Boom time for remote, online work in Asia

Online work in region to surge due to Web, mobile connectivity, global economic uncertainty, and rising trend of borderless collaboration, proponents say.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Increasingly pervasive Web and mobile connectivity means remote or home-based online working is set to surge across Asia and globally, resulting in a "tectonic" shift in the employment paradigm which gives more benefits than drawbacks for both employers and employees, say industry players.

Matt Barrie, CEO of outsourcing portal Freelancer.com, said the advent of the Internet alone has caused a "tectonic shift in the way we do work". A freelance Web developer in India can easily communicate with a small business based in the United States thanks to Web tools and services, for instance.

"Technology is bringing about massive change with regard to the employment paradigm, and for the better," Barrie noted.

Additionally, the traditional work model that was created for and during the Industrial Age "no longer makes sense in digital age", said Gary Swart, CEO‎ of oDesk, who estimated that by 2020, one-third of the global workforce would be online workers. oDesk is an online job marketplace where businesses can source, hire and manage remote workers worldwide.

Swart defined online work as "any type of work that can be done on a computer". While this has been primarily been within the technical domain in the past, online work today now spans several job categories from legal to customer service, translation, project management and design, he said.

The CEO added that apart from Web and mobile connectivity that is enhancing online collaboration, worldwide economic uncertainties and globalization are similarly driving the trend of online work and altogether bring "permanent changes" to the overall employment landscape.

Benefits aplenty, but drawbacks exist
While they acknowledged there are challenges, advocates say online work has several benefits which can be enjoyed by both employers and workers. Businesses from microenterprises to large corporations can gain greater agility and competitive advantage, savings in resources or operational expenses, as well as faster access to a wider pool of talent, said oDesk's Swart.

"Once businesses realize the benefits of online work, they don't go back…The bottom line is that online work allows businesses to find, hire, manage and pay the best people from around the world, not just those within commuting distance."

Freelancer.com CEO Barrie said the ultimate benefit of employing people online is that companies can minimize cost while maximizing staff productivity.

The one setback, however, is the reliance on Web connectivity in different geographical locations--as these services may be unavailable unexpectedly, he pointed out.

Swart argued that online work has similar challenges also found in traditional work models--except that some get more pertinent, such as communication with and management of staff. A constant effort thus needs to be taken to make remote and online workers feel part of the company culture, he emphasized.

Barrie added that these issues can be "easily resolved by proper motivation, encouragement, and feedback".

Asia: hotspot for online work
Freelancers ZDNet Asia spoke with said with the high broadband penetration and advanced infrastructure in Asian markets like Singapore, the potential for online working from home or remotely will only increase further going forward.

For one, Singapore-based tech blogger Paul Mah said that the pros of working remotely outweighed the cons. He noted that the "benefits are many" including opting to "take breaks whenever I want or grab a short nap to recharge" and having more time with his family.

According to him, distraction is the primary challenge of remote working, which took some getting used to, and requires self-discipline and proper time management.

Lucas Teo, a freelance editorial consultant in Singapore, added that he likes the freedom and flexibility of work arrangements from being "my own boss and picking the projects I want to work on". However, one must figure out when to "switch off" from working long hours and yet be proactive in finding jobs, as there is no fixed work schedule or paycheck, he pointed out.

Asia, according to Swart, has a "huge opportunity" for online work, as there are a lot of underemployed talent in Asia and not enough local jobs. Online work closes this gap via Web-based technologies and "brings the work to the workers, rather than workers to the work", he said.

Employment visas are not always easy to obtain, but with an online work model, businesses are empowered to access workers who also have the discretion to choose where and how they work, he added.

Barrie also predicted that virtual offices will "definitely be big" in Asia. People from developing countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines are going online to look for work, while companies in developed economies are also going online to find suitably skilled professionals. "It's only a matter of time before everyone here in Asia discovers the potential of online work."

Chan Ngee Key, a career and strategy coach and founder of consultancy firm YourOwn360, said remote online working will spike in Asia not only due to sophisticated Web communication technologies, but because employers are also now more comfortable doing evaluations based on results and completed tasks from remote workers who do not physically report in an office.

Rental hikes for office space in business districts across the region will also spur more companies to encourage existing workers to work from home or remotely, he pointed out.

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