Majority of workers will be online within 5 years: survey

Four out of 10 companies say they can contract for better talent online than what is available locally.

Welcome to the contract economy. With the economy still rocky and uncertain, and technology linking professionals from anywhere across the globe, work is no longer a steady, 9-to-5 affair among employees confined to cubicles. Today's work is conducted project by project, by ad-hoc teams that form as business challenges or opportunities arise, then disband to move on to other projects.

Photo by Michael Krigsman

A new survey of 1,500 small businesses by Elance, the online contract work facilitator, finds that 73% of small businesses are hiring more online contractors in 2012.

Elance's latest survey reveals a sizable shift toward hiring contingent workers, with businesses increasingly turning to online talent.

The small businesses managers surveyed predict the majority of their workforces (54%) will be online professionals. Web programming, graphic design and content development continue to remain the top three sought after skills by businesses.

While traditional employment continues to struggle around the world, nearly three-quarters (73%) of respondents plan to hire more online contractors this year than in 2011, the survey finds. The increase is driven by the surge in professionals available online – 40% of companies surveyed claim they can find better talent online than what is available locally.

Of course, Elance has a horse in this race, so it's not surprising they are trumpeting a survey that favors their business model. But the results also point to a growing trend beyond telecommuting, in which businesses evolve into confederations of entrepreneurs and contractors.

This loosely coupled approach also gives companies a competitive edge. According to the Elance survey, 84% of businesses state that online hiring gives them an advantage over competitors, through improvements in flexibility, meaningful cost savings and increased productivity. Nearly 70% of businesses experience faster times-to-hire, businesses are achieving an average 53% in cost savings and 55% are able to access talent not otherwise available.

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