Robots help us understand human nature. Hiroshi Ishiguro

Work as you go

In the future, you won’t have to choose between career and family or between workplace and home. Thanks to the digitalization of the working environment, you can easily combine them.

Changes in the labor market are always viewed with suspicion. When it comes to the impact of digitalization, the conversation has been infused with as much anxiety as optimism. But the reality of digitalization’s impact on the labor market is one of flexibility and freedom, especially in comparison to the antiquated work model we started from.

Years ago, in the Industrial Age, work was restricted to ‘set-time, set-place’ barriers. All workers had to be in the same place at the same time, or else work just could not happen. Today, thanks to recent innovation – especially in mobile and collaboration technology – there is no reason businesses need to be constrained by those outdated barriers. It’s no longer necessary for people to be in the same office at the same time in order to work together; between smartphones, free global videoconferencing, and cloud-based document sharing, the office as we know it, is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In other words, work no longer needs to be a place.

Be your own boss

As a result, we can now bring the work to the worker, rather than the worker to the work. With the Internet increasingly enabling popular work approaches such as telecommuting, distributed teams, online work, and even entirely virtual companies, both businesses and workers are finding more freedom and flexibility to work whenever, however and with whomever they like.

A new industry – online work – is furthering the rapid disruption of work as we know it. Online workplaces are allowing businesses and professionals around the world to find each other and work together via the Internet. With the ability to find the people they need, and their newfound flexible and cost-effective staffing options, companies are quickly increasing their spending on online workers. The market, which was $1B in 2012, is expected to grow to $5B by 2018.

As a result, businesses can now hire specialists on demand, thereby keeping their workforce flexible in response to fluctuating needs, and creating lean, nimble companies that can grow very quickly and efficiently.

Online work also benefits professionals, who are empowered to take control of their careers and to choose when, where and how they want to work. They can build “portfolio careers” that are customized to fit their goals and needs. They can choose only the projects they most enjoy, selecting from a pool that’s exponentially larger than just the projects available within commuting distance. According to a recent survey by Genesis Research of independent professionals who work online, 90% said that being a freelancer gives them more personal freedom than a traditional job, and 69% even said that the work is more interesting. The ability to work whenever and wherever they like is key as well – 63% said they prefer to work while they travel, instead of using up vacation time.

Changes far and wide

This paradigm shift is not only creating ripples in the business landscape, but also in the way people structure their lives. With the ability to work from anywhere in the world, people are able to live wherever they like – for example, some are choosing to live close to their family in a rural town, where the local job market is so small or stagnant that it couldn’t support traditional employment. Still others are deciding not to live anywhere at all; these “digital nomads” spend their time traveling the world and working as they go.

This flexibility also applies to how people spend their time – professionals no longer have to choose between full-time work and spending time with their children as they can easily work from home and around their kids’ schedules.

The ripples of this shift are felt even across other industries, such as real estate. As the concept of ‘going to work’ becomes less tied to a physical location, offices are shifting to fit the needs of their increasingly mobile inhabitants. Many companies are recognizing that the office still serves a purpose as a gathering spot or home base for a flexible workforce, instead of a daily destination. Office space designs are starting to shift towards open, shared, and comfortable environments that foster collaboration and creativity.

Strategies such as “hot-desking,” for example, are gaining popularity as a way to use office space more efficiently when much of the company works remotely or flexibly.
With this model, workers reserve shared desk space only for the times when they will be in the office, thus eliminating the need to pay for office space that goes unused.

The key to success

In fact, an entirely new type of real estate has been invented to cater to the needs of this new type of work: co-working spaces. Taking the concept of the coffee-shop office to the next level, co-working spaces have desks and workspaces available for rent, thereby enabling independent professionals and even small start-up businesses to access office space on demand. Not only does this add an element of social interaction to offset the potential isolation of working from home, but it also creates communities of professionals who can collaborate and network together.

Perhaps most profoundly, these new work strategies are impacting the way organizations are structured. Now that accessing additional talent is easier than ever – hiring an online worker takes an average of 2.8 days, according to the aforementioned study, compared to an average of 24 days for on-premise hires – businesses can now provide more leverage to their employees by empowering them to hire online team members as additional resources. This frees up their time to focus on strategic, mission-critical work, while also enabling even junior staff members to get management experience by overseeing their own online team.

This is just the beginning. We are only scratching the surface of this shift in the way work is being done. By 2020, it’s projected that one in three workers will be working online. Businesses that ignore this reality – and the benefits it entails – will find themselves left behind.

Read more in this debate: Guy Standing, Bo Cutter, Robert Solow.


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