Last week the BBC launched a new series entitled The Virtual Revolution to great fanfare. The series promises to shed light on how ‘20 years of the web has reshaped our lives’. Most of us don’t need a BBC documentary to highlight the plethora of ways the internet has transformed so many aspects of how we live.
In truth, however, the web is actually still a nascent technology and the effect to which it is reshaping our lives is still at its infancy. A BBC series on how the web will impact on the next 20 years would surely be more interesting, enlightening and instructive. In business, for example, the transformative potential of the internet is only just being realised.
Recently, Chancellor Alistair Darling claimed our debt-ridden government would save £360million per year by running ‘virtual court cases’ in which trials are conducted entirely online. This sounds like a moment of unusual innovativeness, from a traditionally staid and conservative ministerial office. However, as usual, this initiative has been borrowed from the private sector where for some time now businesses have been cutting costs by operating virtually.
The adoption of virtual business models is gathering increasing momentum as businesses strive to be leaner and less exposed to the unpredictable fluctuations of the global economy. In practice, this means increasing numbers of businesses – large and small – are choosing to engage the services of remote, home-working freelancers and contractors over in-house staff.
The benefits of this approach are obvious: every role can be fulfilled by an expert in his or her field and its flexibility means businesses can expand and contract capacity according to demand. Most attractively in the current economic climate, the cost savings of this approach are significant: there are none of the additional costs associated with PAYE and none of the overheads associated with bringing people in-house, such as office infrastructure and transportation. The reduction in a company’s transportation results in clear benefits to the environment too.
We recently conducted a survey of 530 of our 50,000 small businesses users. One of the key findings was that businesses can save an average of 23 percent of their total staff costs by employing remote ad hoc freelancers. The recession forced many of the survey’s respondents to adopt virtual business practices. Of those, the fact that 69 percent ‘definitely’ plan to continue using freelancers in future tells its own story. For many, virtual working started out as an expedient, short-term measure, implemented to weather the worst of the economic storm. Now, as the economy staggers to its feet, many are planning their company’s future with virtual business principles at the centre of their plans for recovery, prosperity and beyond.
Ten percent of companies who appoint remote freelancers through our website operate in the marketing sector. As an industry that depends on people communicating, collaborating and interacting to develop ideas, it’s perhaps slightly surprising that this sector has been one of the quickest to embrace the virtual future. However, countless agencies and organisations are discovering that marketing campaigns can be managed and delivered by a network of disparate creative experts. In fact, many agencies are finding that a virtual team of cherry-picked individuals with relevant sector experience and expertise will deliver a better result than an in-house team consisting of competent marketers, who all have generic experience.
More and more high-flying marketing executives are establishing freelance practices to meet this growing demand for their services. For many it’s a simple equation: you get to work on projects that match your skills, experience and interest, your earning potential is higher and, if you choose, you can work on a campaign and be part of a team from the comfort of your sofa. It’s little wonder, therefore, that the number of individuals who have uploaded freelance profiles to our website has doubled to nearly 40,000 in the past year alone.
The pervasiveness and ubiquity of the internet over the next 20 years will make the BBC’s 2010 suggestion of a ‘revolution’ seem premature. Of course there’s no question that the web has already had a huge, even transformative, impact on our lives. The exciting thing about it is that it’s just the start.
The question is, where will this take us? In 2030, to what degree will all our lives be run online? Our research suggests that the financial benefits of operating virtually will mean increasing numbers of businesses will adopt the virtual model – this seems inevitable. As both our success and our recent research demonstrates, the private sector has already made huge steps in this direction.
But what about the public sector? Will the Chancellor apply virtual working practices to other public services? Will school kids be taught online? Will doctors make diagnoses and prescribe medication following a virtual consultation? These scenarios are not as outlandish as they might initially sound. Britain is going virtual, and has been for a while. Mr Darling just made it official government policy.