The continued rise of the “human cloud” in tech staffing

There is no doubt that the very nature of work has changed considerably in the 21st century. This evolution has occurred in several phases. It started with the pivot toward an economy dominated by tech and professional services (which, arguably, began well before the turn of the millennium), and was then followed by the slow but steady rise of remote work, the bring-your-own-device movement and the growth of the gig economy.

In the past few years, a new phase emerged – the so-called "human cloud," which has become fairly popular among those seeking contract staff for tech work. It remains unclear what the exact effects of this trend will be on firms from the traditional staffing industry, but it's all but guaranteed that there will be some significant consequences that players in the sector would do well to prepare themselves for. 

Basics of the human cloud 
During a conversation with Monster, Barry Asin, the president of Staffing Industry Analysts, defined the human cloud as the pool of labor which companies access through online staffing platforms, namely firms such as Upwork, Fiverr or Freelancer.

Lyft and Uber are by far the biggest customers of online services that center around the human cloud due to their massive and constant need for labor all over the world, but "there are a whole range of others such as translation services, outsourced customer service and legal services," Asin said. 

Despite the dominance of the aforementioned rideshare companies, any job that can be done remotely is particularly well suited to have its listings placed on staffing platforms that traffic in the human cloud of available labor. This includes just about every position within the spectrum of IT that one could handle entirely (or in large part) off-premises, as well as marketing and lead generation, account and project management, various consultancy roles, certain aspects of financial services and creative work (graphic design, copywriting, freelance journalism and so on).

Hospitality, industrial and unskilled-labor gigs are also finding their way onto human cloud platforms far more often than they used to when the term "human cloud" was first showing up in the staffing discourse, e.g. in the Financial Times' 2015 discussion of the phenomenon and earlier. Given the breadth of work with which these platforms are already compatible, it's highly likely that their reach will keep expanding, at least in the immediate future.

Shortcomings and potential trouble spots 
In that FT article, one leader of a U.K.-based startup human cloud platform said that it would seriously mitigate the issue of skills shortages.

"You can now get whoever you want, whenever you want, exactly how you want it," the startup's leader said. "And because they're not employees, you don't have to deal with employment hassles and regulations."

One need not look very long at that statement to see its problematic aspects, but even setting tonal concerns aside completely, the prediction of the human cloud's limitless possibilities is – with the benefit of more than four years' hindsight – a bit too rose-colored, to say the least. Individuals qualified for highly skill-contingent jobs, such as those relying on very specific tech competencies (like machine learning or blockchain programming), are still generally some of the hardest people for organizations and recruiters to find, whether they're perusing the human cloud or more traditional venues. 

Additionally, there are legal issues to consider. The state of California, for example, recently passed a bill requiring companies to observe strict standards regarding who is and isn't a contractor (and thus entitled or not to various benefits and legal protections), in an effort to encourage more full-time hires, according to Columbia Journalism Review. Other states and nations may follow suit. All of this could lead to lengthy, costly legal proceedings for companies that use the human cloud and are cavalier in their treatment of workers they bring on with it.

Future outlook
In the latest edition of its annual gig economy report, SIA stated that global human cloud spending reached $126.3 billion in 2018. This represented a sharp increase from 2017's worldwide spend total of $82 billion. As such, it's clear the human cloud and platforms associated with it aren't disappearing any time soon. 

Conversely, the nature of such staffing conduits – their relative lack of human intervention – means traditional means of managing staffing needs still have significant value, particularly for finding professionals with niche tech skills. Contact Marchon Partners today to learn more about the elite talent we can help your organization find.