Increased mobility heralds the rise of elance workers

Fundamental shifts in our social
and economic landscape are producing seismic changes in the world of work.

The facts speak for
themselves – by 2006, according to the Henley Centre for Forecasting, just less
than a third of the population will be working from home, and if we include the
mobile worker, the figures are greater still. Already, 46 per cent of business
people have an office or work area in their home.

These new ways of
working are producing a breed of Internet-enabled mobile worker – the elancer.
The typical elancer works from home and is most likely to be self-employed. But
tomorrow’s elancer may be a mobile worker and, increasingly, is likely to be a
virtual employee. Interestingly, HR professionals – being knowledge workers –
have this way of working open to them.

As elancing moves into
the mainstream, it poses new managerial challenges. Businesses such as Orange
have understood the implications of the emerging landscape, running marketing
campaigns on the virtues of "wirefree working", with advert
straplines focusing on teamwork even when colleagues are miles apart.

Technology is
presented as the great liberator, enabling people to work flexibly wherever,
whenever and however they choose.

But organisations need
to be mindful that they do not rely on the technology fix to solve what is
essentially a people problem.

Elancentric’s research
suggests that "virtual employees" can often find the elancing
experience isolating unless attempts are made to bring them into the lifeblood
of the organisation. It is too easy for the elancer to view their relationship
with their organisation as "virtual" in practice as well as in name.

For managers, regular
contact is a must. E-mail is a vital tool, and intranets are essential for
community-building as they facilitate the free exchange of ideas, rendering the
boundaries between employee, freelancers and consultants less clear cut.

Technology is also
great for communication, but it can never replace face-to-face contact.

Managers must beware
of using technology to avoid problems. If there is tension building, e-mail can
mask or bring conflict to the surface in a damaging way. It can be aggressive –
whether passive or confrontational. So it is vital that colleagues pick up the

Remote management can
be even more challenging when the manager is an elancer or virtual worker. But
there are advantages. Managers, like the elancers they manage, can really
empathise with their daily challenges and thus handle the team more

Organisations also
need to find ways of harnessing the creativity and involvement of freelancers
and consultants. They need to experiment with ways of bringing them into the
organisational ethos, and giving them a stake. Employment agency Spring
introduced a share options scheme for freelancers.

At the moment, the
elancer’s experience is marginal to the organisational culture. In tomorrow’s
organisation they will be fully integrated into business culture.

Until then, HR
managers might like to pioneer the trend and embrace the elance way of working.
The experience will certainly give them a quick fix on the challenges as well
as the advantages, and render them better equipped to train and coach their
peers into harnessing the human potential of their elancers as effectively as
the head office team.

Helen Wilkinson is
founder of a
business community for elancers and elance-oriented organisations

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