I had my first real taste of web working back in 2000, at Wrox Press. Wrox used Microsoft Exchange for email and calendaring. Exchange came with Outlook Web Access (one of the first real web apps), which meant that you could open up Internet Explorer on any PC, log in to the site, and see an interface that looked almost exactly the same as Outlook and do all of the things that you could do at work on your work machine. At the time, I found it quite incredible. It was an amazingly liberating setup: it meant that I could effectively work from anywhere that had a PC with an Internet connection.
Fast forward to 2009. The functionality which I found so amazing in Outlook Web Access in 2000 I take for granted now. I no longer work in an office, something which is true of many of my peers, as you might expect of people who work in tech. But now, even my mother, probably the least computer-literate person that I know, can access her work emails and do work from home. Does that mean that we’re all web workers now?
I may be biased, but I would argue that, to a certain extent, yes, we are. Lots of people use the web to work for at least a small part of their jobs, even if they don’t have what we might think of as the typical “web worker” lifestyle: working from home or a coffee shop, tapping away on a laptop. Teachers, for example, use the web to research and gather new teaching materials; farmers communicate with customers and suppliers over email and file their accounts using web apps. It’s hard to think of a profession that doesn’t use the Web in some way now.
Web working is getting even more common, thanks to a few trends we’ve seen over that past few years:
The Gig Economy
Over the past few years more and more people have turned to freelance work (the “Gig Economy“); it’s a shift that will likely be accelerated as companies shed jobs over the coming year. While it’s never good to hear of people losing their jobs, we’re all adjusting to a new way of working that will continue into the future. The current dire economic climate is just accelerating something that was happening anyway. oDesk has been calling this trend “homeshoring” (as opposed to offshore outsourcing, see Freelance Job Growth Accelerates in the U.S. on the oDesk blog). Companies and individuals are realizing the benefits of being flexible: not being tied to a particular job, and moving from project to project as needed.
Falling Costs, Better Connectivity
Another driver is falling costs and better connectivity. All of the costs associated with web working have dropped to the point where it’s now accessible to nearly everyone. Back in 2000, there was no way that I could have afforded Exchange, let alone the server to run it on, but now my needs are met by Gmail and Google Calendar. Likewise my home Internet connection is cheaper now, not to mention many times faster. I can access the Internet over Wi-Fi from many of the coffee shops near my house, and even when I can’t find a Wi-Fi hotspot, through my iPhone. My laptop is way more powerful and was cheaper to buy, in real terms, than my old desktop PC was.
There are web apps to do nearly anything today. If you had told me, back in 2000, that you could shift not only Outlook, but the whole Microsoft Office suite, onto the browser, I would have scoffed. But now I no longer use Office day-to-day: Google Apps does everything I need. Many more of the desktop apps we used to have are moving into the cloud, and with that shift comes the benefit of shared data and collaboration.
So yes, we are all web workers now, at least to a small extent. I think it’s pretty safe to say, looking at these trends, that in the future — maybe not all that long from now — more of us will lead the “web worker lifestyle” and the web will be such an integral part of working that life without it would be unthinkable.
For many of us, we’re already there.
Are we all web workers now? What about the future?