a more active role in their kids’ lives. Some even moved out of the city to enjoy the freedom of the countryside.

For all the benefits, there were also some costs. After a couple of months on this new adventure, I realized I was ‘always on’. Without the physical separation between the office and home, I hadn’t been setting clear boundaries between my work hours and down time, working late into the night for extended periods. Other team members struggled with loneliness and isolation.

In our team, Zoom fatigue set in after a while, leading to lower collaboration and fewer moments of serendipity. Without the watercooler conversations, team members drifted apart. Where we used to interact with the human on the other side, conversations became more functional and transactional, leading to misunderstandings and conflict.

But we adapted. I closed my laptop and learned to switch off in the evenings. My firm realized the importance of social cohesion, setting up events for employees to hang out and find deeper connections. We got through the growing pains and now our team is thriving.

The best part is nothing changed in terms of performance. If anything, the quality of work improved. During this time we onboarded new team members and ran the business smoothly. Our team had fewer defects when launching new products than ever before. And the other benefits and personal freedoms remained.

Some companies are trying to force their employees to come back into work, but the genie is out the bottle. The appetite for location independence is here to stay. Either as a permanent solution or hybrid mix where we can gain from the benefits of collaboration.

2. Schedule independence

While some companies are still fixating on the advantages of office work over remote work, the next big shift is already happening.

Schedule independence allows teams to work on separate parts of a project during different times of the day and coordinate in quick sprints to check if they’re all on track.

This is another positive development. The classic 9-5, synchronous schedule is associated with back-to-back meetings and constant distraction. This puts pressure on employees, like me, who need to do deep, uninterrupted work to complete their tasks.

Paul Graham calls these employees the Makers. They are different from Managers, who can delegate work and have a coordination function. Makers need to protect their schedules. It takes time to get into a flow state and constant context switching is a costly distraction. As Paul says:

For someone on the maker's schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn't merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work [...] ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

Makers thrive in an async environment. By deleting unnecessary meetings and working independently, employees can dedicate themselves to bigger problems.

Many companies including GitLab, Figma, Friday, Gumroad and Levels have woken up to these benefits and decided to move to schedule independence.

They can ship a product without a single meeting or video call. Schedule independence lets their employees maximize their productive hours and clock out when they’ve hit their limit. This allows teams to work across different time zones and structure their day around pressing commitments at home or in their community.

There is one caveat though. If your company wants to move async, it is important to promote a culture of writing and documenting. Gumroad Founder, Sahil Lavingia, says working there resembles working on an open source project. This requires that everyone writes well and writes a lot2:

Instead of having meetings, people “talk” to each other via GitHub, Notion, and (occasionally) Slack, expecting responses within 24 hours. Because there are no standups or “syncs” and some projects can involve expensive feedback loops to collaborate, working this way requires clear and thoughtful communication.

3. Income independence

After location and schedule independence, the last domino in the chain is the move to payslip independence or independence from employer.

The decentralization of work is happening in front of our eyes. The great resignation. The rise of the gig economy. The rise of the creator economy. The growing number of digital nomads. The growing number of people taking on multiple jobs or side hustles.

Some people are moving away from being employees operating under their company’s name to being independent entities operating under their own brand.

My friend Louie Bacaj provides a great example. He walked away from a lucrative career in Big Tech (earning $500k per year) to chase his own dreams. He has given himself a runway to pursue multiple small bets and he says it would be a failure to go back to his previous job.

I have also had a taste of operating under my own name by starting my blog and writing online. It is not monetized in any way, but I am exploring my creative passions and building a brand for myself. I am already attracting job opportunities and collaboration requests as a result of this.

This trend is happening for a number of reasons:

  1. Fewer constraints: Due to the first two changes described above, some professions are no longer limited by a physical space (like school kids sitting in cubicles) or clock watching (working the standard hours at the prescribed time). You can carve up your day like you want to.
  2. More options: Gone are the days of the one-company career. Since the peak centralization in the 50s-60s, we have seen a proliferation of career options and ways to earn a living. People switch jobs more often.
  3. Never been easier: There are more companies supporting creators. Anyone can start a website or online shop. Anyone can start a profile on social media to distribute their work or create an email list of loyal fans and paying customers.
  4. Values: We are the first generation that doesn’t work for money. We work for meaning. Young people would rather leave a legacy and positive impact on the world than climbing the corporate ladder till retirement age. They have the courage to pursue their own dreams.

Not all workers will be able to or want to go independent.

Some people will prefer focusing on one career path, where they can gain career progression and security. Other people will be constrained by the type of work they do or the nature of their contracts. A person who needs to work at a specific location for a set number of hours will have less flexibility to pursue additional work.

Still there will be people with spare capacity who don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket. The people who want more reach and want to take a couple of small bets, have more options now.

The companies that adapt best will keep their talent by supporting them. Companies can take a hard line and lose their best workers or take a softer approach and allow these employees to pursue other projects in addition to their main role.

In this world, employers can protect themselves by defining how to reward units of work. They can use deliverables and checkpoints to make sure the work gets done.

Again, companies like Gumroad lead the way here. As Sid Yadav, former VP of Product at Teachable, who joined Gumroad in 2018, says:

Most entrepreneurs have two options: work a full-time job and hustle nights/weekends, or leave your job and risk everything to start the company. Gumroad provided a third way: I could contract 20-35 hours a week, and for a couple days a week, incubate ideas and work on my next thing.

It’s time to jump to the next call

Just like what happened after the Black Plague, the Covid pandemic caused a shake-up of power between employer and employee and changed how we view work.

As a result of this, some people will be able to work from anywhere, at any time and potentially for anyone in future. In many ways, the future is already here.

In this world, employees have more freedom, but companies can also benefit from better performance if they learn from the likes of Gumroad.

Companies that force employees to come back into work and push meetings and distractions, might lose their best talent. Companies that can hire the best people and give them freedom, while defining how units of work are paid, will win.


Notes:

Thanks to Jess Schanz, Kelly Davis, Julian Packard-Garcia, Richardt Hechter, Melissa Menke and Gautham for reading drafts of this essay.

References:

  1. From David Perell’s podcast with Balaji Srinivasan. Link here.
  2. From Sahil’s article on how they run Gumroad: No Meetings, No Deadlines, No Full-Time Employees.
  3. Further reading for those who are interested in the benefits of async work: The Gitlab handbook.
Writing

John Nicholas Twitter

Actuary and creator.

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