The Office Water Cooler Isn’t What It Used to Be


Imagine this: While surfing the Internet, a freelance coder stumbles upon a discussion on Reddit that’s particularly relevant to a new app she’s trying to build. She connects with others on the thread, finds out that their skills are complementary to hers, and subcontracts them to help her with the app. They realize they work particularly well together, and go on to win businesses from several other small start-ups.

Ten years ago, some version of the above event would’ve perhaps taken place around the office water cooler, but within a formal hierarchy and with far less collaboration.

As the traditional job structure deteriorates, office workers around the country are experiencing the great shrinking of the afternoon coffee-clutch. Gone are the days of gathering around the water cooler with the same coworkers everyday to share stories, advice, and ideas.

But something else is happening in its place. We now live in a freelance nation, with people moving from gig to gig, and from project to project. Even though freelancers don’t work in the same office day after day, they still have the same urge to gather and bond.

They’re taking the much-needed water-cooler conversation outside the workplace and onto the Internet through informal and formal networks aimed at supporting one another. They range from listservs and networking groups to marketing collectives. People are forming networks to find work, to develop professionally, and to solve small-business problems. New workers join coworking spaces, share the cost, and create a network in the process. Ask any freelancer and they’ll tell you the secret to success is the power of those loose ties.

People are looking at their economic circumstances and coming to the same conclusions that workers in other generations did — when you’re in a group, you do better.

These new networks are unbound by old hierarchies. As a result, people have deeper interactions and get exposure to a 360-degree perspective that was likely unavailable to them in the structured environment of the physical office.

Today, one in three Americans (34%) is doing some type of freelance work, according to a study commissioned by Freelancers Union and Upwork (formerly Elance-oDesk), and a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office puts that number as high as 40% of the population. With annual earnings over $715 billion, freelancers earn more than the combined value of Facebook, Walmart, Amazon, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. Not only is a large group gathering at the water cooler, but they have enough aggregate spending power to pack a punch.

For these workers, the situation isn’t temporary: More than 85% of workers in the GAO study reported high job satisfaction, and 88% of Freelancers Union members say they wouldn’t take a traditional job even if they were offered one.

Not only are these workers here to stay but they are redefining how workplaces function. When nearly half the workforce is independent, who is a co-worker? Who is a client? Who is an employee? Who is an outside vendor?

Independent workers are banding together across socioeconomic lines, industries, workplaces and generations to create a new infrastructure for themselves.

While they are not connected by their work, they are connected by their want.

Many of their biggest challenges are the same. Up-and-down income. Double taxation. No benefits. No safety net. And a government and culture that still doesn’t understand them or the way they work. The silver lining of common need is that it can promote cohesion — and eventually, common strength.

As these affiliations gain momentum and numbers, these networks become more institutionalized and people can easily find each other to come together to create change.

Just look at some of the professional networks that have sprouted up to support female Phython coders (NYC PyLadies) or developers using Javascript to build robots (Nodebots) or alt-labor groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, The Model Alliance, or Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

This isn’t altogether different from how workers used to gather at a water cooler or in the lunch room with an idea or a grievance, and then come together as a larger group to form a union. The difference here is that group members don’t have to work in the same office, or the same industry, or even in the same place in order to collaborate. And today, gatherings can spread ideas much faster.

As we collectively look for solutions to larger issues such as declining income and protections for all workers, these networks will generate more robust conversations about solutions.

Just last year in Spain, for example, the newly formed political party Podemos stitched together the millennial networks to become the fastest-growing political party in the country, and in mere months became one of the Europe’s most prominent for social justice and economic equality.

The old structures made for a manufacturing economy are not helping the growing legion of independent workers. We need to get together and discuss a new unemployment system to smooth out their inevitable periods of episodic income (the same way the current unemployment insurance system smoothed out incomes from industrial layoffs). Let’s talk about capital infusions into organizations and programs that support freelancers, whether that’s from Silicon Valley or the Small Business Administration. We can explore the idea of a universal basic income, or changes to the tax code so that independent contractors don’t get hit twice.

These conversations may just lead to a new New Deal that can help today’s workers build a secure tomorrow for our rapidly growing freelance nation.


Work: Reimagined is a series of sponsored stories dedicated to exploring the evolution of the workplace.

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