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Becoming a Virtual Team Player


It’s a thought that would once have occurred to only a few people — writers maybe, who need little more than Word, a telephone and an Internet connection to churn out their texts, and graphic designers, who are happy anywhere they have a Mac, an Adobe suite and a place to show off their creative coolness.

All of them at some point would have had that killer thought: “I could be doing this at home.”

They would have realized that actually they don’t need the firm’s computer. They don’t need the company of the co-worker in the cubicle next door, and they certainly don’t need the morning commute.

They could sit at home – or better still in a café – work at their own pace, at the times that suit them best and send over the completed work when they’re done.

It’s a thought that’s apparently been spreading. Freelance sites like eLance and RentaCoder are now packed with tech types who have realized that they too can have a home office, a regular seat at Starbucks and a nocturnal schedule if they want.

It’s the Freedom of Freelancing that Matters

It’s a very different way of working, a method that swaps the security of a fixed monthly salary for the fear of losing a client, but in return delivers pay that’s directly linked to the amount of work completed and the freedom to knock off when you want.

And it’s the freedom that’s the thing. Freedom from the boss. Freedom to plan your day. Freedom to take control over your life without having to ask anyone’s permission first.

So why then did Odysseas Tsatalos and Stratis Karamanlakis, two engineers who wanted to collaborate on a project while one was in the US and the other in Greece, create oDesk?

At first glance, oDesk looks like yet another freelance site, a place where buyers post jobs and providers from Michigan to Mumbai bid to see who’s prepared to do it for the smallest bag of peanuts. It appears to be exactly the sort of service that eLance, with its critical mass of providers, has been squishing faster than Bill Gates has been swatting media player makers.

But it isn’t. It’s different. It’s the freedom of freelancing combined with the control of Big Brother. Providers have to log in before they start work and oDesk records the amount of time they spend online, sending screenshots back to the buyer every ten minutes to prove they’re being productive. Each week, the buyer receives a timelog allowing them to compare the amount billed to the amount of work completed.

“oDesk allows managers to visually track and verify all work performed through its web-based collaboration tools,” explains Gary Swart, CEO of oDesk. “This approach makes remote work relationships as reliable and open as working in the same physical office. The transparency that oDesk brings helps to build trust quickly and it enables better collaboration, much like managing by walking around.”

It sounds like a dream for buyers and a nightmare for providers. And yet, freelancers are lining up to clock in. The site, which was launched in 2004 with support from Benchmark Capital, Globespan Capital Partners, Sigma Partners and DAG Ventures, now has around 150,000 providers and posts 2,500 new jobs every week. Much of that work is are tech-related. Software programming, Web development, graphic design, online research, virtual assistance and technical writing are the most popular services requested.

But here’s the thing: according to a totalizer on the home page, those jobs have paid out more than $52 million. The average value of a job posted on oDesk is around $5,000, much higher than the three-figure sums usually exchanged on eLance.

You Can Throw Small Projects over the Wall

That’s not because the buyers are generous sorts, willing to dig deeper than they need to. It’s because the jobs themselves are bigger and more likely to be open-ended. oDesk works because it’s not so much a freelance site that helps independent workers find projects; it’s a service that allows virtual workers to form teams over distance.

“[F]or small projects where requirements are fixed and firm… you can get comfortable throwing work over the wall with the risk of not knowing where things stand, but most oDesk work isn’t like that.” explains Gary. “Most oDesk work is long-term and it often involves close collaboration among people that have never met in person and are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles apart… We enable companies to maintain control and build true online global teams that work much like a local team.”

The hourly pay model means that projects can grow and blend into new work without the complaints of mission creep familiar to freelancers or the hassle of renegotiation. Buyers can be certain they’re only paying for the amount of time actually worked while providers have a reason to keep one eye on the clock and stay productive. Some providers apparently have picked up so much work that they’ve become buyers themselves, building their own virtual teams and outsourcing their work openly so that the client can hire a complete virtual tech company.

There used to be a time when an employee starting with a new company could feel that he had a job for life. That employment model has now gone the way of office ashtrays and female secretaries who take dictation. Loyalty from each side is now only as deep as the next job offer or the next recession. But freelancing – the hi-tech answer to job insecurity — might be changing too. While it’s still possible to work by project, it’s also becoming increasingly possible to work from home while still being temporarily employed by a single company, even if that employer is on the other side of the globe.

It’s a new way to work from home but with the boss just a ten-minute screenshot away, it doesn’t leave much of the “free” in freelancing.

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