Rise of the machines: is technology an opportunity or threat?


01 Jul
01Jul

This post is inspired by a debate I attended during National Freelancers Day 2019, exploring the question 'will technology help or harm freelancing?’ I think the topic is interesting to anyone who works with freelancers and potentially anyone who runs teams. What follows is based on my reflections from having watched and listened to the debate and are not necessarily reflective of the opinions expressed by the debate panel (see end.) I don't think there is a simple answer to this question. When you start to explore historic examples and then extrapolate to predict where current trends may lead, for almost every example it's possible to think of upsides and downsides of 'a' technology. During the debate panellists on each side prefaced a statement with 'I know I'm supposed to be for/against, but…' illustrating that this topic is nuanced. 


Email


When I first began my career in 1999 the company I joined had (one) commercial email address. Mail reached individuals by using 'FAO + name' in the subject line. These were printed out and dispatched to pigeon-holes. I can't remember how soon after that we moved to individual email addresses, which could be accessed from desktop PCs. In the years that followed email became portable, first with WiFi on laptops, on Blackberry, later via apps on personal devices. You're contactable 24/7/365 if you want - hurrah/boo [*delete as applicable] Email was intended to be a quicker corporate replacement to post and a more flexible mode than the desk phone (not everyone had a smartphone then, remember.) Communication happened faster which was ace. Until the proportion of your time spent responding to emails eats too much into available time for executing current workload. Or a conversation over email leads to a misunderstanding that would have been dodged with a phone call. Or a misread tone weakens a relationship that a meeting over coffee would swerve. Or a weekend is needlessly interrupted by a red exclamation mark, a symbol that fails to convey alone that it's important but not urgent. Of course, there are easy solutions to these unintended consequences, but they may not be obvious to someone whose primary mode of business comms has always been email. These effects were also not foreseen when adoption of the initial technology exploded.


As an aside, I could not imagine operating without email now. I have multiple corporate and personal addresses that I use for different purposes. 4G and WiFi technology enables me to respond on the move and cloud software enables me to access archived info while not in my office. Nevertheless, I have rules about when I switch communication to phone/meetings. And I set boundaries by switching off notifications and checking at specific times of the day. I also try not to use email for real-time chats, migrating to WhatsApp, Slack or Skype for back & forth.


Automating the funnel


Specifically, chatbots. One of the pro-tech panellists was passionate about the prospect of a bot VA (virtual assistant) being able to deal with phone calls. One of the other panellists beat me to it with my first critique; as a sole trader did he necessarily need to be able to handle more phone calls than he could answer himself? He still has finite capacity, after all. He clarified that as a millennial he just doesn't like the phone, fair enough. But as I left the debate I realised that the chatbot 'solution' is adequately satisfied by voicemail/text/email/DM in most cases, right? The exception is probably for appointment bookings, but there are also functional online solutions for this already too. New technology is probably best applied to universal problems that genuinely need solving. By the way, you’ll never get a chatbot if you call me. Although the phone is not my favourite thing, despite being gen X, I think it’s important to talk sometimes. 


Remote working


The technologies that enable remote working is the biggest freelance advantage to me personally. I have elected to live a fair distance away from some of my potential client base. I'm fortunate because a fair proportion of the kind of work that I currently do does not require collaboration all of the time. I have a lot of experience, so after a briefing I can work autonomously for reasonable stretches and I appreciate when it’s better to be present. I'm able to (and do) travel to client's offices fairly regularly if required. I work in an industry that tends to be an early adopter of technology and for the most part there is an acceptance to use it to enable more flexible working (for staff and freelancers.) 


I'd like to see more industries embrace the technologies that facilitate remote working. There are brilliant talents in their fields who freelance because a health or neuro condition, physical challenge, or caring responsibility ties them to home - perm roles were not a viable option. But there needs to be trust. There are some shocking anecdotes from the freelance community highlighting the abuse of technology. Where people are asked to keep a video call window open all day so that their activities can be monitored, or a client insists on taking a screenshot at routine intervals. Putting any IR35, individual privacy and client confidentiality issues aside, anyone with hiring responsibility who believes this is acceptable perhaps should have a rethink. As a freelancer I’m glad that I can refuse to engage (should that happen to me, it hasn’t so far). Unlike perm employees of those organisations who are presumably also as closely scrutinised.


Online marketplaces


Another opportunity that internet technology like search engines and secure online payment systems has opened up for freelancers are online marketplaces e.g. Upwork, Fiverr, Bark to name but three platforms (which operate in quite different ways to one another, but I won’t go into that here.) The basic premise of each is to bring together buyers and sellers of products and services. On the face of it this is a great way to reach a wider audience. There are some impressive success stories of people who have built and are running thriving businesses this way. My experience to date suggests that viability may be dependent on your field and the location of competitors. I am unwilling to compete on price for some of my services, but the flip side is that another freelancer elsewhere is able to make a living using a similar skill set where a physical market does not exist for them locally. Unfortunately, these platforms contain some buyers who do not have a clear idea of objectives and/or realistic expectations on budget; or people who are advertising jobs that are not at all what they are categorised as. That means the process of identifying worthwhile opportunities to pursue can be more time consuming than more traditional sales approaches. The platform owners do put in measures to eradicate these problems, but struggle against the now extremely high volume of job posts added daily and the determination of some parties to beat the system (sound familiar, social media giants?)


Social media


Speaking of which, social media is actually proving to be more fruitful as a business technology. I use multiple platforms for different purposes. It remains too early to tell how successful it will be for me as a lead generation tool, but it’s certainly driving awareness and also boosting my confidence. There’s quite a lot written about how freelancing can be isolating - you have no permanent colleagues, line management system, accountability process or support from teams like HR. I often work alone but I’m never alone. As a member of a handful of closed online communities, we answer each other’s questions, share experiences, do skill swaps and celebrate/commiserate together. You’ve probably guessed already, but it’s not all positive for everyone. Not all groups are curated so closely and some fellow freelancers have been the victim of horrible trolling just like in the wider social media universe. So I remain as cautious as I am on my personal social accounts.


AI (not yet)


I think that technology generally helps freelancers, although an individual technology may not benefit me personally. As technologies become widely adopted the instances of how they can be abused or generate unintended side effects increases too. I have deliberately avoided discussing possibly the most obvious and currently popular question - as to whether AI will threaten jobs. Firstly, I’ve chosen to discuss technologies that are accessible to all and commonplace right now. We are some years away from the rise of the machines as per the Terminator franchise, I think. Secondly, I’d also like to explore AI with particularly reference to analytics, but I need to understand more about what’s happening in the field first.


The debate panel ( 20th June 2019, NFD, London)


Gemma Milne - Science & Technology Journalist

Liam Charmer, Tech Innovator

Gemma Church, Freelance Writer

Professor Jonathan Freeman, Professor of Psychology and Managing Director, i2 media research

Andy Chamberlain, Deputy Director of Policy and External Affairs, IPSE.

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