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The Great Shrinking Office? More Companies Hire Remote Workers: Survey

An underground workforce is growing alongside the official one that has reported disappointing results over the past few months.

Woman using laptop in internet cafe
Howard Kingsnorth | Photodisc | Getty Images
Woman using laptop in internet cafe

The independent contractor —the freelancer, the 1099-er, the person who has to find his or her own health insurance — is finding opportunities with business owners who are loathe to bring on fulltime hires due to uncertainty about the economyand the upcoming elections.

In a survey of 1,500 business owners, Elance, a website that matches employers with employees who can work remotely, found that 73 percent planned to hire online contractors in 2012. This comes as the official unemployment rate rose last month by a tenth of a point, to 8.2 percent, and jobless claimsrose this week.

“Technology is removing friction” from hiring, said Fabio Rosati, CEO of Elance. “This is a new employment model, and a new way to work.”

And while it's not a replacement for fulltime employment, online work is, Rosati said, “a good development for entrepreneurial individuals. They can operate as a larger company, and search worldwide for talent. And workers [are not tied to] their local economy.”

By providing employees who work from anywhere, online marketplaces like Elance add jobs that would not have existed otherwise, the firm says. Thirty-two percent of employers who responded to the Elance survey said work would not have gotten done if they had not hired employeees to work remotely, or they would have performed the work themselves. Just three percent said they would have hired a full-time employee.

According to the survey, there will be a lot more people working remotely in the next five years — 54 percent of business owners said they expect the majority of their workforce to be working online by 2017. “These numbers are showing that there is widespread adoption of hiring people online, and supports our prediction that one out of every three people hired in 2020 will be hired online,” said Rosati.

Web programmers and developers are the most sought-after hires — 70 percent of respondents said they were looking for employees with those skills. Graphic designers are also in demand, as 61 percent said those contractors would be valuable to their business. Other skills employers are looking for include writers and bloggers (38 percent); social media, search engine optimization and online marketing experts (32 percent); and mobile developers (28 percent).

Rosati contends that we can no longer “look at employment numbers just by looking at full-time employment. People’s work is more fragmented,” he said. “They are spending 10 hours with one client and 15 with another. Our model of measuring the economy isn’t geared to that way of measurement yet.”

Email us at SmallBiz@cnbc.com and follow us on Twitter @SmallBizCNBC.

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