“Online Work” vs. “Online-Intermediated Work Arrangements” – That is the Question

OnlineLaborThe world of work, staffing, etc. has become more and more complex in past years and more and more complicated to talk about.  This post tries to bring a little bit of clarification to at least two terms. Discussing the different meanings of just two terms, I think, may bring some additional clarity to others (or at least provoke some further thought).

So where is the complication coming from?

In a recent post, What Is “Work Arrangement Intermediation (WAI)?” And How Is It Changing?, I discussed a trend that has been observable for a few decades now:  more and more “work arrangements” (both “permanent” and “contingent” ones) are being intermediated – in some manner or to some degree–by 3rd party entities (including PEOs, staffing firms, etc.)*.

Furthermore, over the past 15 years, information technology (in the form of enterprise systems, IT-enabled processes, online marketplace exchanges and other platforms) has been steadily becoming a critical part of—as well as extending and expanding–that “work arrangement intermediation” (WAI) function.  Vast numbers of “work arrangements” today are at least partially intermediated through some kind of digital-online capability, ranging from job boards (like Monster, CareerBuilder, etc.) to end-to-end “online work arrangement intermediation platforms”  (like oDesk, Elance, Work Market, to name a few).

In a recent HR.com webinar, entitled “How Technology and New Online Platforms Are Driving New Forms of Contingent Work Arrangements,” I offered the following definitions:

Work Arrangement

A complete “transaction of work” between a worker who provides the work and an individual or organizations that uses and typically pays for the work. Work arrangements have many dimensions: economic, legal, structural (how long, how frequently, when and where, etc.)


An ongoing function wherein transactions between two or more parties are critically facilitated or enabled (as a service) by one or more other parties (aka intermediaries).  There can be entire industries or ecosystems that serve an intermediation function (e.g., retail, banking, staffing, et al)


A unified “structure” that allows different parties–often in large numbers—to interact and produce value-added outcomes for the interacting parties (and usually the “platform owner”).  Example: shopping mall. Over the past 15 years, “digital, online platforms” have begun to transform whole parts of the economy (Amazon, Priceline, Travelocity, iTunes, Ebay, AirBnB, Uber, Facebook, etc.)

Mash-up all of those things and you get “end-to-end “online work arrangement intermediation platforms.”


So over the past 10 years or so we have been seeing more and more end-to-end “online work arrangement intermediation platforms” that digitally intermediate the whole work arrangement, end-to-end (from an organization “finding/engaging the worker” all the way to “paying the worker” when the work is done).  Pure digital (often single platform) intermediation.  Wow!

Until fairly recently, most of these “online work arrangement intermediation platforms” have enabled what are effectively “contingent” work arrangements between organizations and workers for types of “knowledge work” (software development, graphic design) that can be performed remotely by workers (often with the management of the work conducted using platform mechanism like “online work rooms,” “project milestones,” “chat and messaging,” etc.).  Over 40 firms, including oDesk, Elance, and freelancer.com, do this.

More recently, firms like Work Market, OnForce, Next Crew, and PRSONA have begun providing digital platforms that intermediate work arrangements, between organizations and workers, for work that is not performed remotely or “online,” but rather is performed “on location” wherever an organization specifies (“the office,” another location such as a where something—such as a service call– needs to be done, etc.).  Also, these work arrangements do not need to involve “knowledge work;” on the contrary, work arrangements for retail support, restaurant or event staff, etc. are can be fully enabled by these “online work arrangement intermediation platforms.”

So now we come back to the original question:  What’s the difference between “Online Work” and “Online-Intermediated Work Arrangements?”

Online Work” simply means work that can be performed “online” (so all the work can be done/completed in a remote location without the worker any time ever going anywhere).  All “online work” is therefore “remote work,” but not vice versa.  Someone could be painting glass pieces or transcribing documents and sending them by UPS to the organization they are working for—nothing “online.”  But some “remote work” (typically knowledge work) is being performed “online.”  That is, to some degree the “work process” is being intermediated (supported or enabled) by digital online tools or platforms (including email, collaboration systems like Google docs, or even more extensive platforms like Atlassian Jira or GitHub (software) or 99Design (graphics), etc.).  When “remote work” is happening this way (with the performance enabled to a significant extent by online tools and platforms), then we can call this “online work.”  To be sure, in this case there is some limited “online intermediation of the work arrangement” going on, but it is limited to supporting the “performance of the work” and is not enabling/supporting the full scope of the work arrangement (from an organization “finding/engaging the worker” all the way to “paying the worker” when the work is done).

Online-Intermediated Work Arrangements” are however specifically defined in these terms.  In this case, we are not only talking about the extent to which “the work is performed” with online enablement (per above), we are talking about the extent to which the entire “work arrangement” is enabled or intermediated by online/digital means (as opposed to traditional means).  In the most extreme form of “Online-Intermediated Work Arrangements,” the “work arrangement” is “intermediated” across an “online/digital platform” (end-to-end, from an organization “finding/engaging the worker” all the way to “paying the worker” when the work is done).

In these cases of “Online (Platform)-Intermediated Work Arrangements,” the “work arrangement” need not involve “online work” (as defined above).  Indeed, the work involved can be performed “on location,” on an organization’s site or wherever the need is—but the “work arrangement” has been “intermediated online” (i.e. across an “online platform”).  Moreover, “Online-Intermediated Work Arrangements” do not have to be “contingent” arrangements:  legal employees can be engaged via “Online Work-Arrangement Intermediation Platforms” (and we are seeing this starting to happen, though so far it is has been more common to see “contingent” (contract) workers being engaged).

One of the most interesting outcomes of the advent of “Online Work-Arrangement Intermediation Platforms” is the “innovation” of “work arrangements” that is occurring! Information technology is allowing us to re-think and reshape “work arrangements” into new forms that—it turns out—do not fit neatly into those traditional institutional and legal concepts of “employee” and “contractor” (on which so much depends, including our tax code in the US).  “Online-Intermediated Work Arrangements” are pressing the limits—technology-enabled intermediation allows for forms of work like crowdsourcing, et al.. And the line between (a) a worker’s work and (b) the technology-intermediated outcome (i.e., a platform’s service output) is becoming increasingly blurred.   In this context, we are now seeing forms of work/service-output that are being defined as Talent-as-a-Service or Workforce-as-a-Service.

Ironically, by achieving (I hope) clarification of the above terms, we are also increasing the blurriness of the future “work arrangement” picture, as suggested here:


It’s becoming clearer that the future of “work arrangements” and “what they will be” remains unsettled and will like evolve in new ways over many years, along with generational effects, economic demands, eventual shifts in regulation, and an increasing and changing role for that part of the economy that will perform the business of “work arrangement intermediation” in the future, highly digitized world.   Clearly, we will definitely be seeing more “Online Work” and also more “Online-Intermediated Work Arrangements” (whether the work is performed “online” or not, whether it is “delivered” as the outputs of specific, identifiable workers or as the “on-demand,” perhaps bursty service outputs of crowds of networked worked across the world).  In any case, change lies ahead—how fast and how much remains to be seen.


*  Some researchers (David Autor and others) have examined the growing “labor market intermediation” sector of the economy.  I prefer to refer to the sector as “work arrangement intermediation” (WAI) sector, as I think the focus should be on “work arrangement” intermediation, not on (some perhaps mythical) “labor market” intermediation.  If there is a “labor market,” it is certainly an “inefficient” one (except perhaps for “commodity” jobs/workers). In any case, this recent paper reasonably describes the current “intermediation” sector for “work arrangements:” “Labor Market Intermediaries and the New Paradigm for Human Resources,” Rocio Bonet , Peter Cappelli & Monika Hamori (2013) The Academy of Management Annals,7:1, 341-392, DOI: 10.1080/19416520.2013.774213


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