Since the technology has been available to support remote collaboration at work, we have seen a steady shift towards virtual teams and agile ways of working. Then COVID-19 hit the fast-forward button on this trend. We’re rapidly moving towards what some call the human cloud—the ability for an organisation to rapidly surge its workforce by accessing freelancers and contractors on demand via digital platforms.

One of the first mentions of the human cloud concept dates back to 2015, when Financial Times described an emerging trend towards dividing jobs and distributing them via the Internet: “White-collar jobs are chopped into hundreds of discrete projects or tasks, then scattered into a virtual ‘cloud’ of willing workers who could be anywhere in the world, so long as they have an internet connection.”

Given that so many workplaces have shifted to remote or hybrid models during the pandemic, this model has become even more prevalent and attractive to businesses. Once companies have taken the step of allowing people to work from home, it becomes easier to accept that not every task needs to be done by a full-time employee living in the same country or city.

Skills from anywhere 

For companies, the benefits include the ability to rapidly access human capacity when needed without growing their headcount, and without the need to go through lengthy recruitment and onboarding processes. The skills on tap may range from high-end software developers to process workers specialised in microtasks like data validation or capturing addresses on a spreadsheet.

This model can give companies a great deal of flexibility during volatile times. They can, for instance, look elsewhere in the world if they can’t find an AI/machine learning specialist or cloud architect in their own market. They can also assemble virtual teams for specific projects and initiatives, then release them once the work is done.

Yet there is also a dark side to the human cloud for employers and individuals alike. For companies, the dangers include losing part of their culture and failing to develop key in-house talent because of a reliance on external skills. Employees, meanwhile, may face a future of job insecurity and low earning power in the absence of full-time employment.

Potential race to the bottom?

As the FT wrote all those years ago: “In the human cloud [critics] see a wild west of unregulated virtual sweatshops, breaking down service sector work into its constituent parts, making people compete in a worldwide race to the bottom. Whether the human cloud is more utopia or dystopia depends, at least in part, on where exactly in its hierarchy you find yourself.”

Though governments may step in with legislation to address this shift in the labour market, each worker will ultimately need to consider how best to skill themselves up to prosper in a new world. There is an opportunity to benefit from what Matthew Mottola calls “a radical redistribution of opportunity… replacing one risky salary with a portfolio of clients” and gaining more freedom and flexibility.

In the words of Mottola, who literally wrote the book on the human cloud: “By replacing fear with knowledge, you will better understand how this shift in employment is a good thing, be equipped to embrace the positive advantages new technology brings and use it all to your benefit, and further secure how your own job is shaped so you are never left behind.”