The Way We Work
February 7, 2012 by Jenna Weiner

What do Zipcar, Airbnb and Rent the Runway have in common?

Aside from being wildly successful startups, all three companies have business models based on having on-demand access to assets — what you need, when you need it, without a long-term commitment. From picking up a car for running an hour of errands, to staying in a cozy apartment for a few nights as if it were your own, to wearing a designer dress for a night and then sending it back, these companies make the ownership of assets essentially unnecessary.

If the success of these startups is any indication, this temporary-use model may be the operating model of the future, according to Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath. In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, she discusses how “owning anything may soon be seen as an industrial-age relic.”

While owning something certainly has a number of benefits, they come at the expense of flexibility or liquidity. When things change — which happens frequently in our fast-paced world — ownership can be problematic, she writes. In addition, permanent ownership is often unnecessary in situations where borrowing something will suffice.

McGrath also includes oDesk in this category of on-demand access to assets — in our case, access to talent. The advantages of the oDesk model present “the interesting question of when an employer would hire someone rather than simply pay for the services used on an as-needed basis,” she writes.

McGrath argues for the positive aspects of this trend: the ability for anyone to earn extra money on the side; the work opportunities for those who are physically unable to get a permanent, on-site job; and the freedom to pick one’s own hours and choose whether a traditional on-site job is best for them. While some may consider this shift to be damaging to the workforce, she also notes that regular employment options are not necessarily the gold standard for work security — in some industries, such as retail, there can be a great deal of instability and unpredictability.

“Many of the assumptions about society that we take for granted are based on the notion that relatively stable employment relationships are the norm,” McGrath writes. “When will our thinking catch up with the new reality?”

McGrath’s theory that the access-to-assets model may soon replace the ownership-of-assets model in certain cases relates back to the concept of Work 3.0, which oDesk CEO Gary Swart introduced in December.

Work 3.0 — a world where work is on demand, virtual and remote — is already a reality for many companies, those that are taking advantage of online work to make their businesses more agile and competitive. Similarly, millions of people are also leveraging the growing momentum of Work 3.0 to access work opportunities around the world, and to have the freedom to choose when, where and how to work.

When McGrath’s theory of on-demand access to assets is applied to the world of work, you get Work 3.0 and companies like oDesk. Businesses now have a huge, global pool of talent to choose from, allowing them to create a specialized, on-demand workforce that crosses borders, time zones and skill sets. In addition, the team can come together when it is needed, and dissipate when the project is done — without the need for office-based overhead or a commitment to yearly salaries.

In other words, not only does the on-demand model bring unprecedented flexibility as McGrath describes, but it also brings a significant competitive advantage.

And, in this Work 3.0 approach, the opportunities are boundless.


Jenna Weiner

Content Marketer

Jenna Weiner is the former content marketing manager at oDesk and was the editor-in-chief of the oDesk blog. With a background in business and technology writing, she specializes in content marketing and strategy, public relations, and branding. Before joining oDesk, Jenna was a writer and editor for Monitor Group’s marketing department (now Monitor Deloitte) and was the Business & Technology Section Editor for Brafton Inc.… read more

  • Najee

    Outsourcing has done wonders for the self employed and small businesses. They no longer have to fret over minor tasks that become bigger than they actually are because the small business person does not have the expertise to do it himself and does not have the resources to let someone else do it locally. Now he can hire a specialist at a very reasonable price and get stuff done.

    My advice to all small businesses is to focus on what you do best – outsource the rest.

  • Jenna

    Thank you, Mike and Sid, for your great comments!

    Mike — I agree that this theory, if fully applied, would have interesting implications for intellectual property rights. While we may eventually see a world in which creative work is incorporated into the temporary use model, I think the way we are already seeing this theory applied to creative work is that it’s not the work itself which is borrowed, but the skills of the creator — in that you can commission creative work on demand, instead of having an in-house designer or copywriter on staff full time. Definitely food for thought though!

  • Sid

    On-demand hiring of employees, on a project-to-project basis, is a key to remain competitive and for the success in today’s fiercely competitive business world. And, oDesk’s Work 3.0 model is a boon, particularly for small- and medium-size enterprises. Thank you for the excellent post.

  • Mike Sawyer

    “In addition, permanent ownership is often unnecessary in situations where borrowing something will suffice.”

    Does this also implicate digital products such as creative works from Graphic artists and writers, who’s work is often transferred by email or by a third party vendor. If so, then I may safely assume that “borrowing” digital products only has a certain lifespan for the buyers. Thus would create more work for the web designer or freelance writer. The employment platform for us freelancers would nearly be infinite, considering if the digital products are “thrown out” after a certain period. How does this benefit our clients in the long run?

    Our products can be manifested into a physical form for our clients and most often we do not retain any electronic or worldly rights to our created endeavors. Does this mean after the life cycle of the product that the product can revert ownership back to the creator? Or does the buyer keep the rights and product in an archive directory, for later use.

    A good article to think about for digital creators, that faces an almost unpredictable scheduling nightmare through the Global economy.