The Indie Worker In Each of Us

Over the summer I got my first taste of true academic research. While I was working in Prague I helped design a structured interview we gave to the individuals working in the coworking space in which I was working. The goal of the interview was to better understand some of the psychological challenges and benefits of being what we were calling an "independent worker." One of the first things I learned about academic research is how important it is to be very clear regarding the definitions of the terms and concepts you are using. We decided that the distinguishing characteristic (among several) of independent workers is the fact that they work in geographic isolation from other people in their organization (or are the only person in their organization in the case of a solopreneur). This definition, then, includes people working for themselves, people working for companies but telecommuting, freelancers, and even students. The more I think about what it means to be an indie worker, though, the more I realize how important it is for us to all have a little bit of that inside us.

While many people don't fit our specific definition of an indie worker because they work for a company and go into an office every day, the vast majority of us spend at least part of our day in an indie work-like situation. For example, anybody with any kind of side hustle is going to experience many of the same psychological challenges a full-time indie worker face. Even if your side hustle isn't designed to be a business venture, just participating in some kind of personal growth activity after work hours is going to put you in company with indie workers. The research is still ongoing -- but what are the challenges that indie workers tend to face, anyway?

Self-directed motivation

One of the hallmarks of independent work also tends to be one of the most challenging aspects. When you aren't in physical proximity to a boss or other coworkers you don't have to worry about someone looking over your shoulder to check on your progress. In our interviews, this is one of the most commonly cited reasons to pursue an independent work situation. On the other hand, not having that direct motivation can result in some annoying problems with procrastination and lack of self-directed motivation.

Ambiguity

Many independent work situations are fraught with ambiguity regarding how well you're doing with your work. If you don't have a boss or a colleague nearby to give you feedback on what you're doing you can sometimes go for long stretches of time not knowing if what you're doing is any good. It takes a lot of self-trust to self-select a goal or a path and stick with it without knowing for sure if it's the right one.

Social isolation

Working in a coworking space I heard many people talking about how they couldn't handle the social isolation of working out of a home office. While working from home tends to sound amazing to those who have yet to do it, many people who make the switch realize they rarely interact with other people. Many independent workers have been turning to coworking spaces to help fulfill this social need.

These are the same challenges that you'll face if you embark on any kind of side business. In fact, depending on your work situation you may face some of these challenges even in a more traditional job environment. Not every job has direct supervision or accurate feedback which can result in the same motivation or ambiguity problems that most indie workers face on a day-to-day basis. Learning how to overcome these challenges regardless of job situation is a valuable use of time. Despite these challenges, I think it's worth cultivating the ability to work independently, especially if you view yourself as an individual outside the structure of your job. Being a good independent worker hinges upon the ability to accept each of these challenges and adopt strategies for overcoming them. For example, being able to create motivation without the external force of a boss or coworkers is a skill that serves you far beyond a simple work environment. By cultivating the ability to derive enjoyment from the actual process of doing work you're likely to find greater enjoyment in your work, your side hustle, and your hobbies.

Learning how to be okay with being alone, with solitude, is a skill that will serve you beyond the reality of work. At the same time, learning how to utilize tools and institutions like coworking to help alleviate the challenges of social isolation is also a viable path to enjoyment in your work. Finding other people with side hustles or similar hobbies can not only alleviate social isolation, but also help challenge you in ways that improve your business or simple life enjoyment.  We have only just begun our research into what it means to be an independent worker. I'm confident we will discover ways to better support indie workers across the world. I'm also confident that we'll discover principles that will reach beyond the typical indie worker and will affect anyone who is involved with a side hustle, a hobby beyond watching T.V, and even those who work in more traditional jobs.

Photo by Chris Ford.