With 4.5 million registered freelancers, the freelance marketplace oDesk is one of the largest and fastest-growing online workplaces. Its founder Gary Swart spends much of his time researching and talking about the future of work (check out his fascinating study on Millennials here), and we decided to speak with him about freelancers and their place in the future economy.
oDesk also has a great blog for freelancers -- be sure to check it out.
*What do you think the future of work will look like? *
People today are breaking free of corporate offices and commutes. Set time and set place work was born in the Industrial Age, and no longer makes sense. Technology—especially the Internet—allows us to bring work to the worker, rather than the worker to work. oDesk is helping fuel this freelancing revolution by providing a virtual workspace and access to a global pool of jobs.
We’re working to protect freelancers by replicating the way work happens in the offline world by developing tools for effective communication, collaboration and automatic documentation of work performed in the online world. This last point allows us to guarantee payment for work done on oDesk—an hour worked is an hour paid.
Given all of your experience with freelancers, what seems to be the most pressing issue currently facing the freelance workforce?
Steady work, reliable payment, and insurance seem to be the most pressing. Freelancers spend considerable time, and sometimes money, generating client leads. Freelancers often say that their cost per new client generated is much lower on oDesk.
Regarding reliable payment, freelancers often end up having to harass their clients to get paid. Our “payment guarantee,” supported by our time tracker, automated invoicing, and safe payment tools are meant to ease the tension of freelance life by promising that our freelancers will get paid.
Finally, the main reasons most freelancers do not have health insurance -- and there are no surprises here -- are cost and availability. In many states health insurance for freelancers is simply too expensive and/or too hard to get. I hope that this continues to improve, but in the meantime oDesk has partnered with an insurance provider to offer a variety of health insurance and employment benefit options to freelancers working via our site.
*What was the most shocking finding of your recent report on millennials and the future of work? *
One of the most surprising findings was how technology is increasing access to work opportunities for this younger generation. We found that 21% of those surveyed who are freelancing online are still currently enrolled at a university. These are students who are acquiring marketable skills by freelancing. They get that leveraging greater connectivity online helps them become part of the future economy; an economy that is facilitating better flow of skills so that professionals and businesses can find each other. These students will have a jumpstart on growing their careers.
The report also said that 90% of people think of entrepreneurship as a mindset. What does this mean exactly? What implications does it have for the future of work?
The typical definition of an entrepreneur -- “someone who starts a company” -- is being replaced with a newer definition based on an innate mindset. Being an entrepreneur today can mean you’re someone who sees opportunities and takes the risks necessary to go after them.
Freelancers are really solopreneurs, and always have been. The freelancing community therefore exemplifies this mindset, and I think that there’s opportunity there for freelancers to help guide the future of work. Your ability to define your own path can be a model to others. One of the fastest growing skills on oDesk is actually project management and another is startup consulting. Freelancers should think about the valuable counsel they have to offer, consider how they can offer their entrepreneurial insights to others, and in the process make themselves more marketable.
How do you see the relationship between businesses and freelance workers developing?
Work today is becoming increasingly results-oriented. The teams of the future aren’t going to be the way we think of them today. Hierarchies and static roles are going away. Instead, people are coming together to produce results. When I envision future teams, I think of them as similar to a movie’s crew. Each person offers specific skills, they’re all quite exceptional in what they do, and they come together with a very specific end-result in mind. Once they’ve delivered it, they go on to the next project, and the work they did in their past projects becomes their ticket in.
Similarly, businesses are creating “crews” that are increasingly composed of freelancers, as well as partners, agencies and in-house roles still in some cases. What does that mean to you? Proof of skills will become more important than ever. People are going to look at you based on what you can deliver, not what your past roles were. In this sense, working online can be really useful because it generates a track record of past results that builds up your online presence and will help people find you when they’re looking for skills you’ve already proven you have.