Unattached: The Next Era of Knowledge Workers
This is part 1of a 3-part series, Unattached: The Next Era of Knowledge Workers. You can read part two, “Fractional Work in a Post-Pandemic Era” here.
Part 1: Making the Case for Fractional Work
When it comes to my professional life, I’m afraid of commitment.
Like many of us, I’ve largely pursued a career of serial monogamy, but I’ve never held a single job that I’d describe as a “perfect fit.” I studied journalism, but I didn’t want to be a journalist. I took a job in sales, but I spent all my time writing marketing collateral. I worked at a venture capital firm, but never actually felt like a VC. So I’d work one job at a time, pour everything I had into it, then overexert myself to the point of exhaustion and wonder why I felt such a dissonance between my “work self” and my “everything else self.”
Over time, I started to notice a growing rift in what I was hired to do vs. where I spent my time vs. where I spent my energy. After seeing this pattern play out again and again, I decided to test out a new career path: fractional work. That’s to say, rather than work for one single employer, I split my time between a few different projects. It’s been one year since I pivoted, and I’m more convinced than ever that this new work paradigm is not only possible — it’s the foundation for the next era of knowledge workers.
I know this may sound like a lofty sentiment, but hear me out. The world of work is changing. We’re quitting jobs at a higher rate than ever, and every company is going through some version of an identity crisis about how to manage in-person time. Meanwhile we’re only a few DMs away from any celebrity CEO or potential collaborator, and it’s easier than ever to build up your personal brand online (even if you can’t write a single line of code). In some emerging tech industries like crypto, it’s more normal than not to actively work across multiple projects at once.
The trouble is — even though the world may be priming us for fractional work, we’re not quite sure how to embrace the fractional mindset. From a worker’s perspective, it takes a different set of skills to succeed in a job, let alone a career. It also requires the tricky task of decoupling your identity from “the thing you studied” or “the job title you have” into “the skills that make you marketable.” From an employer’s point of view, it’s tough to know how to scope what had been a single job into a subset of projects. It’s also difficult to let go of the notion that the holy grail is a full-time hire.
Since 2020, the rise in independent, fractional work has grown exponentially, particularly among those of us who spend most of our time in front of computers. I wrote a lot about this during my time at Bolster, a hub for on-demand executives. According to a study from Upwork, as much as 39% of the U.S. workforce (that’s 60 million Americans) did some freelance work in 2022. Why? Has the world changed? Have we changed? Is this model just better, and we didn’t know it before?
I’d like to show why fractional work is the future. In this three-part series, I’ll share what I’ve learned in going fractional, how it relates to the new way of post-pandemic work in the tech sector, and why it’s more critical than ever to broaden your range in the workplace.
Types of Fractional Work
At its core, fractional work is just that: Spending a fraction of your time with several different employers.
Since fractional can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, I often find that most projects start by developing a shared vocabulary. I’ve noticed there are two primary types of fractional work that I get hired to do: Root Work and Branch Work.
Let’s start with an example of root work. The appetizer to fractional work tends to be the Fractional CFO, or Chief Finance Officer. The classic persona is someone who manages the back office and bookkeeping needs across multiple small businesses simultaneously. What’s nice about this role is that it’s easily scoped and well understood. While a full-time CFO at a single company obviously does a lot more than back office bookkeeping — everything from managing cap tables and investors to metrics and reporting, M&A, and internal ops — the root version of this job is more than enough for most small businesses. And the value accrual on the company side is great: They don’t need to hire a full-time CFO to get access to someone great.
When you hire a root fractional worker, the fraction of their time that you’re buying is essentially just the root, most essential elements of their domain’s core competency. A root fractional marketing leader, for instance, might own just the essentials of brand management, internal messaging, and external comms. They can be “just a call away” when anything comes up, and they typically charge an ongoing monthly retainer for this regular oversight and advising. This type of worker owns the strategic center of the work, but not the side projects or new initiatives that may come up. That’s a job for someone else.
By contrast, branch work is for those clearly defined, neatly scoped projects that have a clear start and endpoint to them. Whereas a root fractional worker must stick close to their core essentials, the branch fractional worker only takes on projects. Kicking off a new SEO campaign is a branch of marketing. You don’t necessarily need to know the in’s and out’s of the entire marketing function in order to create and define a successful SEO strategy. A website relaunch is another branch. Same with discrete program launches or end-to-end transactions like running an M&A process. While the challenge of root fractional work is resisting the temptation to branch out, the challenge of branch work is fighting against that urge to reinvent everything else from within.
Whether you’re doing root or branch work as a fractional work, modern-day technology makes it all possible. Every day, I do a little bit of work across all of my projects — an impossible task if I needed to be physically present for each. You don’t need Harry Potter magic to be in two places at once today; you just need a quick wifi connection and universal access to video conferencing. While taking an independent path doesn’t come without its risks (as I cover in this blog post, “Should You Go Fractional at Work?”), the conditions of the working world today are uniquely primed to make this a little more palatable. In many ways, the pandemic switched our brains from merely skirting around the possibility of using new technology into permission to lean into it.
Which of course begs the question, what comes next?
In Part Two of Unattached, I’ll talk more about the core skill needed for success in a fractional worker, and why old work rules don’t make sense for this new type of work. Read part 2, Fractional Work in a Post-Pandemic Era.
Special thanks to my fractional crew for reviewing early drafts of this essay, including Rebekah Rombom, Abby Miller, Kendall Thornton, Brittany Williams, and Zack Moy.