The New Boundaryless Work Economy And The Need for Community

In October 2010, Intuit, the Silicon Valley–based software company, estimated that more than 40 percent of the American workforce would be made up of “contingent workers” by 2020, a statistic that has since been repeated with almost religious regularity.

Robert Reich, the Berkeley economist and former Labor secretary, once said “At the rate we’re going now, it could be higher than 40 percent by 2020. A majority of workers will be on their own by 2030.”

Offices are factories in drag, their indifference to your life reflected in their most basic unit of design, the cube. Even if management is experimenting with the latest design fads (volleyball pits between desks! Workbenches! No assigned workstations at all!), its efforts will inevitably regress back to the cube. No matter how much lipstick you put on it, the cubicle, with its burlapped walls and push-pinned art, will inevitably be the office pig.

Why, then, do people build attachments to those cubes—or “freak out,” as Stybel puts it, if they have nowhere to go? What hidden comforts, apart from economic stability, does the company office provide? Well, there’s kinship, for starters. Offices are fundamentally social places, and in an age of dwindling social capital, in which Americans are less and less apt to visit with neighbors, join civic organizations, or have their friends over to dinner, having a community of professional peers is no small thing.

“The first thing that’d be lost if offices went away, I think, is creativity,” says Adam Grant, a 33-year-old management wunderkind at Wharton and author of the recent Give and Take.“So much of organizational creativity is about the random walk down the hallway of an office. There are so many examples of successful people who never would have crossed paths if they hadn’t been in the same office together.” The makers of the Post-it note being the most famous example. (Spencer Silver, who invented the “low tack” adhesive, had no clue what to do with it; his colleague Art Fry realized it could be used to hold down the bookmarks that kept falling out of his hymnal at church.) “I think the odds of Spencer Silver having met the just-right guy outside his own office,” says Grant, “would have been much lower.” Indeed, the need for these kinds of connections may explain the rise in the number of co-working spaces, which, according to Saval, has been doubling steadily since 2005 in the U.S.

What does this all mean for us today? As more and more of us get pushed into a freelancer’s lifestyle or into remote positions, the need for connection becomes more and more important in order to build the bonds that we all need as humans but also to innovate the next great idea through dialogue and conversation.  Be it through virtual or brick and mortar means we must connect on a regular basis with our peers in order to overcome the new challenges of the new boundaryless work economy.