The nature of work is evolving at breakneck speed. A raft of collaboration tools makes it easier for dispersed groups to achieve common goals, and changing norms regarding flexibility are challenging the conception that an organization's work takes place in a central location between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. To cope, and better yet, to flourish in a 21st-century work environment, here are five rules to consider as you seek to optimize your career. 

1. Enjoy your freedom, but check in

Do you live by the project tracking provided by Asana? Love being mobile while keeping on point with Slack? It's never been easier to engage in remote work, or to plunge into a career on your own in the gig economy, perhaps as a digital nomad.

But there's a downside to the technology that enables our freedom, in that it can also allow us to isolate ourselves. Participating in collaboration-centric platforms can have the unintended effect of making you less relevant if you don't find time to physically check in at the office, or at least use technology for slower, one-on-one interactions.

In a sign of how rapidly tools change, slowing down might actually mean taking the time to send a more personal missive to a colleague through an antiquated technology, like... email.

For more caveats on living the life of a digital nomad, see this excellent piece by my Foolish colleague Selena Maranjian.

2. Shore up your skills

Given the leap in the availability of online courses, there's no excuse for not sharpening your career skills. Obtaining a certification in a specialized part of your field can sharpen your career prospects and earnings. This is true for those without advanced degrees and those who already have enviable professional qualifications. 

Many employers will pay for supplemental training and education, especially if the skills or learning you pick up will enhance your ability to perform at work. And for those currently looking for a new position, an employer's support of educational opportunities should be high on your list when you rank where you'd most like to be employed.

Not sure where to begin and looking for inspiration? Coursera and edX are two excellent resources for free massive open online courses (MOOCs). Taking a MOOC can be an enjoyable exploratory starting point for further education and skills enhancement.

Close up of yellow carpenter's spirit level.

Image source: Getty Images.

3. Improve your value before realizing your value

Somewhat related to the preceding point, increasing your value to your organization is the surest foundation to realizing more income over your career. When you're able to point to concrete and hopefully measurable results, you claw back some of the bargaining power that employers always seem to hold in the conversation over compensation.

If you're a freelancer or working in the gig economy, remember that the same holds true -- it's just that your value is potentially spread among many different customers or clients. So try to improve with every job or service -- whatever your unit of output is.

Conversely, if you've been coasting and haven't put all your effort into raising both your own and your organization's value, it's probably premature to try to realize your value, i.e., to ask for higher pay. So go out and firm up the compensatory ground you plan to stand on.

Does the idea of asking for a raise make you squeamish? I've prepared a brief two-step guide that should help you increase the odds that your salary or wage increase request will be successful. 

4. Be firm about your life/career separation

For those with flexible jobs, drawing lines around work can prove vexing. Perhaps you're a freelancer and set hours are hard to come by. Or you work in a traditional position, but as part of a global team, so you're on conference calls to Asia while your family is in pajamas.

Don't become overwhelmed by a fluid work environment, but instead try to figure out what you can control, and make sensible rules that both you and your employer (or clients) can respect. You might not work a typical 9-to-5 job, but boundaries of space and time between work and the rest of your fruitful life should be sacrosanct to you.

5. Hatch your own nest egg

As traditional models of employment have evolved, so, too, have methods by which employees build retirement benefits. Defined benefit pensions, in which an employee can expect a pre-determined yearly payout on retirement, are fading as more employers shun the long-term liabilities associated with these plans. You're much more likely to encounter a 401(k) or similarly structured plan in your workplace, in which contributions can be discretionary for both employer and employee.

Having said this, the most important nest-egg rule is to begin deferring or otherwise contributing to your retirement, and doing it now. No one else will create a safety net for you. Find out the maximum you can contribute to your employer's plan, and try to get as close to that number as you possibly can through regular paycheck withholdings.

Solo entrepreneurs can use such tools as traditional and Roth IRAs, and if your business is flourishing, don't hesitate to explore a Solo 401(k) plan. A Solo 401(k) allows the entrepreneur a method to contribute at least as much as, and in some cases more than, a participant in a larger employer's 401(k).

Again, I can't stress this enough: Don't just resolve to build your nest egg. Do your research and start saving as soon as is feasible.

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