A panel discussion on coworking at South by Southwest split its time between exploring opportunities for those who want to serve coworkers, and enlightening those who want to understand the trend toward virtual teams, workers who need to get out of the home office, or independent contractors looking for a place that offers basic business support as well as live - as opposed to virtual - humans to interact with. Drew Jones, who runs a company called Shift 101, noted the recession has made coworking "more relevant." Much of the ensuing discussion encompassed how companies like (pre-Oracle) Sun and IBM have embraced the related ideas of "outworking" and "open work," where employees labor from home offices - thus having more flexibility and independence - and companies save on the overhead of all those cubicles, rest rooms, cafeterias and parking lots. One thing that was lost, I thought: The recession made coworking more relevant because so many people either lost their jobs or became involuntary contractors. For them, finding a way to work on their own more effectively, and happily, doesn't feel like much of a choice. Some other points that came out of the discussion:
  • The future of work is competitive. I think it was panelist Gary Swart of oDesk who said, "There's no more showing up and getting a paycheck."
  • The competition for jobs is no longer limited by where you live. If a company can find a qualified, cheaper programmer in Lackawanna, they're going to hire him.
  • Standing out is going to become even more important than it is now. From the reactions we got to our interview with Polly Pearson, I know how a lot of you feel about things like "personal branding." Okay. Think about your "online presence" and your "professional reputation" instead. And remember, someone looking to hire isn't going to just stumble across your Web site because you're talented. You've got to get their attention.
  • Work is going to become more on-demand. Ultimately, companies want to hire the talent they need, when they need it. Keeping someone on the payroll when their skills aren't required is, well, like paying for empty spaces in the parking lot that you don't need. Or, that's going to be the view of some managers somewhere.
All in all an interesting discussion, though kind of sobering. It left me feeling that the world of work is changing more dramatically, and faster, than many of us have wanted to admit. At least there's people out there thinking about how they can support these new coworkers, virtual workers, outworkers - call them what you will. -- Mark Feffer