The freelancing and remote working future of work has already arrived for a large number of the online white-collar workforce. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report published in October 2020, 84% of employers are set to rapidly digitalize working processes, including a significant expansion of remote work—with the potential to move 44% of their workforce to operate remotely. Even pre-Covid, the UK saw a 31% surge in the number of new freelancers in the year to June 2019. What will this mean for remote working tools in an ecosystem supporting the growing needs of crowds of freelancers and remote workers?
For the many employers and white collar employees who had previously continued working in a more traditional way, pandemic-led office closures meant it was time to get to grips with technology associated with online remote working on a massive scale. Both sides of the employment fence learned to use it, performed their job requirements and met their responsibilities. Employers (largely) stayed in business and now face return-to-work issues.
Vast numbers of employees worked successfully without direct supervision, saved themselves the time and cost of commuting to their office, and managed their workloads in a flexible manner to accommodate other demands on their schedule without eating in to vacation time. The pandemic accelerated adoption of video calling and collaboration platforms that was going to happen anyway, and research shows productivity was actually higher among remote workers. It’s hardly a surprise that many people want to retain at least some element of working remotely after what for many was an enforced experiment.
Hybrid work arrangements require a remote working policy
While the CEO of Goldman Sachs wants everybody back at their desks, and declared “Working from home is an aberration,” many other employers find it more acceptable. Bhushan Sethi, Joint Global Leader, People & Organization, based in New York at consulting firm PwC, recognises the role of the office has changed, and that people aren’t going to go back to five days a week. They have shown they can perform without needing to, and employers can reduce their office space requirements to cut costs. In central London, break clauses in office lease contracts are being taken advantage of more than ever by commercial tenants to reduce their office floorspace.
However, in the UK at least, employers have a legal responsibility for their employees’ health and safety whether they work in the office or at home. This was suspended during the ‘emergency measures’ of pandemic lockdowns, though will be reintroduced once the government declares it’s safe to return to work. Employer and employee negotiations about permanent levels of working remotely will have to include a safe environment with work spaces and screens at the correct height, and supportive chairs. Will they have a right to visit employees’ homes to check they are being used properly?
Cybersecurity will also need to be examined if remote working becomes a permanent part of employment contracts. Hackers have enjoyed a field day during the pandemic, with easier access to company systems through staff working via domestic internet connections. Prevention can often inolve using platforms with crowdsourced networks of ethical hackers, such as Bugcrowd and Synack. These platforms provide IT workers with great remote working tools, whether in addition to or instead of ‘regular’ employment.
Employers learned what it’s like to use freelancers
Many employers found themselves dealing with permanent employees in a similar way to using freelance talent – online contact with remote workers operating under a higher degree of self-management to achieve specific tasks. Employers’ new mindsets, with personal familiarity of the technology involved, have created a greater acceptance of using freelancers. 41% of companies interviewed for the WEF Future of Jobs research plan to increase their use of contractors for task-specialized work. Using more freelancers also enables wider geographical selection of workers to employ top talent and help achieve diversity targets.
As well as work opportunities opening up for those who choose to work freelance, many furloughed workers and people made redundant turned to the freelance gig economy out of necessity. Swedish gig-economy consultant Marianne Olsson agrees with projections that 25% of the world’s workforce will be operating on a freelance basis by 2025. While this figure includes the likes of Deliveroo riders, Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts, an increase in freelance white collar “knowledge workers” will be a contributory factor.
Remote working tools
How freelancers can find work
Freelance work platforms have certainly benefited from the pandemic. “Since Covid-19, we have seen exponential growth in user sign-ups suggesting a strong desire for individuals to get back to work and, in some cases, to do so on their own terms. Post-pandemic, the gig economy will continue to grow and we will see traditional workforce models evolve into an on-demand workforce,” Sebastián Siseles, Vice-President – International at Freelancer.com, told us.
A previous article took a closer look at Freelancer.com and other marketplace platforms that match businesses looking for on-demand talent with networks of vetted and approved freelancers. Popular types of work include website and app development, creative and design, customer support, finance and accounting, consulting, marketing, translations and social media account management.
Beyond searching for defined work opportunities, freelancers also have opportunities to enter prize challenges, where businesses offer monetary incentives to stimulate innovative breakthroughs or uncover problem solutions . HeroX is a good example of a prize challenge platform. Some challenges may be a call just for ideas with an appropriate fee available to a winner, while others may progress through stages to a working prototype. Larger scale and more complex challenges may require solution providers to collaborate in teams, and budgets are sometimes available to meet necessary costs.
Finding where to live and work
Working from home through the pandemic lockdowns, in the UK at least, has been more comfortable for people with larger homes to select a space to work from, and properties with a garden became top of the search list criteria for people considering moving home. Real estate agents have handled a surge of people moving from cities to larger properties, with outdoor space, in areas with lower prices. The movers clearly anticipate an element of remote working from home on a permanent basis, and are amenable to longer and more expensive journeys between home and office if they are perhaps for just two or three days a week.
Freelancers can consider a wider ranging media nomad existence, and live and work anywhere with an internet connection in a time zone appropriate for online client meetings. Airbnb-style accommodation is an option, though these properties are often priced for tourist holidaymakers and can be relatively expensive on an on-going basis. Other platforms such as GoGoPlaces offer longer-term accommodation in off-season periods. Property owners are grateful for an out-of-season income, and it gives the renters time to absorb and even become part of the local way of life.
A community of digital nomads generates local employment opportunities. Media nomads are increasingly targeted as a lucrative market by communities with ‘spare capacity.’ On the Portuguese island of Madeira, in the Atlantic Ocean off north west Africa, the village of Ponta do Sol has launched a plan to attract up to 100 remote workers within a co-working space, with access to a business incubator and a choice of surrounding village accommodation. Local businesses provide the enterprise with items such as free fruit, subsidised social events, tech backup and support for remote working tools, and within the group the nomads help each other with issues including marketing, ecommerce and business development.
In another European initiative, a crowdfunding project aims to build accommodation to attract digital nomads looking to experience a slower pace of life in rural Italy. Building permission for the project has been granted and construction starts this summer. The first bungalows are scheduled to be completed by fall 2021, subject to fundraising.
How to keep in touch through video conferencing
Video conferencing is one of the technologies that has advanced more in the months of pandemic lockdown than it would have done in years. Whether used for work meetings, virtual events with perhaps many attendees, or for dislocated families and friends to get together and share their gossip, many people had to learn very quickly and from a standing start about which software systems to use and how. Tech-shy businesses had to change their behaviours overnight.
Our recent article took a look at ten of the top remote working tools available for video conferencing.
Getting paid in a world of freelancing and remote working
Payments made to people overseas, in different currencies, and according to different tax regulations, used to be a time-consuming and relatively expensive exercise. Like everything else, digital technology has made it faster, cheaper and better, for both the payers and the payees.
With all the signs that businesses are going to use more freelance workers, it is important that payment issues are straightforward and accurate. Delayed or inaccurate payment involves time spent dealing with complaints and then correcting the mistakes, and payroll staff could be spending their time better for the company. The automated accounts payable provider Tipalti identified that payment problems or inflexibilities are the biggest issues that put freelancers off working for certain companies. To attract and keep the best freelance talent, a businesses need to have best-in-class payment system.
New technology for remote working
Nimble freelancers ought to continually upgrade their technology to stay ahead of competitors and impress employers. We are reaching a stage where that could start to include AR/VR/XR. “People are looking for alternate ways to communicate, and virtual reality is a good fit,” said T.J. Vitolo, director and head of XR Labs, a division of the New York City-based multinational telecommunications conglomerate Verizon Communications Inc. “It allows a level of interaction that goes beyond voice and video. It’s much more personal.”
The UK hit tv show Strictly Come Dancing regularly includes augmented reality content, making it even appear that dancers can perform in the company of an elephant. The technology provider, Mo-sys, is in talks with one of the UK’s largest universities about installing an AR/VR studio in its main campus for students to use and learn the technology. A logical step would also be for co-work spaces to instal such facilities, providing early adopter freelancers with access to new remote working tools.
Beyond creating augmented scenarios such as dancers performing with elephants or players stepping in to a video game, holographic representation could take avatars of meeting attendees anywhere from out in space to the deep ocean floor. Anyone who works with 3D physical models, from bicycles to high-end furniture to jet engines to any aspect of the built environment, could appear as themselves in a shared virtual space to collaborate and iterate on holographic models, regardless of their physical location.
It would be great to hear from any readers about their own experiences of any aspect of freelancing or use of remote working tools and platforms.