Zarmineh Rab is one of the four e-ployees in the Gulf at Upthere, Everywhere – a global cloud-based agency. Jeffrey Biteng / The National
Zarmineh Rab is one of the four e-ployees in the Gulf at Upthere, Everywhere – a global cloud-based agency. Jeffrey Biteng / The National

E-ployees deployed as a virtual workforce

Zarmineh Rab is one of the four e-ployees in the Gulf at Upthere, Everywhere – a global cloud-based agency that works 24/7 around the globe.

Ms Rab, an American, works from home so she does not waste time commuting, something she says allows her to develop her own entrepreneurial and non-profit activities.

“It is a good opportunity to gain knowledge and it gives me flexibility,” she explains.

Ms Rab, in her late 40s, joined the agency two years ago and leads the company’s business development efforts in the region through her work as an account director.

What she values about her role is the freedom to deal with the project and juggle it with her other priorities.

She can do this because she is self-employed with her own free zone visa while also being part of the invitation-only UP membership.

“My boss is my client,” she explains. “I looked for a wider experience at the agency because I always have been in the client side. It is a challenging market and at the same time I want to live in my own terms, my own purpose.”

Ms Rab is one of a growing army of e-ployees – workers who toil in highly connected “global communities” working on projects around the clock. E-ployees are enabled by the cloud, digital tools and a hybrid of remote working options. They often derive their income from multiple sources and are focused on achieving a healthy work–life balance.

Julian Stubbs, the co-founder of the Stockholm-founded Upthere, Everywhere coined the term in his 2013 book E-ployment. The communications, branding and digital services agency has more than 180 people working remotely around the world with clients able to see how projects are advancing through the built-in home UPSystem app. The agency has no hierarchy, instead favouring a flat structure with copywriters, brand strategists, digital designers, art directors, film producers and more all working together.

With more than 20 years’ experience from several countries around the world, Ms Rab knows that she can offer a great deal and is one of only two UP members in the UAE.

Most of UP’s clients are in the US and Europe, but emerging markets in Asia and the Middle East are growing business. Projects have fixed budgets and e-ployees run several at the same time.

“A core team serves an account, and that team expands and contracts. Some of our people work just a bit, others work a great deal. It’s up to the person and how they combine it with their life,” says Lawrence Masle, UP’s chief operating officer.

Because of the company’s global workload, local and regional political instability does not affect their business ­model, which means the agency can ride out downturns.

“We don’t seem to be bothered by such events. We started six years ago in the middle of the most recent financial crisis, and have been growing at least 20 per cent or more per year,” Mr Masle says. Potential candidates must be recommended by a platform member to enter. “You wouldn’t recommend someone if you didn’t respect their level of work,” Mr Masle adds.

The model is so flexible that when business slows down in Dubai during Ramadan, Ms Rab works on UP projects in Europe or the US.

She is now part of a rapidly expanding digital labour force.

There are 3.4 billion internet users in 2016, according to Deloitte, and digital market and job competition will grow when that figures rises to 5 billion in 2020. The consultancy firm’s paper “The three billion: Enterprise crowdsourcing and the growing fragmentation of work” cites Gartner to predict that in 2018, three-quarters of high-performing enterprises will use a digital labour force combined with in-house teams.

Maher Ezzedine, the global chief executive of the Dubai-based crowdsourcing firm Ideanco, says that adaptability is the key to staying afloat for the modern business.

Ideanco manages a talent pool of 23,000 from its Dubai base, with some consultants sought multiple times.

“We submit the project and normally we get 10-15 people betting for it,” says Mr Ezzedine, adding that its consultants range from academics to independent consultants and those already working for big consulting firms.

Working in the defence, aerospace, real estate and renew­able energy sectors, they earn $5,000 up to $25,000 for projects lasting between three and six months.

A similar concept is the US-based OnFrontiers, a know­ledge platform that provides high-quality expertise in developing markets for multinationals, investment firms, SMEs and think tanks. It services 300 requests per month and most projects are matched within 24 hours.

“We have thousands of experts on network, but our search goes beyond to find the best match,” says co-founder Anne Kroijer.

Experts consulting for OnFrontiers set their own rates. “It ranges from pro bono to four figures per hour,” Ms Kroijer says. “Some requests require executive-level industry knowledge. Other times we get queries for innovative industries which need to skew a younger segment.

“We recently received a query for mobile apps in the Brazilian taxi market. The experts in this space are all young people in their twenties and thirties who helped promote wide adoption of this technology,” she adds.

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