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Working Remotely Isn’t Outsourcing Yourself

If you work from home, will thousands of people from around the world be competing for your role?

My professional experience over 18 years of remote freelancing has taught me that no other career could be as reliable as the one you build for yourself. I have no fear of globalization, yet I’m reminded frequently how some people think remote work means opening yourself up to being outsourced.

History doesn’t support that theory. The internet has globalized jobs for two decades, yet all the truly skilled professionals are still as in-demand as ever.

The idea that the work-from-home movement — accelerated by COVID-19 — will lead to a new wave of outsourced creative service jobs irks me because I’m living proof it’s untrue.

The post-COVID work-from-home globalized job apocalypse?

In Remote Work Means Anyone Can Take Your Job, author Indi Samarajiva claims that the shift towards remote work brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a new wave of globally outsourced jobs:

When everyone’s face is milliseconds away on a Zoom call, who cares where their butts are sitting? Remote workers could be anywhere in the world. They are, by default, outsourced.

It really doesn’t matter where you hire from anymore. When you don’t need people within a one-hour commute, you can hire from the next city over, or from around the world. Right now you’ve got the same workers spread out across different locations, but over the next few rounds of hires, those employees will change. You’ll get workers from all over the world.

That’s where the real disruption comes in. If you thought globalization was fun for manufacturing, buckle up. Remote work is about to globalize a bunch of service jobs as well.

I couldn’t believe anything else Indi wrote because he started off with such a false premise.

Remote work has been around for decades. I’ve been doing it my whole career. My personal experience tells a different story from Indi’s globalized work apocalypse. If you’re a remote freelancer or employee, don’t stress. You won’t be easily outsourced. In fact, your value should increase.

Globalization in tech jobs has already had over 20 years to take hold. And what has it gotten us? When you replace quality local professionals with the lowest global bidder you end up with poorer work and frequent miscommunication. Anyone experienced working with global teams knows that location isn’t truly meaningless. In fact, it’s still a huge selling point.

The true downside of global outsourcing is this: if you don’t offer unique value, you compete on price, you don’t build enough trust — meaning you are essentially a replaceable commodity — then yes, you could be outsourced tomorrow.

But nobody aspires to become a low-cost commodity. You’re reading this because you want a valuable full-time career from freelancing or remote work. If you offer unique value and exceptional trust, the clients you want will never replace that with cheap offshore work.

Here’s why good remote workers aren’t at risk of being outsourced.

Timezones can’t be faked

Anyone who’s done international remote work is very familiar with the dance of the timezone overlap. Making the most of your synced-up work hours requires finding a unique rhythm of carefully timed communication and expertly-crafted, asynchronous feedback.

If you don’t get it right, you risk losing an entire day while you wait for your client or employer to wake up on the other side of the world to their next batch of unread emails and Slack messages. Or you try to eliminate the problem entirely by fighting your natural body clock to work and sleep on their time, not yours. (I believe no job is worth that kind of life imbalance).

We’ve found tech solutions to these problems that make things work alright, but never has anyone thought they matched the ideal scenario of perfectly aligned work hours and instant local communication. Working in the same timezone will always and forever be easier. So unless you’re outsourcing only within your line of longitude, you’re adding complexity to communication that doesn't need to be there.

Why take that risk when you can hire someone locally?

Communication and cultural differences affect efficiency and trust

A common language is one of the most important factors in business. There are goals, logic, and product development concerns to be communicated constantly — and none of it can afford to get lost in translation. To make things worse, our often outsourced industries of technology, manufacturing, development, and design are rife with jargon that’s frequently misunderstood even by their native speakers.

When you add in cultural differences a whole new set of problems can crop up. Do you have the same cultural expectations of courtesy and communication? Do you have the same respect for other’s time and schedules?

Language and culture can be highly domain-specific and often complex. When it gets unclear, time and money are wasted in the back-and-forth of clarifying and re-clarifying what should have been said once and understood. If outsourcing to anyone whose native language and culture are not your own — and who isn’t already familiar with your industry jargon — you're again adding a level of complexity to communication that isn’t necessary.

If you’re speaking the wrong language from the wrong timezone, your productivity has already been slashed twice before you’ve even begun! How large does the cost savings need to be to make that worthwhile?

Critical thinking beats human robots

Education isn’t equal. The truly valuable workers among us have skills like critical and creative thinking in addition to mastery of their technical craft. Scheduling, time management, communication, problem-solving — and various other “soft skills” — can be worth more than any technical proficiency.

It would be unfair to generalize, and there are always exceptions, but there are many places outside the “Western” world who’s standard of education are less than you might expect. These are usually the same places that people outsource to for very cheap labor.

We’ve all seen countless stories of how low-cost overseas workers can be excellent at following well-documented directions, but as soon as something deviates from the recipe — and thinking on their feet is needed to solve problems — they fail. The facade may look OK, but peek behind the curtain and things crumble quickly. Say goodbye to your profit margin.

These are human robots, and they will gradually be replaced by actual robots. What robots can’t do well is creative problem-solving. Remote workers who possess the ability for strategic thinking and reliable autonomous work are vastly superior in business value. If you’re one of those people, your risk of being outsourced (or automated) is drastically reduced. Any business that truly values your skills would never trade them for a lower-price, lower-quality replica.

The future of work is local-remote

Uniquely valuable professional skills will never go out of demand. No amount of cheap offshore labor or smart machines can replace the kind of work we do. The way to ensure that security is to combine the strengths of both local and remote — by working remotely but in the same city. I believe Local-Remote work is the future.

The Future of Work is Local-Remote

The Coronavirus health scare reminds us that we could have been working better all along.

If you find yourself working from home but you’re still in the same area as your employer or clients, you’re in the best possible position to enjoy the benefits of remote work together with the security of never being outsourced.

Cheaper overseas talent can’t match the trust and understanding your communication brings the relationship. Nobody from a Zoom call across the world can combine the benefits of local and remote work like you can — providing maximum business value to your employer, and extreme flexibility and efficiency for yourself.

Most importantly, since you’re not a commodity, nobody else can do exactly what you can do.

If you’re a skilled, professional local-remote worker worried about being outsourced, stop it now. Working remotely doesn’t make you replaceable unless you had no unique value to begin with.

You don’t need to be afraid, just be yourself.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.