The Rise of the Independent & Collaborative Worker

Matt Phelan | 10th September 2019

Background: why independence?

Last month I had the best answer to an interview question ever:

“So Tom what’s your dream job?”

“My dream job is to be able to work at my laptop wherever I am in the world’” –Tom, 18 years old. 

This was the answer I got when Matt Stannard, our Head of Robots asked Tom what he felt his dream job would look like, not an influencer, or DJ or astronaut even? Nope! He’s set his sights high and his key desire in working life is the opportunity for true independence.

What troubled me is that the phrasing we used was ‘dream’ job, but should we be looking at independent working like a dream? Is it that fantastical an idea that a young person, of school-leaving age in 2019 is still looking at the concept of autonomous working as beyond their reach, and at that, still a concept?

With the increase in popularity in crowdfunding since the noughties and the digital revolution, we’re living in a new world, so why haven’t our working practices moved on? I’m not talking about gig economy here, but moving from a culture of command and control to one of collaboration. We’re not to be defined by who we work for anymore but organisations should be defined by the ways they find, retain and invest in their talented HUMANS. All hail the rise of collaborative working, and the independent worker! Let’s look at some stats. 

The Era of Collaboration

We’re living in the Era of Collaboration so wake up and take note of the following:

  1. organisations failing to prioritise it risk falling behind competitors 
  2. organisations prioritising collaborative working strategies are proven more likely to grow faster AND march ahead of the competition
  3. employers not currently prioritising a collaborative culture still agree that it will become essential in the next 3 years (so they’re just not sure how to do it yet, but know they need to)
  4. the biggest barriers are C-Suite stagnation, risk adversity and fear of loss of control
  5. I found a punchy line summing it up in the Harvard Business Review— if you don’t think independent and collaborative working is vital, “You simply are wrong”

When my kids learned to talk, they started by copying and trying to copy everything I said. If you want a culture of collaboration, and to draw autonomous, driven, proactive people, you’ve got to look at yourself. The shift starts at the top- if we won’t evolve, neither will our people, and we won’t attract the ones we really want to be working with anyway!

The bad analogy part: Toothpaste

You know that feeling when you open a fresh tube of toothpaste (bear with me) it’s pumped, full and the paste glides effortlessly and in abundance onto the bristles- yes! Now, picture that tube when it’s nearly empty, the squeeze from the bottom, rolling of the tube, bending of the top near the cap to hopefully, HOPEFULLY, get that tiniest squeeze out onto the top of your toothbrush, brush with relief, forget to buy some from the shop the next day, and repeat. We all want our humans to feel like a full tube of toothpaste—we don’t have to squeeze them too hard, but we get superb productivity. Get it?

Office hours are dead. If someone wants to leave the office at 4pm, and then pick up their work at 11pm and work until 3am, or not, it’s none of your business—make a shift from the punch card mentality to one of empowering your people to engage autonomously with their optimal working patterns. We are imposing stressors on our own working lives by maintaining a dated culture of social contracts and mistrust. Our people are our agents for proactive and positive change in our business, not resources to be bled dry. If you don’t trust your people, their commitment and productivity will falter.

Be human and they’ll have a vested interest in their work, believe and trust in the people they work for, and this will drive success. I’m not just talking about office hours here though. We need to revolutionise the way we recruit for, and build our organisations entirely in looking at our employment contracts, the way we onboard, maintain and grow our people, the spaces we work in and tech provision for independent and collaborative working relationships.


Kudos to a few organisations who are recognising and celebrating humanity:

In 2015 Ernst and Young UK announced that they had dropped their 2.1 degree classification from their selection process and promoted their Future Ready programme. Well done EY, I have friends without a degree but I still hang out with them, I employ people without a degree, because we pick people on merit.

ING Direct Canada employees have no titles or offices, anyone talks to anyone and the top-down obstacles are removed instead of created. 

SuperFeast in Byron Bay encourages shorter days, ’healthies’ (just like ‘sickies’) but just for when you fancy a day off, and take their people on team retreats.

The experts

Let’s hear from the experts.

I asked Matthew Knight, Strategy and Innovation Partner at foxlark for his views:

“I think the future of work is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed, nor actively designed. We are already seeing a huge increase in the numbers of self-employed workers – 5m in the UK… The difference is that we recognise that work can be designed to suit our needs and wants – rather than just having to fit into the one model of 9-5/m-f.

“Technology has enabled us to work from practically anywhere – and for organisations to find and work with talent from practically everywhere. The benefits of diversity and inclusion are encouraging us to look outside the traditional sources of finding talent. Many workplaces are moving to mission-based work, and using agile teams for the duration of a project, over permanent employees….[W]hilst we are dipping our toes into how the future of work can look today, to make it sustainable for tomorrow, I think we need to be actively thinking about …the shared objectives of both the individual and the organisation, and how work is becoming a partnership between the talent and hirer – rather than the old factory models of “workers”.

And Ali Greenaway, Employee Relations Manager at Carnival UK:

“The expectation of workers coming into their careers is much higher and different from generations prior; they have high expectations of themselves, want to achieve, and have high expectations of the Companies they choose to work for.

“I also believe in the past a ‘Managers’ role was far more directive, including where development of themselves and their teams were concerned. Moving forward it’s clear to me that with higher expectations generally, workers should be encouraged to take control of their own development, defining their career paths and seeking out opportunities with the support of their employer.  An individual’s development should be very much driven by them, with the Manager taking on a supportive and coaching role.

“I believe that approach reinforces individual accountability, drives pro-active behaviours, enables folk to progress in the direction of travel they are happy with, and therefore creates a self-management of their own expectations.” 


It’s a known fact that people are at their best when they are at their happiest, so I’d encourage companies to consider their people at the heart of everything they do. Collect their input, they are the face of your business and brands and those on the frontline are your product experts. Make them feel valued.

Tech is freeing us, and as Matthew Knight puts it, ‘The power dynamic is shifting’”… but as organisations, why are we still creating our own jails?

I have written this article to ask you to do one thing, not to judge any company but to try and get people to ask their company one question. Perhaps add to your next management meeting the following agenda point.

Could we create a better working environment to enable our teams to thrive?

Let me know how you get on! #Freedomtobehuman

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