Blog Post

oDesk, Freelancers & the Future of Work

Earlier this week, Menlo Park, Calif.-based startup oDesk announced a new service called oDesk Staffing, which gives U.S.-based freelancers access to benefits (including health coverage, retirement plans and education savings accounts), along with other services. This move by oDesk, which describes itself as a marketplace for work, is a smart one, as it positions the company to take advantage of a major societal shift.

The pervasiveness of connectivity and easy availability of broadband is not only going to transform how we interact, but it’s going to redefine the way we work. And as the notion of the workplace gets redefined, a trend we closely follow on WebWorkerDaily, the needs and desires of workers themselves are going to change.

While today services such as’s (s AMZN) Mechanical Turk are little more than a curiosity, tomorrow similar services will be an integral part of global commerce. A world of loosely affiliated workers, who come together to do a specific task and then move on to the next project as part of another team, is the wave of the future. Even small startups such as our little company are becoming increasingly transglobal in nature. Large companies are already trying to come to terms with the reality of a highly distributed and disaggregated work forces.

Building a platform to service the needs of such a fluid workforce is, in my view, a big opportunity. One company that has bet on this trend is oDesk. Today oDesk’s business is helping freelancers connect with those who need their services and helping keep track of the time they spend working for payments and billings. (See WebWorkerDaily’s interview with oDesk’s CEO Gary Swart for more.) But the oDesk platform could be used by any large company that has a distributed and disaggregated work force. That realization came to me when I read this little snippet in the press release announcing the oDesk Staffing launch:

“oDesk Staffing helps us deal with compliance regulations around contract work, lets us offer benefits to our workers, and also enjoy the active productivity of high-visibility online collaboration,” said Jim Abolt, of VP of Human Resources at Trilogy, Inc. “Having the option to manage workers as independent contractors or as leased employees lets us hire on an as-needed basis, no matter what type of work needs to be done.”

That’s just it: The future of work will consist of independent contractors or so-called leased employees working in tandem with a core team, wherever it might be.

17 Responses to “oDesk, Freelancers & the Future of Work”

  1. As companies get more comfortable working with virtual companies, ad-hoc assemblages of people on projects, and geographically distributed workforces, the key skills go beyond the knowledge required to do tasks. The most successful freelancers and/or small companies will be those who are best at assembling teams for projects. Not sure the oDesk model fits that future but it does reflect the changing marketplace.

  2. Whether or not ODesks supervisory low bid model is a sustainable one for American contractors, this move strikes me as a powerful one. With the influx of new freelancers crashing the market, there is a rapidly growing need for services that provide support and enable them to be excellent technicians, while they learn how to behave like business owners. Offering the ability to have basic benefits removes one huge worry off the newbies plate.

    +1 Good idea. Curious how they will actually implement it.


    I agree with Om that it’s great to see ODesk taking this step. The trend of “infinitely niched, project-driven” work is going to increase and we want to see more of it. Providing benefits is going to help the freelancers as well as the companies hiring these freelancers. More people will be able to jump on the freelancer bandwagon, and employers are going to be able to reduce costs (by hiring freelancers for short durations). I understand the frustrations of users of ODesk – it is likely that competition (and comments on forums like GigaOm) will cause the ODesk to change for the better and/or better platforms assisting this distributed contract-for-work environment will emerge. (These trends are well described in Tapscott’s Wikinomics).

  4. Aaron Erickson

    The future of staffing is that knowledge workers are all going to be reduced to commodities? Really? Stunning.

    I am pretty sure that there is more to successful software than throwing together 4 random contractors at the lowest rates you can find, adding in some magic design specification, and out comes software on the other end.

    When Google starts staffing it’s new research and development via odesk, maybe I will change my mind.

    • No, Aaron, not commodities, but infinitely niched, project-driven specialists. The scale and facility of Internet makes this new solution possible. You can use it to complement the R&D work which should be done by your core team.

      • Aaron Erickson

        No person who isn’t on the short end of the power dynamic would ever agree to be “watched” the way oDesk advertises it watches it’s workers.

        There is no room for creativity when someone is standing over your head, paying by the hour.

        Your point about specialization is baffling as well. There is a certain type of buyer who thinks you need a person with niche A + niche B + niche C (insert buzzword here) expertise… the kind who chases the purple squirrel. But even in a big world, there are not enough people globally to make that possible.

        I have no objection to outsourcing or offshoring – in fact, I just got back from China earlier this year, where the company I work for is running quite a successful project. I am for a global marketplace.

        What I am not for is people using a power differential to further validate a relationship between buyer and seller that depends on constantly being “watched”. That dehumanizes everyone – no matter what country you are from.

  5. Gary and the Odesk team are doing some pretty innovative things. They are positioning themselves to run away from the competition (i.e. Elance and Guru). They keep finding ways take part in the whole transaction of the hiring of an employee, rather than just be a lead-gen business.

    • Agreed. I think this staffing effort and focus on benefits for freelancers is a big step forward I think.

      It be interesting to see if there will be more companies that will come up with platforms such as oDesk.

  6. The future of work? God, I hope it’s not oDesk. As a freelancer I hate it and avoid it like the plague when doing a search for new work.

    Any new “platform” that puts oDesk’s kind of dehumanizing marketplace as a level of abstraction between me and a potential client is evil and makes it harder for me to get serious work.

    • You might dislike oDesk for all the right reasons that make sense to you, but you are focusing too much on the tool, and not on the larger trend in how the work is changing and how we need newer tools to get things done in the future. oDesk is one of them. More will follow.

      • Steven Walling

        I don’t disagree about the larger trend at all, and I appreciate GigaOm and WWD taking time to talk about it in depth. I just think oDesk is an example of the dark side of the trend, rather than one of the “tools we’ll need to get things done in the future.”

        A centralized marketplace is not a necessity for accessing a radically decentralized work force. The same category of tools that make a boom in freelancing possible will also eliminate the need for a tightly controlled venue for finding those freelancers.

    • Guys come on grow up. oDesk is changing the way we work and finally there is an assurance of payment done by a freelancer. Does other websites provide that? Also you get better rates here than anywhere else. I guess its a boon for freelancers and I will not be afraid to say for some companies also.