The Future of Work

Keep feeding the profile

Anna Ott
May 20, 2019

Opting out of traditional employment, leaves knowledge workers with far too many choices - and focussing on a career becomes harder the more opportunities we face. How do we overcome the hustle?

“All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am.”

This is my 19th year working professionally. I had multiple roles in various industries, company sizes and business models. I was an employee, a freelancer and a Managing Director. I quit my last full-time job a bit over a year ago and never looked back.

But for the whole year of “self-employed multi-client work”, I’ve yet to find the words to describe what I do, who I am professionally and even more so — what I want to do in the near future. This is complicated for two reasons:

  • the type of work I do is vaguely defined
  • the field of expertise I have is both niche and new

The myth of new work

“Work” has failed many of us professionals who have a constant urge to add skills, explore new fields and consider work to be a passion, not a profession. We don’t fit existing jobs. (Ironically, that is me saying that as my field of expertise lies in HR and the future of work…)

We call it “portfolio careers”, we “hustle”, we are offering “consulting” services on the back of our experiences, we constantly play with the thought of starting our own companies, we speak at events, we are tempted to join agencies or go in-house — yet in spite of the multitude of choices, every single one feels wrong.

We are maybe a new breed of what work will look like for a lot more people in the very near future.

It starts with the pitch.

I hate explaining my “work” to other people. Because it’s fuzzy. Complicated. I lack the words. All of the ones I know feel wrong.

My work type is fuzzy. Technically I am employed in a company. But I am the sole employee. All the money I pay me has to come from the clients I work with. So it doesn’t feel like employment, because if I don’t get my bum on the chair in my (home) office every morning, my salary cannot be paid.

My roles are heterogeneous. The work I do is a blend of consultancy for both startups as well as corporates. I acquire these gigs through my network. I grow this through e.g. speaking gigs (most of which get paid). The result is a mix of one-off clients and some that book me on monthly retainers or with more planning ahead. But it’s a portfolio that always needs to be maintained and grown.

My experience is niche and leverages my years in various HR roles — heavily dominated by recruiting through also years in Executive Search. I was “socialised” professionally in startups and digital companies. This combination got a name just a couple of years back as “HRTech”. This is a small but growing industry and is yet to establish as a term even. Which adds to the complexity of describing and defining what I do even more.

This is why I constantly pivot, adapt, iterate my “30 seconds” mini-pitch and still have a hard time finding the most self-explanatory and descriptive language to make this clear for any audience. Because I wear multiple hats.

“What do you want, Anna?”

The second hardest question after asking me what I do. I have some clue but it is blurry. I know what I don’t want to know, as a negative selection is always easier. But I am genuinely not sure, what I am looking for. Am I actually looking for something?!

The pros of my work-life are massive:

  • Knowledge: I learn on a constant basis, no day passes without researching and adding know how to my field of work
  • Connection: I grow and nurture a super-heterogeneous network. Globally. I literally have conference calls around the globe throughout the week with founders of startups, industry experts and clients.
  • Autonomy: I get to decide — based on incoming inquiries obviously — what I want to do and get to negotiate the terms for myself. Not saying that I enjoy this part but I get better at it and at least have no one else to blame when a deal is bad. I don’t need to ask for permission. For working where I want. When I want. When I don’t want. That’s a lifestyle most of my employee-friends envy most.

But then there is this:

  • It is unplannable. And can get hectic. No matter how thorough I try to plan my week ahead, it always gets stressful and hectic even. I really crave Fridays sometimes. My day starts at 7:30 am and abruptly every day at 4:30 pm. There is no break in between. I eat at the desk or standing in the kitchen between calls. Yes, I could slow down on this and be more mindful but there is no one to delegate tasks to.
  • Declining a client is hard. It starts with not taking that “let’s chat” invite ending up in your Linkedin inbox. Or not going for lunch with someone who wants to “catch up”. It’s declining the unknown. Great things have come up in the past on very random occasions. One of my clients evolved from a speaking gig which I remember to have found so random, I nearly declined. So it’s saying no to things that haven’t materialized yet. Which is hard.

Trading time for … ?

I feel I need to better adjust what I trade my time for — in also pursuing a sustainable career path. And I believe this is a growing phenomenon in a new era of work for far more people than we see.

Because everyone who opts out of classical employment opts out of a work contract that fixed the output by fixing the input.

What we offer to the market is a blend of experiences but even more: the time that we are dedicating to a problem, a project, an organization. It is less of the work that we promise to deliver which would be a traditional work concept of:

Salary Input € = Work Output + Experience+ Duration t

Our currency is the time we offer to solve problems and puzzles and develop new things and approaches. Per se a fuzzy to calculate effort and output:

Daily Rate OR Retainer = Problem x Experience x Time spent solving it

Plus we don’t agree to the company’s terms anymore just like that. Our terms must be:

  • to work truly independently including not only location, time-zone and working hours but also methodologies, tools and structures as otherwise we won’t be catering a global audience
  • to create passive income as this is the only way to scale ourselves
  • to stay ahead of the curve, our industry and our network by being visible, dedicate time to networking and research in order to not fall behind in order to continuously enhance our profile and build up a value

A career = building a car while driving it at full speed.

So what are strategies to create a fulfilling career as a “hyperconnected knowledge-gig worker” and where will this lead me? Which organizations have found ways to utilize and interact with people like me and how is this done? And how do I do this next to delivering on client’s expectations, preparing for speaking gigs, nurturing my network and research my industry’s news?

When we’re all fluid, who’s adding the structure?

Anna Ott

Thoughts about the future of work and the current state of digitization in HR.