Saturday, January 16, 2010

The end of the office... and the future of work We love to hate the workplace, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone

By the end of the month, a company called txteagle will be the largest employer in Kenya. The firm, started in its original form in 2008 by a young computer engineer named Nathan Eagle and, as of this coming June, based in Boston, will have 10,000 people working for it in Kenya. Txteagle does not rent office space for these workers, nor do the company’s officers interview them, or ever talk to most of them.
And, in a sense, the labor that the Kenyan workforce does hardly seems like work. The jobs - short stretches of speech to be transcribed or translated into a local dialect, search engine results to be checked, images to be labeled, short market research surveys to be completed - come in over a worker’s own cellphone and the worker responds either by speaking into the phone or texting back the answer. The workers can be anyone with a cellphone - a secretary waiting for a bus, a Masai tribesman herding cattle, a student between classes, a security guard on a slow day, or one of Kenya’s tens of millions of unemployed. The jobs take at most a few minutes and pay a few cents each (payment is sent by cellphone as well), but a dedicated worker can earn a few dollars a day in a part of the world where that is a significant sum...Malone believes that new forms of freelancing will help drive this change. Companies like iStockphoto (a stock photograph and image site containing the work of over 70,000 artists), Threadless (a T-shirt design company where anyone can submit designs and evaluate others), and Elance (an online source of skilled freelance labor) are models of companies where not just secondary jobs but the core function of the business is outsourced to a diffuse online workforce. All are helping connect client companies and freelance laborers to each other easily, without a traditional intermediary and with stricter standards than online marketplaces like Craigslist...
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