Elance predicts the future of online work

Online labor platforms are growing strongly, a fact that’s confirmed regularly when leaders in the field like Elance and oDesk release their latest impressive-sounding statistics showing more and more firms embracing online hiring. Today, Elance is adding to this drumbeat of optimism in the sector, unveiling figures that show more than $500 million worth of work has been contracted on the platform (for the visually inclined, here are the numbers in an infographic).

But where is all this interest in online labor platforms heading over the coming years? How will the uptick in interest in the so-called ‘human cloud’ shape business? In addition to statistics, Elance has also given GigaOM an exclusive sneak preview of three long-term industry trends it is predicting will shape the future of work.

One in three people will be hired online by 2020. The likes of Monster and LinkedIn are only the starting point when it comes to using the internet to find talent, according to Elance CEO Fabio Rosati. In future, it will be common for businesses not only to identify candidates online, but also to interview, hire and work with them at a distance. “The initiation of the search begins online already,” he told GigaOM in an interview. “The piece that we predict will be accelerating is the amount of hiring that will actually be completed online to result in an online working relationship. Within a few years, your ability to work remotely will be so extraordinarily compelling that we will literally not even feel the need to meet in person.”

Half of businesses will have online teams by 2020. Both a recent survey from Elance competitor oDesk and recent comments made to GigaOM by Gene Zaino, CEO of MBO Partners, have indicated that businesses increasingly see hiring contractors as a long-term strategy and competitive advantage, rather than a short-term stopgap or simple cost-cutting measure. Elance apparently agrees with Rosati explaining how more and more businesses will come to see the benefits of online hiring and come to view the practice as a normal, if not essential, business practice.

“We estimate probably less than ten percent of businesses have online teams right now. We are pretty much at the same stage where eCommerce was at the beginning of the last decade,” he said. “Around 2000 probably one in ten had a website and an online presence. By the end of the decade about half of businesses had an online presence and if they didn’t, they were planning to. We believe the same thing is happening to building online teams and having workers who work for you in the cloud. In the next eight years we’re going to see substantial acceleration of this trend and it will become a mainstream phenomenon.”

Global professional guilds will emerge online. It may be hard to imagine traditional labor unions surviving into a future featuring lots and lots of online work, but Rosati doesn’t expect that future independent pros will be left entirely to fend for themselves. Instead, Elance predicts they’ll band together in professional guilds. Citing the Freelancers Union and the Writers Guild of America, which went to bat for Hollywood writers a few years ago, as possible precursors and models to the phenomenon, Rosati explains that, “it’s easier than ever to create communities online. As online work becomes a mainstream phenomenon, the need for professionals with similar mindsets to come together and agree to guiding principles and what will be responsible behavior online professionally is going to emerge.”

He even predicts that these guilds could become a force advocating for the rights and interests of independent workers. “Independent professionals working online will coalesce around common standards, and as they coalesce and establish a united voice, I expect they will definitely play a major role in endorsing certain platforms and rejecting others. I think that we will see a greater voice and a greater influence,” he says.

What do you make of Elance’s predictions?

Image courtesy of Flickr user garryknight.