Are We All Becoming Symbolic Knowledge Workers?
Start-ups like Somewhere redefine our professional identities and put more of our selves at stake.
According to a 2013 study by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science paid work was ranked lower than any of the other 39 specific activities the survey respondents quantified, with the exception of being sick in bed.
The researchers found that there is only one aspect of work that “results in happiness levels that are similar to those experienced when not working”—casual interactions with colleagues. In other words, the only part of work we seem not to rank above the flu is socializing at work.
So if the best way to be happy at work is to chat with your colleagues, why aren’t we encouraging more socializing? Well, because it’s business. And business, for the most part, still operates under the principle of efficiency to drive productivity.
But some startups are starting to see things differently and conceive of the workplace more as a social arena and less as a conduit for productivity. At the open-source code sharing and developer community GitHub almost all of the staff works remotely. In its early years, the company didn’t even have a physical office. After finding a loft-like space and making it the company’s headquarters, the company turned the front third into an employee lounge, bar, and party area filled with funky furniture and a DJ setup. According to Scott Chacon, co-founder and CIO of GitHub, the “headquarters” is primarily a social hub, not a work place.
GitHub’s definition of work space is even more extensive. Chacon points to an experiment called GitHub Destinations where the company rents an Airbnb apartment in a location to which people have always wanted to go, say, Tuscany or Montevideo. “They choose to live there for a month and have serendipitous interactions because you can get just as much done there as you could anywhere else,” Chacon said. GitHub’s structure acknowledges that delight at work is a social event and largely about small moments of attachment.
It also illustrates that the concept of having to be a different person during work hours seems to lose relevance for today’s purpose-driven work force. As digital economy observer Stowe Boyd points out: “In the new way of working, work isn’t a place you go, it’s a thing you do. It is you.” Today’s knowledge work can happen anywhere.
The startup Somewhere aims to help these sorts of knowledge workers replace their traditional CVs with a different way of representing themselves in a business context.Justin McMurray, the cofounder of Somewhere, observes that the main job application still shows what you did, not what you do or who you are.
“We’ve got to the stage where people you don’t know endorse you for skills you don’t have (on LinkedIn).” McMurray cofounded Somewhere in 2012 to “put people back at the heart of and in control of telling the stories of their work,” as he told me. He believes that “work should not deny our humanity, it should welcome it. Work, more than ever before, is personal.”
Somewhere is a little bit like Pinterest for professionals, a visual discovery platform for the enterprise. Individuals or teams can post images and captions to tell the stories of their work, and by doing so they can share what they love doing and how they do it. The site (which is still in beta) allows users to present themselves as human beings, with passions, emotions, and aesthetic preferences, and connect with other, like-minded professionals along the way.
Somewhere is emblematic of the changing nature of the workplace. Our conceptions of work have shifted from time card and job title to mindset and narrative. Millennials in particular view work as a powerful vehicle for finding meaning in their lives. McMurray is well aware of this generational shift and refers to the rapidly emerging segment of independent workers who prefer independence over permanent, full-time employment. “They definitely present a challenge for large corporations that, if unable to offer extremely flexible, autonomous, and creative work environments, simply won’t be able to attract the best people,” he told me.
While business-as-usual used to involve linear narratives of the CV and a more formal notion of transactional business relationships, Somewhere illustrates that we are moving further into more contextual and nonlinear portraits of our “selves” at work. The site redefines work as something beautiful, careers as ambiguous and ever-evolving, and a professional’s identity as a fluid persona. McMurray says: “People lead such fascinating work lives, and our hope is that we can help open up the world of work, help people see behind the scenes, find inspiration, and find the people they should be working with.”
Not everyone will relish this new work-life. Some may find it outright frightening that companies not only appreciate but demand our full selves at work. The knowledge economy has automated many objective tasks and left us with only the fuzzy space of subjective tasks: building and cultivating relationships, managing our reputation and perception, curating and sharing tacit knowledge, earning respect, popularity, authority, and influence. As Matthew B. Crawford claims in his book Shopclass as Soulcraft, we have become “symbolic knowledge workers,” and startups like Somewhere further fuel this trend.
One could say we are not only no longer what we did, but also no longer what we do—we are now who others think we are. We are how much we are liked. As we do away with the linear, cause-and-effect “to-do” list, the only thing left for us is “to be,” to build and live up to the promise of our personal brand, to be the symbols of our work, and tell the world about it.
This post was first published by Fast Company.