Consider for a minute a week at work without the internet, without email or your smart phone.
Imagine trying to connect with people without social media, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Then consider that ten years ago none of this existed. The world we work in is changing faster than we know it. ‘Virtual working’ – whereby we are all connected with one another in real time, collaborating with little or no physical interaction as we once knew it – a concept once considered sci-fi or utopian, is now more real and tangible than we realise. Meetings have given way to video conferencing over the internet often spanning continents; letters have been replaced by emails, our filing cabinet is now our shared documents folder hosted on the cloud, the ‘office’ as we knew it is now our desktop at home and Miss Moneypenny is no longer sat in the next room waiting for the intercom to beep. This new mode of working has had many repercussions to the ‘organisation’ of the 20th century. Location no longer matters – we can work from anywhere as long as we have an internet connection. Organisations have thus become leaner, more decentralised, and more distributed. The home-based workforce – over 4.5 million home-working professionals in the UK alone – can now be an integral part of our organisation, turned on as and when we need them at the click of a button. The new buzzword for this is ‘on-demand’. Work is now ‘on-demand’ rather than ‘planned’. Buzzword or not, it’s worth recalling how the Japanese introduced lean production techniques in manufacturing processes in the 80s and beat Westerners at their own game. While the Americans were using sophisticated forecasting techniques to plan their stock requirements in advance the Japanese built a superior system by creating an ecosystem whereby they could bring them in ‘just-in-time’ for production. They were able to churn out products faster and cheaper and stay ahead of the game in terms of evolution. On-demand is to the modern business what just-in-time was to the manufacturing process.
With emerging markets introducing a vast, multi-skilled, well-educated and diverse workforce onto the global labour market, and more importantly with all of us being able to access it readily through the internet, human labour is becoming a commodity just like any other where the same principles apply. Virtual working is to our modern business what just-in-time and lean production was to the Japanese. But it’s not just about being leaner. The virtual workforce is also more productive. Large organisations have spent decades researching and creating incentive schemes – one more complex than the other; academics have written books on the subject and motivational speakers have created a whole new industry for themselves. No incentive scheme will ever beat the motivation of working for oneself. Alas the problem is turned on its head. The virtual workforce – in essence a team of self-employed individuals who are brought together through technology by the organisation which once acted as the employer – is driven by their own incentive to maximise their profit. There is a heap of evidence out there showing how self-employed individuals are more motivated, they work harder, and by working around their own schedule and environment, are more productive. And there are benefits to the ecosystem in which this virtual workforce and the new form of organisation co-exist in. Travelling to and from work is reduced. Commuting is no longer needed. Busy city centres will get less busy, promoting healthier, more balanced and less polluted lives. Fewer people will complain about the commute, about sacrificing family life for work and being slaves to their employer organisation. Work is also becoming more transparent. In a society where college is the new high school, where a university degree can be obtained through remote online learning, where education is readily and freely available online, transparency will become more and more important. Being able to see real examples of one’s work at the click of a button, validated references through the interconnected world of the social media, is something that empowers the hirer to make better, more informed decisions while motivating the worker to keep developing themselves. A degree on its own will not be enough. How then is a virtual workforce like this efficiently put together and managed? The biggest barrier to adopting this mode of working is red tape and our own pre-conceived ideas of what’s possible and what’s not. This is why it’s the smaller businesses – the most nimble and less bureaucratic – that have so far embraced it the most. The reality is we are surrounded by tools that enable us to make this reality. There are a whole host of management tools, most of them free or near-enough – like instant messaging, peer-to-peer free telephony from Skype, collaborative tools like Basecamp and Google shared documents that allow you to share and co-edit your work with colleagues remotely. There’s also cloud computing which allows you to flex your computing power through ‘elastic units’ hosted in the cloud, which reduces your in-house hardware needs and the people to administer them. With tools like these, managing your virtual workforce is a lot simpler than doing the equivalent in the traditional in-house team, which necessitates layers of middle management, progress meetings, time lost in planning and travelling, and worrying about the deliverables whilst you are still paying your staff regardless. With online collaborative tools you can now monitor what your virtual team is doing in real time, watch them through a web cam or share their screen view. You can have milestones set online against which they report, reviewing them in your own time periodically and pay for results as and when they come through. Some 98% of businesses that have deployed this new way of working are testifying that they will carry on doing so. With the vast availability of talent now at your fingertips and looking only to grow, and the numerous tools to find and manage them efficiently, it is just a matter of time until businesses make this their common practice. The ones that have and will adopt it will by then be one step ahead of the game.
Xenios Thrasyvoulou is the founder and chief executive officer or PeoplePerHour.com