THIRD WAVE OF VIRTUAL WORK
(Tammy Johns* & Lynda Gratton**)
If you wanted to find three decades of the evolution of knowledge work encapsulated in a single career, Heidi McCulloch’s would be a good one to consider. As a liberal arts graduate, McCulloch started out working in corporate marketing departments and then moved to an advertising agency, becoming an outside service provider to companies like the ones where she’d previously worked. After starting her family, she stepped away from that world and took on an entrepreneurial challenge: restoring and selling a historic inn. She came back to agency work a few years later and rose to vice president by playing specialised roles on global project teams. And now? She’s on to new ventures. She is an independent consultant, and in July 2012 she created a “boutique collaborative workspace” in downtown Toronto for people like her. It’s an oasis for mobile knowledge workers, who can do their jobs from anywhere but who gravitate to where they can do them best — in the company of other creative people engaged in work that matters to them. To a career planner, McCulloch’s might seem like an erratic path. For us, as long time observers of workers and their relationship to workplaces, it reflects a progression. In studying the dramatic changes that have taken place since the 1980s, we have discerned three major waves in the “virtualization” of knowledge work. They developed for different reasons, and they are all still moving forward. Wave One: Virtual Freelancers
Untethered work on a large scale began in the early 1980s, when a “freelance nation” of virtual workers using nascent email networks emerged. The new connectivity allowed an individual who might otherwise have worked inside a company, or at a specialized vendor serving a company, to set up a one-person shop instead. For many workers, the option to be hired as an independent contractor was a godsend – it meant they no longer had to compromise every other demand...