A Glimpse Into My Research on Independent Work

A couple articles ago I mentioned my girlfriend and I presented a poster at the 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology in Los Angeles. I thought I'd share a simple explanation of the research since I'm sure most of you don't want to read through the statistics and academic-jargon we were expected to write it in.

Essentially, there were two different studies we summarized on the poster. Both of them were exploratory, meaning we weren't testing specific theories or hypotheses. Instead, we were asking some general questions and trying to get a sense of what conclusions might be able to be drawn from the initial data we collected. As a note, neither of these studies have been peer reviewed yet, so they must be taken with a couple grains of salt.

The Daily Experience of Indie Workers

The first study was an Experience Sampling Method project where a group of people downloaded an app for their smartphone that would beep them 6 times per day and present them with a questionnaire. The questionnaire would ask them things like their current mood, what they were doing, why they were doing it, how rushed they currently felt, how skilled they currently felt, how much plant life was currently around them, and so on. For our analysis, we were able to split this group into two. One group was people who said they work "traditional" knowledge worker jobs. They go into an office each day and generally work 9-5. The other group of people were people who said they were entrepreneurs, freelancers, contractors, or full-time students. These were our "indie workers." We then compared these two groups on a handful of variables to see if they were different from each other. Accourding to our analyses, indie workers generally report lower mood, more difficulty concentrating, feeling more rushed, and feeling less skilled than traditional workers. However, they also report spending more time with their family. Indie workers are also more likely to respond that they are doing an activity because they "Wanted To" or "Had To and Wanted To" rather than "Had To" than traditional workers.

Indie Workers Interviewed

The second study was 14 interviews done with independent workers who worked in a coworking space in Prague. The interview covered a lot of ground including their motivations for becoming an independent worker, their expectations about what it would be like to be an independent worker versus the reality of what it's actually like, the overall positives of indie work, the negatives of indie work, the strategies they use to mitigate the negatives of indie work, and their reasons for joining a coworking space. After transcribing all the interviews (an incredibly laborious process) we then "coded" the interviews based on how people answered questions. Since we had a severe lack of space on the poster, we only focused on a couple of questions.

People reported a mix of what we called internal and external reasons for becoming an independent worker with neither one being a clear favorite. Some people come into this style of work because they lost their job and couldn't find another one, because they moved and needed to start making money right away, because they didn't agree with some kind of organizational restructuring at their old job, because they were just looking for something different or because they were craving greater freedom or meaning in their work.

In terms of the positives of independent work, most people mentioned some aspect of having greater autonomy over the way they allocate their time. On the negative side of things, people have a hard time being self-disciplined. They also commonly mention a lack of resources, both social and professional. In order to mitigate the negatives of working independently, most interviewees mentioned some kind of strategy aimed at providing greater structure in their work life. This commonly took form as adhering to a routine, joining a coworking space, making rules about when and/or how they would work, etc. As you can imagine, people mentioned a need for structure as the number one reason for joining a coworking space. Social support and looking for a sense of variety were also commonly cited reasons for joining a coworking space.

What's Next?

It's important to not take too much from this very preliminary data. I think it's interesting to note both the ESM study and the interviews point to the idea that being an independent worker is not easy. It can be easy to assume working from home or a coworking space is glamorous. It's much the opposite. While indie workers may not have to worry about externally imposed structures from bosses or organizational rules, they have to deal with aspects of self-discipline they may never have had to develop while working for an organization. Both studies point to a kind of paradox of indie work: it can be really hard but most of the time people really like it and wouldn't trade it for a more traditional job.

I think this goes to show how important autonomy is in the way we work. People crave structure even (or maybe especially) when they work in a mostly structure-less environment. The key difference is that people want to create their own structure, not have it imposed upon them.

A Skills Gap in Indie Work

The other major takeawy from this project is that it doesn't seem like people necessarily come equipped with the skills needed to immediately be successful in independent work. Everyone we interviewed could list a large array of challenges they were trying to conquer in some fasion. The self-management skills that make someone a good independent worker are not necessarily the same skills that are cultivated in the American school system. Stepping beyond the data, I think this points to a need for a fundamental shift in how people are educated. Indie work is going to continue to grow and even working for an organization is going to become more indie work-like in the future. As communication technology continues to improve, as some companies decide telecommuting is an effective cost-saving strategy, and as employees begin to demand more autonomy in the day-to-day process of work, the skills needed to be successful are not going to be the ones that schools have provided.

This project was just a first exploratory foray into studying this type of work and worker. Like any good exploratory study, it created far more questions than it answered. I'm excited to keep moving down this research trail and will be sure to check in here from time to time to share what I'm learning.

If you have any questions about the research we did please leave a comment below.