Battling the dark side of coworking

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Independent and remote work may be on the rise and, as many experts have told us, this offers great benefits, from access to new markets for previously underemployed talent to the joys of autonomy and control for workers. But not every aspect of the change is rosy. Provision of benefits like health insurance is an often mentioned problem as is downward pressure on wages, but on Deskmag recently, Nina Pohler identified another potential problem: exploitation of independent workers by those contracting out work.

“While coworking spaces might come pretty close to the ideal working space, at times they can also be spaces where some of the worst characteristics of a capitalist economy are being reproduced — just like in an ordinary workspace,” she writes. Independent work may solve many problems, but it doesn’t get rid of asymmetric relationships between those handing out work and those completing it, she states. What does she mean by this?

If there is a big difference between the partners in a work relationship, sometimes the stronger party gets all the advantages and benefits, while the weaker party has to bear the full risk and disadvantages.

Usually the strong partner is someone who is established and well connected. Often these people or companies are very good at communicating and selling, they act mainly as project managers, while contracting out the actual development or design work to other people. The subcontractors in turn are often newcomers who don’t have a big network, who are rather inexperienced and not as good at selling themselves and their work. Usually these people are happy that someone subcontracts them work and they don’t have to spend time on acquisition, communicating and networking. The relationship between the main contractor and the subcontractor can be win-win situation, but rather often it is not.

The result of this unequal balance of power, Pohler claims, can be impossible deadlines, insane hours, failure to pay for revisions to a project and extremely long lag times before payment for subcontractors. And coworking spaces, she feels, may be inadvertently making the problem worse. “It is easy to find young, skilled and motivated people as subcontractors, and it is easy to build relationships on the assumption that everyone is more or less the same and equal,” she writes.

Pohler may diagnose the problem in her article, but when it comes to solutions, she simply advocates for greater discussion of the issue and more openness in the community.

Is that an adequate solution, or do you think independent workers need to do more to protect themselves?

Image courtesy of Flickr user JD Hancock.

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