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Work is moving into the Cloud

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Imagine a world where, instead of calling a cab, you can have someone give you a lift; Instead of booking a hotel room, you can stay in someone’s home when they are away on a trip; Instead of going shopping, you can ask someone who is already out shopping to pick up a few things for you.

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A few years ago, this wouldn’t have sounded likely. Yet you’ve already recognized this world is already here. You can book a driver through Uber, live in somebody’s apartment via Airbnb, and get help with your shopping via Taskrabbit. Same goes for your business today. You can also get your logo designed via Fiverr, your website promoted via Upwork or offer your customers service through LiveOps.

A new cloud is forming around us, a cloud of work, of employees and labor. Only a decade ago we debated about jobs moving into low cost countries. Then, for several years, we talked about jobs being outsourced. It is now safe to say that work is really moving out into the virtual space and the future world of work is being formed in the cloud . With this change, we are witnessing a complete redesign of what is work, how we work and how we define jobs and careers. In the US about one-third of the workforce is already working as freelancers, which includes a whole range of temporary work conducted through a variety of old and new channels.

With the rise of work through the cloud, one of the difficulties has been dealing with what is defined as work and how we call those doing that work.  Are they entrepreneurs, service providers, freelancers, temporary workers or simply small businesses or self-employed? Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the cloud definition of work spans a very wide range of occupations, ranging from simple operations and low-wage manual labor to highly paid knowledge workers and experts. The cloud worker today seems to be anyone who has something to offer from his or her time, skills, services and even physical capital and on the other side someone willing to pay for those.

What does this mean for work and workers? Is this development good or bad? That depends on who you ask.

Those speaking for the benefits of the new cloud of work cite a number of advantages:

  1. The cloud of work is part of the consumer revolution. This allows us to lower our cost both as personal consumers as well as businesses. If a small business can get someone to design their logo or business card for $ 5 and buy cloud services for their new website, then some of the risks and startup costs for a new business are potentially lowered and more accessible.
  2. The cloud gives us access, as part of the flat world, to skills and work irrespective of geographical location. For some of us, there are many advantages in the ability to offer and consume services in this flat world, beyond the geographical and physical boundaries of the work place. I recently heard a young entrepreneur who needed a human pair of eyes to review what his algorithm was producing. It did not occur to him to hire a new employee into his young startup. Instead, he contracted for the service from someone in a different time zone, via one of the cloud work sites mentioned above at the cost a few dollars to units of activity.
  3. The cloud can also provide benefits for those sectors in the population, who find it difficult to penetrate the job market today for whatever reason. This also includes those who do not or cannot hold “regular full-time” jobs, those which require to be at a place of work during fixed times with a full workload. In the cloud, the matching of people and work is done by skills, schedules and compensation. In most cases a personalized screening process is not involved, except that which certifies the level of skills gained from previous work. Cloud platforms provide flexibility in scope of work, time and place, enabling workers to choose when, where and how they perform their work.

So what is the problem or is there one? On the other side of this conversation, those who are worried about this trend present a number of arguments:

  1. One of the first arguments coming up claims that the numerous cloud labor platforms drive salaries down to a bottomless minimum. If in the upside we saw the logo being designed for $ 5 through the cloud by someone out there in the world, that work is obviously lost to a local graphic design studio and will likely affect that studio’s income and its ability to employ local talent.
  2. Some argue working in the cloud takes us right back into the 19th century, when the worker had no rights but carried all the risk, worked endless hours for low wages. According to this argument, the platforms created to connect people and work are really a way to get around various labor laws. According to this argument, using Uber as an example, the driver you ordered takes you in his or her own car, funding their own fuel expenses and with no compensation except what you pay minus the commission collected by Uber. This question is now in the middle of a class action lawsuit in the US, arguing drivers are actually employees of the Company and Uber should pay them a salary and expenses.
  3. One of the characteristics of the work in the cloud is that it gets sliced into small units of work and these units get allocated in many cases to those willing to work at the lowest cost. If, for example, you employ a housekeeper with a fixed schedule and income, you can now replace them through Taskrabbit or Alfred, which allow you to call in someone per need per task. Taskrabbit, for example, initially used a bidding mechanism so work went to the lowest offer. To their credit, the site has since changed this methodology to ensure it does not drive pay down with no minimum and today maintains a minimum wage policy in accordance with the laws where it operates.

Good or bad, the cloud of work is here and we are probably experiencing the beginning of the change it will bring to the world of work. And like any new environment, there is a world of opportunity and lots of room for improvement.  How this future of work develops, whether it brings goodness or harm, is also up to us, those operating in it.