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Independent workers have become a key advantage for remote-ready businesses
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Independent workers have become a key advantage for remote-ready businesses

When Samsung acquired Whisk, a smart food AI platform, in 2019, the nimble startup realized it had to ramp up its workforce quickly. Seeking to triple its employee base, Whisk, a fully remote team, sought diverse talent from a wide variety of regions through Upwork, a work marketplace that connects businesses with independent professionals and agencies around the globe.

“With Upwork, we got access to a wider talent pool,” says Nick Holzherr, CEO of Whisk, “and we found specialized talent in food data that weren’t restricted by location.”

Whisk isn’t alone in unlocking the global marketplace to find the right types of employees to support its business goals. More than three-quarters of U.S. companies have used remote freelancers, according to research from Upwork, and more than a quarter of businesses plan to go fully remote in the next five years.

The shifting attitude toward remote and freelance work

The pandemic seems to be the obvious instigator of the remote work boom, but February 2022 research from the Pew Research Center notes how U.S. workers are opting to work from home as a matter of choice rather than necessity: “Among those who have a workplace outside of their home, 61% say they are choosing not to go into their workplace, while 38% say they’re working from home because their workplace is closed or unavailable to them,” the Pew study writes. “Earlier in the pandemic, just the opposite was true: 64% said they were working from home because their office was closed, and 36% said they were choosing to work from home,” it went on to say.

That hard lean into remote-powered and freelance work models is a natural progression companies such as Upwork have been tracking over the past decade. “We’ve seen how project managers got innovative in a tight labor market and already adopted remote freelancing long before the pandemic,” says Tim Sanders, VP of Client Strategy at Upwork. “And then we all learned since March 2020 how companies should lead based on outcome rather than based on employee attendance - a longstanding mindset of ‘management by walking around’. Managers have been focused less on aptitude and more on demonstrable skills, and that change in management style has made taking a look at on demand remote talent solutions a no-brainer.”

In fact, Upwork’s enterprise clients mirror the talent joining its work marketplace ― each requires new methods to engage in deeply collaborative relationships that transcend location, and defy outdated definitions and boundaries traditionally separating freelance and full-time work and workers.

Pointing to Upwork being one of the largest work marketplaces in the world with more than “10,000 skills available on the platform,” Sanders says their enterprise solution set “offers a great governance solution as budgets can be managed effectively and procurement can be handled, all within a centralized view.”

Embracing and scaling a virtual talent bench

Vetting workers efficiently is part of why businesses turn to Upwork, especially if they need to increase their talent pool quickly. For Whisk, that meant Upwork managing the key pillar of compliance under a large conglomerate like Samsung. “Upwork handled issues such as background checks and compliance with local laws, which is always critical to a company using independent talent,” says Holzherr.

Sanders credits the company for folding existing talent into its working culture, along with new workers it brought in from Upwork. He says, “They opened up the window for Upwork talent to collaborate with them, and that egalitarian style in how they work with freelancers gives them so many new ideas and allows them to recognize patterns and see blind spots they otherwise might have missed.”

Whisk hired independent workers from a range of regions, such as Serbia, Thailand and Montenegro. To cite one of many success stories, Whisk needed a food ontology expert to build a knowledge graph of foods, so it cast its net wider to look at potential team members overseas. They found a Product Development Engineer in Belgrade, Serbia, who was also seeking the right kind of freelance fit for her way of living.

Ruzica Miladinovic, senior product manager at Whisk, says, “I wanted a role that connected my unique skill set and expertise with an interesting problem and the flexibility to remotely collaborate from my home in Serbia, while having the financial freedom to spend more time with friends and family. Not only has Whisk been great to work with for many years, but their remote-first and output-based work model aligns with the way that I’d like to construct my ideal career and lifestyle.”

Talent access > talent acquisition

A recent Upwork blog post from Upwork’s CEO points to what’s required for enterprise clients to shift their strategies and protocols to better leverage the benefits of freelance workers: “Businesses are realizing that to attract and partner with these professionals, they need new working models ― including leadership and management skills, and cultural and behavioral norms.”

Asked to elaborate on what managers can do to finesse that transition successfully, Sanders replies, “First, organizations need to make the mental leap from talent acquisition to talent access. Leaders who think of talent as a resource that is accessed have a more open mind to flexible talent solutions. Second, leaders should treat independent workers as first-class citizens and not outsiders. That can lead to loyalty that’s needed to build a very strong virtual talent bench. And third, set up an approach to metrics to review business goals and find out how that independent talent is helping you accomplish those goals, so you can see across the company the value of your growing talent bench.”

Work innovation and the freelance revolution are upon us, and it’s up to each business to figure out if they want to ride the crest of this rising wave, or if they want to remain on familiar shores from the outside looking in.

Read more research on the shifts in work trends here.