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The emerging global virtual workplace: A work in progress

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The virtual global workforce is already here.  It just may not seem apparent.  When people log in to their smartphones to check email or apps for messages – call on clients or their office — from locations outside the traditional physical workplace – this is virtual working.  And prospectively, there’s going to be a lot less traditional physical office and a lot more virtual connectivity between employers and employees.  And the employer-employee relationship is fast becoming instead — predominantly clients and flexible talent (or temps or consultants, to use more well-known terms).

In 2007, the iPhone changed the workplace

John Naughton details in The Guardian how 2007 was the year the “world turned upside down” — as that was the year when Apple launched the iPhone.  The iPhone, as Naughton explains, changed fundamentally how people accessed and interacted with the internet.  And that billions more in the next decade will get internet access.  Most people are predicted to spend a majority of their waking time online.

That people can access the internet and work remotely has transformed the industrial-era workplace of employers and employees at a fixed location to purchasers and suppliers of units or subscriptions of work provided often virtually.   And this trend is rapidly moving to create what will be a predominant virtual workforce in the future.

Nearly half the workforce to be virtual by 2020

Alain Dehaze, CEO of Adecco Group detailed recently a prediction “that by 2020, 43% of American workers would be independent contractors.”  And this trend of course is a global one – where talent will connect with need on a project-to-project basis.  These forces have already disrupted numerous industries including hotels (with AirBnB) and taxis (with Uber), to name a few.  Now the world’s labor markets, powered by sophisticated, remote access to the internet via smartphones – are going through the same disruption.  

Dehaze encourages employers and workers to focus less on qualifications and more on learning — and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman — in a recent interview with Charlie Rose — outlined how he sees the new social contract related to employment being centered around a willingness by employees to be lifelong learners.  Dehaze believes employers seeking top talent need to be more relaxed and flexible in their corporate cultures — including a willingness to hire a more mobile, international workforce.

Some ways to adapt to the virtual world of work

Looking forward from the perspective of someone who’s worked virtually in international markets since 2002 (save for one year):

For workers:

  • Those who will increasingly seek work virtually will need to see themselves as primarily solutions providers to businesses.  
  • They’ll need to market themselves and run a profitable solopreneur business – while at the same time adjusting to the fundamentally different life a virtual career represents.  
  • A mastery of a range of tools available to help virtual workers will be required.  
  • Importantly, there will be essentially no traditional social outlets or opportunities provided by employers in a virtual career.  Think about the wide-sweeping ramifications of this over a decade and how it might impact your life.  

For employers:

  • There’s a deep need to understand that virtual talent is already highly motivated and entrepreneurial to be working with you virtually.  
  • Workers will essentially be crowd-sourcing their career and will have an ability to select the employer or client.  
  • If that employer or client is prepared to offer an attractive remuneration package – they’re more likely to retain the emerging elite talent operating as global virtual specialists in their niche.

Resources like Google and FourSquare’s joint Digital Marketing Academy exist to help workers adjust to and thrive in the new global virtual workforce as digital marketers.  Employers should find similar ways to adapt to continue to attract and retain the best talent.  Over time more virtual-friendly resources will emerge for employers and workers alike – as the world becomes increasingly a place where talent and employers are operating in a virtual, global context.

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