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  • Solange Charas, PhD and Stela Lupushor

Ah, Independence! A Sweet Paradox

Updated: Jun 25

Many of us have a dream of waking up when we want, working where we want, and avoiding those dreaded morning commutes! These dreamers make up the growing segment of independent workers – freelancers, creators, solopreneurs, contributors, giggers and all the other terms we use for them – they have turned this dream into a reality. As with all dreams, the reality is a bit more complicated. 

Over the past decade, the traditional 9-to-5 approach has gradually shifted to more flexible options. The gig economy, remote work, and digital platforms have opened up new possibilities. Some workers were gently nudged (or not-so-gently pushed) into this world due to COVID, layoffs or the allure of gig economy platforms that “propagate the myth that these workers have more independence and control over their work than they actually do.” For others, it was a deliberate choice driven by the desire for control and autonomy

Imagine you’re a graphic designer. You can either sit in a cubicle under fluorescent lights, waiting for the clock to strike 5 PM, or you can design from a beach-side café with a coconut drink in hand. For many, the choice is clear. The flexibility to choose projects, set schedules, and work from anywhere is irresistible. And some countries are paying attention. Nations like Spain, Portugal, Costa Rica, Estonia and a few others have rolled out specific visa programs for remote workers, offering benefits such as tax breaks, simplified immigration processes, and access to local services. These incentives cater to the lifestyle and professional needs of digital nomads and also help in distributing tourist spending over longer periods and across different regions, thereby supporting local businesses and enabling cultural exchange. These programs allow nomadic workers to realize their dreams!

The pandemic gave many a taste of remote work, and RTO (returning to office which many companies are requiring now) feels like trading a gourmet meal for a stale sandwich. The pushback against the return to office is not just about avoiding commutes or wearing pants again; it’s a manifestation of our desire for control over our schedules and autonomy on how and when we do our work. We’ve seen the light (of our laptops) and we don’t want to go back to the dark ages of rigid office hours. People have tasted the freedom of scheduling doctor’s appointments in the middle of the day, avoiding rush hour, and even sneaking in a quick nap. The traditional office setup feels like an outdated relic that doesn’t quite fit in with our modern, flexible lifestyles. The trade-off for organizations, and which many people miss in co-located work, is the serendipitous meetings (at the water cooler), where people socialize and generate innovative/collaborative thinking.

At the heart of the push for independence is a deep-seated need to be the authors of our own stories. We want to control the narrative, to work on projects that excite us, and to show the world (and ourselves) our true worth. When you work for someone else, you’re contributing chapters to someone else's story. When you work for yourself, you’re penning your own epic saga where every success is your own, every failure a lesson learned, and every decision a step towards the life you want to lead. It’s your plot, your characters, your happily-ever-after. You’re building your own narrative that has its “Narrative Worth” as Tobin Trevarthen coined it.

But hold on a second. Can we ever be truly independent when we rely on so many systems? The very internet we use to proclaim our independence is a massive, interconnected web of dependencies. We depend on clients or employers for income, on technology for work-tools, and on various services to keep things running smoothly. Even our beloved coconut drinks rely on a global supply chain. And let’s not forget our dependence on AI. Yes, even writing this article involved some digital assistance. AI helps streamline research, generate ideas, and even draft content. It’s a powerful tool that independent workers use to enhance productivity and creativity. For example, AI tools like Grammarly and Jasper are popular among writers for their ability to improve grammar and generate creative content.

The ironic twist? Our dependence on tools and technology gives us the illusion that we'll have more time for the stuff we really want to do. Instead, we end up creating more content for others to consume, which in turn generates a need for more tools to help us read, summarize, and catch up on all this content. It's a never-ending cycle. To what end? We're caught in a paradox where our quest for efficiency and productivity often leads to more work and less free time.

What does all this have to do with HR? We can help influence the sense of (in)(dependence) where it matters and instead of deploying “bossware”, to measure what matters and specifically - everything that creates a positive and productive employee experience. 

  • Flexibility: provide remote work options and flexible hours to accommodate different lifestyles and needs.

  • Choice: Allow employees to choose their own projects and set their own goals within the organization.

  • Technology: Provide access to the latest tools and technology that enable efficient remote work and collaboration. Offer training and support to help employees make the most of these tools.

  • Autonomy: Encourage a culture of trust where employees have the freedom to make decisions and take ownership of their work. 

  • Rewards: Recognize and reward independent initiatives and innovative ideas.

  • Wellbeing: Develop programs that support mental and physical well-being, recognizing the unique challenges of remote and independent work. 

  • Community: Create networks and forums for employees to share ideas, seek advice, and collaborate, and build a sense of belonging to a community 

A note on technology that may solve the remote/co-located paradox. New and anticipated technologies are significantly enhancing the way remote and nomadic workers participate in team meetings, with developments in the metaverse being particularly noteworthy. 

  • Virtual Reality solutions like MeetinVR provides immersive virtual environments for business meetings, collaboration, events, and training sessions in VR. MeetinVR aims to revolutionize remote collaboration by providing a realistic sense of physical presence and natural interactions through avatars and spatial audio.

  • Augmented reality is another area contributing to this immersive experience. Technologies such as Microsoft's Mesh aim to integrate AR with VR, enabling users to see virtual representations of their coworkers in their actual physical surroundings. Holoportation, immersive virtual spaces, spatial rendering are new terms that are entering our vocabulary. This blending of real and virtual worlds helps in replicating the nuances of in-person interactions more effectively.

  • Co-presence solutions like noro provide immersive, life-size video conferencing experience, and enable teams to collaborate and communicate effectively, without the need for extensive travel. This not only helps companies significantly reduce travel expenses but also takes a proactive step towards lowering their carbon footprint. With noro, organizations can bring their teams together, create a sense of unity and enhance productivity, all while contributing to a greener future.

Additionally, AI-driven tools are being integrated to enhance communication in these virtual spaces, offering real-time language translation and transcription services, which bridge language barriers and make collaborations more seamless.

These technologies are shaping a future where the distinction between remote and co-located work becomes increasingly blurred, making it possible for nomadic workers to feel genuinely connected and engaged with their teams, regardless of the physical space they occupy.

In the end, independence at work is about finding joy in what we do, having the flexibility to live life on our terms, and crafting a narrative that reflects our true selves. And if that means being an HR professional who is working from a beach-side café with a coconut drink in Lisbon (that’s where Solange was in June), well, that’s a pretty sweet story to write. 

Cheers to that and let’s watch the fireworks. Happy Independence Day!

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