Why High-Skilled Freelancers Are Leaving Corporate Life Behind

Why High-Skilled Freelancers Are Leaving Corporate Life Behind

Why High-Skilled Freelancers Are Leaving Corporate Life Behind

On a sunny November day in San Francisco’s Mission District, inside the offices of Stamen Design (a studio known for cool-looking maps), I met what you might call a unicorn of the modern knowledge economy. Her name is Nicolette Hayes.

She and I sat down, and she walked me through her latest two client projects. The first was an interactive model of the Amazon rainforest designed for a popular geography magazine. The second was a visual design language for human emotion, where sadness was represented as a deep ultramarine blob with soft blurry edges. These disparate projects called upon a range of visual, interactive, spatial, and psychological concepts that many would struggle to understand, let alone weave together cogently.

Knowledge workers with polymathic competencies in multiple disciplines are still rare, but they're becoming more and more common. Take Hayes—a Berkeley geography grad with a design masters from Pratt. She is a data-visualization designer who regularly handles user interface, user experience, visual design, interaction design, and design research on behalf of clients. What once might’ve been a three- or four-person team is now simply Nicolette.

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Buckminster Fuller might’ve called someone like Nicolette Hayes a "comprehensivist"—the opposite of a specialist. According to constructivist psychologist Spencer McWilliams, "Fuller was highly critical of disciplinary specialization, believing that it was originally instituted to support the interests of a power structure and keep intelligent individuals from knowing too much."

The rise of comprehensivists in some sectors is coinciding with the broader gig economy trend: multi-skilled knowledge workers are increasingly able to ply their trade to a range of bidders on their own terms. Project-oriented fields like design and journalism have seen this coming for some time, in part because the deadlines they operate on make for easily definable gigs.

But more and more fields formerly thought of as "non-creative" are adopting creative processes, making their work more easily chunkable as well. As CEO of IDEO Tim Brown remarked in a recent IDEO U webcast, "The sign of an organization becoming more creative is the move from processes to projects—projects are inherently creative acts."

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Even industries like law and finance are beginning to fray around the edges, with top talent decamping for gigs. But whether a job is gig-able is now less about field and more about role. After all, someone still has to hire the freelancers. Leadership roles share DNA with their organizations and benefit from the sort of sustained, longitudinal engagement that's harder to imagine a freelance model being able to accommodate.

Still, as more knowledge work goes project-based and the normalcy of 1099 labor grows, the more likely top-shelf multidisciplinary workers are to go it alone. Does this portend a future working world split into B-player company teams and A-player freelancers?

To get a sense for the likelihood of top talent shifting away from the firm and toward gig labor, we first have to understand the conditions that brought about firm-based work in the first place. Here's how I'd break that down:

With respect to (1) knowledge and (2) productivity, the sheer complexity of many workplace challenges historically meant that eventually no one person was capable of keeping the whole project in his or her head; there was simply too much to know and too much to do. But knowledge resources and productivity tools have improved vastly in the past five to 10 years. Even simple tools like Lynda.com, YouTube, Google Docs, and Adobe Creative Cloud have made cross-disciplinary knowledge dramatically easier for workers—especially independent workers—to pick up.

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With respect to (3) networking, "platform" startups create efficient labor exchanges that rely on little more than individual pocket computing power.


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