Using online workers to boost productivity of SMEs

The balance between wanting to take on new work whilst not increasing staff overheads too much is an issue for many SMEs. Gary Swart, CEO of oDesk, looks at the benefit of online workers and how they can reduce the strain.

The balance between wanting to take on new work whilst not increasing staff overheads too much is an issue for many SMEs. Gary Swart, CEO of oDesk, looks at the benefit of online workers and how they can reduce the strain.

Start-up founder Stu Green had found himself in a bit of a crisis. His project management tool, Project Bubble, was taking off – so much so that he decided to quit his job and focus on the new business full time.

But as business grew, the London-based entrepreneur found that the volume of support requests and customer emails he was receiving exceeded what he and his only other employee – his wife – could handle in any given day. 

‘It was a nightmare,’ Green says, noting that the time he was spending on customer support had grown from a few hours a week to more than 20. Support was practically becoming Green’s primary role, diverting significant time and attention away from running the business. 

Realizing this, Green decided to hire a part-time customer support assistant in the US to work with him online. Though they have never met, she is now an integral part of his team, increasing his responsiveness to user requests while allowing Green to focus on other urgent business priorities. 

Most SME owners are like Green, sinking time into tasks that are not the best and highest use of their expertise. And beyond their own time, they’re also not getting enough leverage out of their existing employees; often, highly paid full-time staff members end up doing their own easily delegated work such as data entry or research. 

In fact, a recent survey of 2,800 businesses which have hired online found that 83 per cent of businesses would have done the work themselves, delayed or canceled the project, or tried to find another solution if an online worker hadn’t been available for their project.

As those businesses have discovered, online work disrupts the barriers to SMEs staffing that led to these resource drains. Gone are the days when businesses had to choose between going it alone or hiring inflexible teams of full-time, on-premise employees. By hiring professionals in online workplaces, SMEs can access talent on demand and build cost-effective teams of the experts they need, when they need them.

SME owners are using online workers to:

  • Scale their workforce quickly in response to demand
  • Staff pilot projects in a low-risk way
  • Augment existing in-house staff so they can focus on high-value work
  • Find specific skills not easily available locally
  • Get constant coverage through distributed teams in different time zones working together via the Internet
  • Even operate entirely virtual companies, saving on office space and overhead

Looking to build your own team of on-demand talent? Online work is remarkably similar to traditional work in the way you hire and manage workers, but there are some unique considerations to keep in mind:

1. Ask for exactly what you want—you’ll be more likely to get it

One of the benefits of online work is the extremely broad pool of talent. Online workplaces have millions of professionals in their networks, all with a wide range of expertise. With so many professionals to choose from, it is more important than ever to be as specific as possible about who, and what, you’re looking for. That means crafting a detailed job post with a clear scope of the project, descriptions of the deliverables, and even examples of what you’re looking for. Not only will this help attract the best candidates with the right qualifications, it will also help quantify exactly what kind of talent is needed. 

2. An interview is worth a thousand words

You wouldn’t hire before interviewing for a traditional position, so why would you for an online position? Whether via a round of emails or, ideally, through a phone call or video chat, interviewing a candidate can tell a lot about skills and qualifications, as well personal characteristics and motivation. 

3. Don’t overlook the opportunity to test before you invest

A unique opportunity comes with online work, one that’s rarely found in traditional hiring – the chance to test a candidate before you invest in hiring them. You can do so by hiring them for a test project: something small (typically one or two hours of work) that is representative of the work they would be doing for you in the long term. 

This will help determine if the candidate’s skills, personality, work style and more would be a fit for the business. Especially because many online contract workers become valued, long-term team members, the opportunity to ‘try before you buy’ should not be left on the table. 

As with any new strategy, time will need to be invested to see what works best for online hiring, as well as with managing a new online team. But the opportunity is not to be overlooked; SMEs which leverage online work can compete on an entirely new playing field, wresting the human resources monopoly from big businesses and using on-demand talent as a competitive advantage. 

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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