What the hell is a new worker?

by Melissa Mesku with Fatim-Zahra Biaz and Tony Bacigalupo

We named our magazine after an amorphous vision of what a new worker might be, but that doesn’t necessarily make us experts as to what the hell a new worker actually is. So we called for help and had a fascinating conversation about the new economy (and how “new” sounds in Arabic and French).

We sat down for a Q&A with “new work” experts Fatim-Zahra Biaz, co-founder of New Work Lab in Casablanca, Morocco, and Tony Bacigalupo, co-founder of New Work City in New York.


We all chose “New Work” in our name, me for the magazine and you for the coworking spaces you founded. What does it evoke to you?

Tony: Before we were New Work City, we were a club called CooperBricolage that met in a café in the East Village in New York. When we started getting serious about getting a space I tried to think of a name that was a little playful and aspirational, and maybe even evoked some NYC pride. For my friend Kara Masi, the answer was obvious. “New Work City,” she blurted out, matter-of-factly. Alex Linsker [of Collective Agency in Portland, OR] overheard the conversation and was immediately sold on the name and refused to let me consider anything else. It was a done deal.

The phrase “new work” means something different to everyone, but I think that when people look at what’s happening in coworking communities, they see a way of doing things that stands in stark contrast to what we considered to be normal in the 20th century. It’s bold language to use, but considering how quickly traditional full-time employment is eroding in favor of contingent, I think it’s fair.

Fatim: When I discovered coworking in Paris, I was amazed by its incredible energy. We didn’t have this kind of environment back in Morocco. So after a while I decided to start a coworking space in Casablanca to facilitate creativity, sharing and growth. For me it couldn’t be just a space. It’s a dream for a better Morocco and a dream to see the city of Casablanca become a great place to start a company.

The name had to carry that vision and reflect a promise of change and a brighter future. I couldn’t find a name in Arabic or French that fully expressed what I wanted to convey. When I landed on this name, it was a perfect fit.

Melissa: “New” works for us because it’s broad enough to encompass more than just the world of coworking. But that vagueness also means that we share the same name with, say, the New Communist Party of Britain. The word “worker” carries a bit of a socialist connotation, but it doesn’t have to: every person, for the most part, is a worker at some point in their life. Work matters. It’s a significant thing we have in common and it’s worth examining.

From an SEO perspective, we probably screwed ourselves with the name. Once New Worker gets more readership than the New Yorker – yes, I’m kidding, kind of – then we won’t have to worry about what search engine robots think of our name. “New” can also stretch to fit what may come in the future as the the scope of the magazine expands.

What is it that separates new work from the old? Is it the type of work, who it’s done by, or the way in which it’s done?

Tony: Loosely put, new work represents a shift from rigidity to fluidity. The “old” way was all about hierarchy and structure: go to one place to do one job for one employer. The employer handles everything: when to show up, who to report to, what to do, when to go to lunch, when to go home, when you get paid, how much you get paid, everything. The new way sunders the hierarchy in favor of greater autonomy – and responsibility. The new workforce has complete freedom to choose, when, how, where, and with whom they work and can change their mind at any moment. This comes with huge tradeoffs.

The type of work is shifting too, away from knowledge work and towards creative work. Knowledge work fits well with the industrial hierarchy; creative work needs far more flexibility to thrive.

Fatim: The new generation of workers looks for flexibility, creativity, meaning. They see work as a means of reaching their potential. At the same time, companies now hire internationally, they hire experts for projects. This represents an amazing opportunity because it has reduced the traditional barriers. Anyone today can enter this scene. This is an extraordinary chance for people in Morocco and all over the world.

Joining that new working world will be predicated on one’s talents and drive. People and nations have to invest in building up those talents. I really love Obama’s recent speech that encourages young Americans to learn developing and coding. These are the tools of today and tomorrow to join the international scene.

Beyond that, to me, new work means more human-centric work, work that has meaning, that makes our world a better place to live. New work means building organizations, enterprises – ultimately a society – that is socially responsible, that cares about citizens and solves our everyday challenges.

Melissa: All three. If there is to be anything truly new about work, it will be found in the ethics exhibited by decision makers, and in the distribution of power, wealth, and access. I’m particularly interested to see the rise of people who have not typically been represented in positions of power. It is they who stand a chance of leading society in truly new directions.

We live in a time where one can become successful, wealthy, and knowledgeable without the burden and expense of higher education. And yet those who are in the best position to take advantage of this are the privileged and educated. The resources one needs in order to become, for example, a highly paid developer, are widely available and free, but those skills are still largely held by an elite few. There are people who could deeply benefit from having these skills; at the same time, the culture and practices of leading industries suffer from a lack of diversity. For underrepresented populations, this is a problem of awareness, and of access. If anything is to change, it starts with sharing the technological and cultural skills of the new economy with those who are otherwise left out.

Generally speaking, most people view work as what they have to do, as opposed to what they want to do. What does work mean to you?

Fatim: I see work as a way to reach your potential. We can see work as what we have to do, or as what we want to do. It depends on the lens we choose to see the world through.

Tony: We spend way, way too much of our lives working to think of work as necessary drudgery. I find it a great human tragedy that so many people live so much of their lives this way, which is why I’ve dedicated myself to doing things that help people shift their relationship with work.

Work can be an opportunity for people to realize their potential as human beings. Work should be one of the primary vehicles through which people activate their capacity to do what they believe they were put on this earth to do. We should have a healthy relationship with work. We should be proud of it. We should be celebrating it.

I think we have a unique opportunity right now, with the new technological and corresponding sociological and economic shifts we’re still in the early stages of, to fundamentally redefine our relationship with work. The old way of looking at work, of being something that you do for someone else in exchange for a steady paycheck, got us a couple of rungs up Maslow’s pyramid, but we stopped far short of the top.

In the shift to an increasingly creative economy, success and even survival is going to become increasingly tied to our ability to be creative. You’re not going to be awesome at being creative if you’re doing it for somebody else on a schedule you feel is dictated to you. You’re not going to be awesome at being creative if your heart isn’t in what you do.

Simply put, work can no longer stand to be something we just do for a paycheck. A workforce of people who aim for the top of the pyramid, for self-actualization through their work is not only a really great thing to aspire to; it’s necessary.

Fatim: Four years ago, I saw work as a constraint, as something that was preventing me from reaching my potential. I see work differently now because I had the chance to change what I did. My work now has a purpose. I think new work is all about giving a meaning to what we do, understanding how it contributes to build a better community, city, country.

If you feel you belong to a community and that you’re working to achieve a higher goal, then you see work differently. If you understand the meaning of what you’re doing, then you can easily accept certain tasks because you know it contributes to something bigger.

What would a new way of working mean for the traditionally employed? Or is our brave new working world limited to knowledge workers and the creative class?

Fatim: I think it applies to all workers but on a different level. This new economy is about what you know, what you can access, what you can do. Life and work become constant school: you have to continually learn new skills if you want to stay on top. All type of workers can enter this international scene if they have the knowledge to do so. And the knowledge is available everywhere online.

With new ways of working, with technology, traditional work in every industry is changing. Curiosity and a willingness to learn new skills can make a huge difference even for people with traditional jobs.

Melissa: Whose responsibility is it that the benefits of the new economy – flexibility, decent pay, meaningful work – reach everyone? People can only work on solving problems they know about. The more diverse new workers are, the wider range of problems they work to solve, as evidenced by the promising technological advancements made in traditional industries. But that’s only part of it. The global economy is built upon undervalued resources and workers at the bottom in order to create wealth at the top. The real test will be to see whether we can devise ways to improve quality of life for these people to the degree that knowledge workers and creative workers have done for themselves, and whether this is even possible.

Does it matter if people identify themselves as being part of the new economy? Of what significance is it if people view themselves or their work in this context?

Tony: People don’t need to identify with a particular group to be a part of the new economy. There are plenty of people out there who are a part of it but would never think to call themselves new workers.

It’s important when you look at two things: a sense of belonging to something bigger, and policy. In the case of the former, people who work for themselves are prone to feeling isolated. They feel like they’re going it alone, like they have to figure everything out themselves. In this case, having the opportunity to identify with a group of similar people can be significant.

In the latter case, policy, a lot of issues arise from the fact that the new workforce doesn’t fit so neatly into many of our social constructs. Look at apartment applications, for instance. It’s common for a landlord to require a W2 and tax filing information to prove you’re a viable tenant with a steady job. This process was designed for a world in which people typically had one full-time salaried job, which just isn’t the case anymore.

The tax system, health care, education are designed to accommodate a world in which each person has one job. The only way some of these structures will change will be through organized constituencies of independent workers. In this light, it is critical that new workers identify themselves as a coherent group that deserves representation.

Fatim: I think new workers have the feeling that they are doing things differently. I had the chance to travel and work, and I met nomad workers from many countries. We have this feeling of belonging to something different that will dramatically change the work experience in the coming years.

It’s a new tribe with shared habits and ways of thinking. That’s why coworking spaces, for example, are important, because they enable these tribes to grow.

How does coworking fit in with the new economy?

Melissa: Coworking is ground zero for the new economy. Everything that’s wrong with corporations, with business as usual, is being experimented with and re-envisioned by people working out of coworking spaces.

Fatim: Coworking is a new concept in Morocco. For more than a year we were the only actor in the scene. New Work Lab has brought not only a space to entrepreneurs but a new spirit, an environment that answers young peoples’ needs. The space and what it represents is a vision of the change they want to see.

Coworking could be a powerful tool particularly in developing countries. These are spaces where innovation happens, where ideas spread, where new habits are defined. These are spaces to spread digital culture and train young people so they can enter the world scene and be among the best young talent. But most of all, these are places of hope. In the USA, the American dream is part of everyone’s mental attitude. In many other countries, I think young people have lost confidence in the future. These environments can have a tremendous impact.

What do you see for the future of work?

Fatim: The world is changing. It’s not just because of an economic crisis but a shift in paradigm. We are exploring new ways of working and living. The most important shift I am seeing is how companies are starting to realize they can grow by establishing a better culture for their employees.

Tony: My hope is that the prevailing cultural perception – that work is a necessary drudgery you do for someone else – wanes in favor of a culture that embraces work as an opportunity for each of us to realize our human potential. Elements of this culture are taking hold. More needs to be done to ensure that the culture continues to grow, but I’m optimistic. It beats the alternative.

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