(all photography by OMNI Photography AKA Jamila Devenport)
On a late-August Monday evening as the sun set behind the railroad crossing and the last commercial truck of the day rumbled by, we gathered at Bull City Coworking, in a historic former-tobacco processing factory.
We got together, beer in hand (courtesy of Robert Petrusz, of the BCC, the evening’s host), to talk about work. Specifically, how we thought about their work, and what the word “work” meant to us. We each sat in one of the assortment of chairs, arranged in a circle. Our “(non)panelists” sat scattered, in random order, next to someone who came because of meetup.com or facebook event announcements, and excepting a several “regulars” most of us didn’t know each other well prior to the meeting.
Each of us picked a “totem” – a small object that she felt affinity towards, either of her own that she brought along, or out of a basket of trinkets that I had brought with me for the occasion. As each of us introduced ourselves to the group, he would place his totem in the center, exchange it with one of the totems left by the previous speakers, and build on the stories that’d been shared already with his own work story. Some of us spoke about the transition we were going under or had experienced in the past. Some spoke of the environment that they created that they felt they needed. “For years I was working out of a back bedroom at my home seeing clients but for various reasons that became uncomfortable… so I built a 1,000sq ft office next to my house,” Victor Jimenez, a life-long entrepreneur, shared his current office situation, laughing. Others spoke of the historic changes, trends they saw, and how their own stories fit in it.
“When you are freelance, you really are like the knight who’s out there, kind of like being Don Quixote right? You are on your own. … It does help to have a crew, a team. … When I got out of college I worked in Hollywood, in the film industry, as a sound effects editor. And it was totally factory work. … [but] my job, my whole industry changed tremendously when things downsized. Computer technology came in and really blew open the doors. All of a sudden, you didn’t need to be some place … As soon as I got a laptop, I pretty much just left Hollywood in the rearview and started making films wherever I could get somebody to hire me.”—Stewart Nelsen
Once everyone had a turn, I tossed in a few questions to get the conversation started. To sum it up, in my view, three main themes emerged.
1. SPACE MATTERS
People have different needs for what their work environment to be. Some spoke of the need to have a total quiet, and their home provided it, outside of their formal workplace where they felt it was “open, collaborative, but too hectic.” Some spoke of the need to create boundaries; while getting stimulation from their surroundings is useful and sometimes essential, it’s important to have a space where you can “get stuff done.”
The kind of space they work in matters, too. Change the space people are in, and the output of their work might change. Laura Hamlyn, a (non)panelist with a variety of workplace experiences, mused out loud:
“I think the workspace, work environment is huge, because when I was working at SAS, I was in their brand-new platinum LEED certified building, and then I switched departments and I moved to an old building, and it was amazing. The difference. It was like going from … The Umstead Hotel, … to Holiday Inn. If I were an owner of a business, and I had employees, I would think a lot about what work in work environment, and how that directly affects how the work is done. I’ve seen the new space that Redhat’s got in town, and it’s going to be pretty awesome… My husband’s a banker. And he has to wear a tie every day, and it kills him… I mean, it’s a nice bank. It’s nice, but it’s just… I wonder what would happen if you put bankers in that space.”—Laura Hamlyn
“A ton of people are looking for a safe place to think, be creative and work. I think coworking space fills that need,” said Robert, speaking of why he decided to start his coworking venture. He chucked his career as a technology worker in a big office for a stint in the technology startup arena, and stumbled on this dire needs for working spaces and communities among the entrepreneurs and freelancers.
2. WORK & MEANING
“There aren’t enough jobs out there these days. The axiom is ‘you can’t look for a job, you have to create your own’,” posited Stewart Nelsen, a videographer and sound engineer with a long career in television and Hollywood, who relocated to the Triangle recently. Karl Sakas, a blogger and operations manager at Hesketh.com, spoke of a photographer with a life-long passion of train photography that never put on a show until very late in his life. When asked “how does money figure in your work?” Katie DeConto, co-owner of another coworking space in town called Mercury Studio, remarked:
“I actually wait tables at Fed, but I didn’t even talk about that, like (earlier) I had to speak about where I worked, and it’s where the money comes from, but I didn’t even think to mention it… When I think of my work I think of Mercury Studio and getting that moving has been my work now, but it’s opposite of making money.”—Katie DeConto
Work, for many, seems to be a big part of their identity, and merely exchanging time with money doesn’t satisfy this need. For people who look for meaning in work, their work may not equal what they do for living. “What would you do before you were told you had to make a living? And that’s your work,” said Carter Cue, whose work is in local activism, though his job is at the county library system, adding: “work used to mean a whole lot of other things.”
3. APPRECIATION OF WORK
Through talking about the sense of ownership and satisfaction, along with the question of money in all of our pursuit of the meaning at work, came the realization of what our compensation, tangible or not, signified: social acceptance and appreciation for what one does. “For me, in my career, what has mattered most is that I feel valued enough. And sometimes that has this equation where money is a certain social piece: It feels social… (the question becomes) ‘Am I valued in a socially acceptable way by this salary?’ And if I am, then, ‘what am I getting from it besides the money?’” said Beck Tench, the director of technology at the Museum of Life and Science who works primarily from her home office. Alice Williams, online strategist at Hesketh, an active volunteer for social causes and a poet, chimed in: “We undervalue the asset of social connection… And I see people willing to start to trade all the markers of success that we’ve had in past generations for purpose, for fulfillment.”
Titles can act as a surrogate for the workers’ sense of self, or an expression of it. Jamila Davenport, who took these gorgeous pictures at the event, spoke of her distaste for people with big-sounding titles, whose titles are more important than the sense of who they are. “It’s all about you you you but you don’t know who you are.” Katie and co-owner Megan Jones talked about giving themselves titles at Mercury Studio and feeling sheepish about it for a long time. Katie said it took her some time to become truly confident in claiming her title.
We touched on a different kind of work too, at home, of bringing up children and taking care of home. Sarah Kate Fishback, who has had large corporate job stints as well as working in a non-profit sector as a web, operation and marketing professional, observed her own experience of becoming a mother:
“I didn’t realize how much getting tasks done, being productive, working in a team and having that interaction somehow filled my internal ‘I’ve done something today’ coffer, and everything I do as a mom, I don’t feel that, at all. Like, it stays at zero. I could do a million things, running around, and I feel like I’ve done nothing… It’s just an interesting thing, I can’t even give myself appreciation.”—Sarah Kate Fishback
We also wondered: Is this pursuit of fulfillment, looking for appreciation and meaning through work, strictly an American thing? Can the same fulfillment be found outside of our work? We largely agreed that people in other cultures seem to find fulfillment outside of their work, or at least not put as much emphasis on work as we do.
It was obvious to me that from the conversation that there’s a few major shift happening in the American work culture, and it’s plainly visible to many that gathered at this event. Our focus at work is shifting toward meaning, connection and fulfillment, away from the money, fame and status. The roles we play at work and home are more flexible.
But the challenge today is: how to value this new way of working? As we give more emphasis to the impact and meaning we bring to the table everyday, do we sacrifice the traditional metrics and rewards? Are we appreciating ourselves enough for the efforts, and making sure we aren’t just doing what we want, not covering the bases for ourselves and people we hire? Do we have proper metrics to measure our success at what we want to do?
The part II with more pictures to follow tomorrow!
“The thing that any creative needs is space. Whether a canvas or a piece of paper or time. And difference between filling that space with self direction, and following what people tell you to do in that space, is trust. And trusting that, the people that made that space for you, if you don’t produce something, will still keep you in that space.”—Beck Tench
ALSO: I’d love to get feedback and continue this conversation online. There’s a whole lot more that can be talked about, such as the nature of collaborative work, virtual office spaces, crowd sourcing and funding as a new framework of work. Here’s a link to our Facebook group. Check it out, put in your two cents, and let us know what you think.
Hope to connect with you there, and in our next event!