Why you should love your Virtual Workforce

Today’s workforce has changed tremendously.  It’s younger, more specialized, looking for better work… and it’s virtual.

By the year 2014, 47% of US workers will be under the age of 35.  And these younger workers are just as smart and hard-working as we baby-boomers are.

Yet today entry level positions are very hard to find.  Businesses are not hiring aggressively yet and baby boomers are hanging around longer. So a new industry of virtual workers has been created. People work from home, they work part-time, they do contract work, and they sell their specialized skills.

If you don’t believe me, look at the explosive growth of new marketplaces like TaskRabbit, Gigwalk, Freelance, eLance, and Odesk.  These are online job boards for virtual workers and contract work.

Let me share some interesting data on the workforce itself.

First, young workers are frustrated – employee engagement among young workers is relatively low:

  • Mercer research from last Fall shows that young (under 30) employees are 50% more likely to be interested in leaving their employer because they don’t think it is a “sound place to work.”
  • 32% of today’s under 30 workers plan to leave their employers when the economy rebounds, compared with 19% two years ago.

Second, young and educated workers are taking on part-time roles just to find work.

  • The US unemployment market remains stagnant this month, yet the percent of people working in food service, hospitality, and healthcare rose significantly last month.
  • The percent of the US workforce with college degrees is at an all point high, yet only half the people between 16 and 29 have jobs, so plenty are looking for part-time and temporary work.

Employers, on the other hand, want specialized skills.

  • Our research shows a rapid increase in workforce specialization.  Companies have been reclassifying their customer service, technical, sales, and professional positions into more specialized roles. Accenture now trains its consultants in specific industries and technical areas, and has a six-level capability model to develop what the company calls “deep expertise.”
  • United Health Group, one of the biggest employers in healthcare, insurance, and customer service, now hires college graduates into its claim and call centers because of their need for more specialized skills.
  • Genentech, BMW, Exxon, and many other large employers now have highly active mentoring programs to help young workers pick up the specialized skills of senior experts as fast as possible.
  • Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer have set up internal bidding markets that let specialized employees bid for work in other groups (ie. statisticians, scientists, research specialists, etc.)
  • Tools like LinkedIn have revolutionized the sourcing and recruiting industry, now enabling employers to find precisely the skills they need (Read more on how LinkedIn is Disrupting the Corporate Recruiting Market.).

The result:  the workforce has become more virtual than ever before.

Our latest research shows that among large employers upwards of 32% of all positions are now “part-time” or contract-based.

If you want to get a handle on this, look at two of the more exciting new consumer virtual work sites today:  TaskRabbit and Gigwalk.

These new services let anyone create project work and immediately post it for iPhone users around the world.  Unlike more established technical work networks like Freelancer,  eLance and ODesk, these are location-aware systems.  They find local projects, local tasks, and local jobs. And their job boards can handle jobs as simple as doing laundry, picking up groceries, or going to the store to check out prices.

My family used TaskRabbit to find a hard-working artist who wanted to make a little extra money moving furniture into my son’s apartment.  He was not only vetted by TaskRabbit, but he was hard-working, showed up on time, and was a pleasure to work with.

This mode of work has hit the corporate market as well. Kelly Services, Randstad, and other temp agencies are starting to see the recovery in traditional temp jobs.  But they dont see what’s really coming – an explosion of mobile, virtual, local workers.

One can think of these new services as “mobile-enabled, local job-boards” – but what they really are is enablers of the younger, more virtual workforce.

GigWalk and TaskRabbit already have millions of users (in only the last 12-18 months) and I expect them to grow rapidly. TaskRabbit has already received more than $24M in venture funding, and just acquired SkillSlate, a similar service.

If you’re an employer, you must develop a virtual workforce strategy. Not only do your employees want to work at home, you can benefit greatly. Part-time workers, retirees, and people in mid-career can now work virtually quite easily, and if you dont keep them on your payroll they will quickly find work somewhere else.

Key elements of a virtual workforce strategy include:

  • Tools:  Give people tools to work at home and on the road:  instant messenger, mobile phones, internet service, virtual meeting tools, webcams.
  • Mission and Culture:  Develop and communicate a strong mission and culture, so people know what you expect from them, regardless of where they are.  There is no greater tool to building a team than a clearly defined and consistently communicated mission.
  • Travel:  Bring people physically together regularly.  (We bring our teams together at least once a quarter, and many of our groups fly to meetings just to have face time.)
  • Develop new Managers:  Teach managers to coach, not just supervise. People working at home and virtually will often need help, but you won’t always see it directly. Hands-on management is critical.
  • Seek out Independence:  Hire people who understand how to work independently. Some people don’t want or like to work alone, so they may not fit into virtual positions.
  • Reward virtual workers: Reward and recognize remote people – they need to know you care.

Our company has been taking advantage of these techniques for years now, and the benefits are enormous. We are able to hire the best people in the industry without forcing them to move. The cost of tools and travel is minimal, and we have a highly diverse and amazingly engaged workforce. We do have to travel more and we’ve learned to coach and develop people carefully – but without such virtual teams our business would not even exist.

I talk with businesses leveraging contract and virtual workers every day. Most software companies have large virtual teams located in India, Russia, Poland, and other countries. Just this week I spoke with a major publishing company who has almost 2/3 of its workforce working from home. (Many in small towns in the UK and other countries.)

Love your virtual workforce. It’s one of the most powerful tools you have to grow your business.

If you are an entrepreneur, this is your time. If you have deep skills, contract work is easier to find than ever. And the opportunity for new tools, platforms, and services to support this new world of work is exploding.