The Power of Talent Communities: Dispelling the Loneliness of the Freelance Lifestyle

November 28, 2017 Mike Lewis

In my last post, I wrote about the important role Talent Communities play in preventing the perils of context collapse and disengagement that I see arising from the ever-increasing reliance on technology-driven workforce marketplaces and on-line platforms that connect freelancers and employers in today’s “gig economy."  When “matches” are made based on algorithms, reverse auctions, and keywords, the human connection is lost. But it is human connection that fuels individual inspiration, rejuvenation, reinvention, motivation, creativity, and productivity. It creates a sense of connectedness and community that is important for us as social beings to be our best selves and to do our best work. In traditional employment models, working “at the office” provides the social context and environment for this sense of community. Participants in the contingent workforce, however, often find and do work on-line, working alone from a home office or local coffee shop. While this provides the flexibility they desire, the freelance lifestyle can also create a sense of isolation and loneliness. Talent Communities not only facilitate finding and optimizing freelancer-employer matches for successful “gigs." They are critical to providing a new social context for work that will help individuals, employers, and society successfully navigate this new world of work.

An epidemic of loneliness. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, former Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, declared that there is an epidemic of loneliness in the United States and that it has risen to the level of a public health crisis. He points to the adverse effects of loneliness on the individual. It reduces our life span, creativity, decision making, and productivity; it increases anxiety and depression.  Loneliness is often in the background of clinical illness, contributing to disease and making it harder for patients to cope and heal. Murthy stated in an interview with the Washington Post, “Our social connections are in fact largely influenced by the institutions and settings where we spend the majority of our time. That includes the workplace….and the workplace is where it can get better or worse.”

Dr. Murthy goes on to say that, “Loneliness is the subjective feeling of having inadequate social connections …. real connection requires creating an environment that embraces the unique identities and experiences of employees inside and outside the workplace.”  Telecommuting and on-line/on-demand “gig economy” contract arrangements have created flexibility, but reduce the opportunities for in-person interaction and relationships. Furthermore, Dr. Murthy notes that loneliness does not impact just the individual, but has a broader social impact.  We are social beings and we are also empathetic. Loneliness can be contagious, and the thinking styles of a lonely individual can impact those around them. A recent study of college freshmen found that certain types of depressive thinking can spread among close-living roommates. A key driver: the change in social context created when students transition from the familiarity of high school and family and venture into a completely new social setting.

Social context of the freelance lifestyle in the gig economy. The fundamental issue is that the freelance economy is drastically and rapidly changing our social context. The pace of change has not given us the opportunity to adjust our own thinking styles. In addition, we are inundated with statistics that indicate work as we know it has changed forever. We are lost and overwhelmed by the rate of transformation in the workplace, technology and society and have not yet had the chance to learn new skills to adapt.  If most of your time is spent working remotely and you are dependent on algorithms and human cloud platforms to secure work, your opportunity for true social connection takes a big hit.

That said, I remain passionate and excited about the opportunity that the contingent workforce model represents for individuals, companies, the economy, and society. I firmly believe that we can rewire our brains to thrive in the new social context of the freelance economy. And I am encouraged by some things I see that indicate others out there are seeing the impact of isolation and loneliness in the workplace and in society. For example, in a recent Forbes article, “10 Workplace Trends You'll See In 2018”, “Leaders encourage more human interaction” tops the list. Increasing numbers of companies are reorganizing and restructuring to focus on team vs. individual performance, which requires more in-person interaction. Companies like IBM, Apple, Google, and Yahoo are pulling back on their remote worker programs and building innovative new facilities that promote workers getting together to share ideas and collaborate.  What these companies have realized is that when people bump into each other, it sparks conversation, creativity and builds relationships. They recognize both the business and social benefits that accrue from creating the opportunity for actual human connection.

Implications for the freelance economy.  In terms of providing a physical location to support a sense of community for freelancers, there has been an explosion in the number of shared office locations: from 14 in 2007 to 11,100 in 2017, and 26,000 projected for 2020. A true innovator in this space is WeWork. Their model is elegant and simple. They create spaces for freelancers and small businesses for face-to-face collaboration.  They understand the importance of community and its impact on inspiration, innovation, and productivity. Their tag line is “We humanize work,” and they cite creating and nurturing community as their catalyst. WeWork currently has a $20B market cap and has been recognized as one of the start-up disruptors to watch.

At YourEncore, we also believe in creating and nurturing community,  not only in terms of physical work space (which we make available free of charge to our Experts), but also in terms of truly knowing our Experts and providing them with opportunities for training, collaboration, mentoring, social events, and water cooler conversations that will spark inspiration, creativity, productivity, as well as the social connections that nurture the positive thinking styles necessary to overcome the potential for loneliness. Our success in matching Experts with Clients is due in large part to how well we know the multiple dimensions of both communities, which can only be achieved through human connection. We are not rushing to build a marketplace of hundreds of thousands of freelancers where at best maybe 5% are utilized enough to make a living.  That is not sustainable for them, or for us. We must drive support and communications to ensure the freelance lifestyle is free from loneliness.

We also believe that our community impacts the communities with whom we intersect. For example, we have just introduced a program with a leading Business School that connects our community of Experts to their students to deliver free consulting to start-ups and small businesses.  Our Experts are lining up to participate in the program and are excited by the opportunity to collaborate within our Community, with the University Community, and with the Start-Up Community. 

There is no denying that we need to develop a new way of working. We need to build a new social context that supports the realities of the freelance lifestyle and economy. Doing so will bring greater meaning to work and value to the individual, economy, and society.  Talent communities can help freelancers succeed in this new normal and continue to do the work they are passionate about. And this power of community will help address the loneliness epidemic. 

Need help getting started? Read more about Talent Communities and other Talent Innovation strategies here, or contact me. Let’s discuss how we can put the power of community to work for you, whether you are an employer or a member of the contingent workforce.

About Mike Lewis: Mike is Chief Sales & Marketing Officer for YourEncore. He is passionate about connecting Life Science and Consumer Goods Clients with YourEncore Experts, bringing them the rich experience and technical know-how they need to address their business challenges via flexible resourcing and consulting engagements. He is an innovative sales and marketing leader who has successfully introduced new selling and marketing models that have transformed companies in the process. He is a thought leader in social selling and account based marketing and has leveraged both to grow company revenues and reputation.

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