The American Heritage dictionary defines "virtual" as "existing or resulting in essence or effect although not in actual fact, form, or name." In other words, something that seems real, and in some ways is real but is not actually real.
While you can split hairs and argument semantics all day long about whether or not virtual communities, websites, games, etc. exist, or merely exist in essence, the work needed to create them is very real. That has led to the creation of a whole new industry of virtual jobs.
The very real people who hold these virtual jobs bring very different skills to their cyber assignments. Only some of them are programmers capable of writing directions languages like java or C ++ that create the framework of a game or a website. Many more of these workers are creative types who work in words or images, and administrative personnel who are skilled at operating productivity programs like spreadsheets and email.
Virtual job holders do not have cubicles in physical offices assigned to them, but they may still be actual employees of a company. In those cases the hiring firm still dictates what hours the person works as well as what they do and how they do it during those hours.
Independent contractors and freelancers can also work virtual jobs. In those cases arrangements with the hiring company are spelled out through formal or informal contracts. The hiring company specifically has no power to tell the contractor or freelancer where they can work or when they must work.
Certain kinds of projects lend themselves to this sort of a business relationship more readily than others. Computer programming and web design were among the earliest types, but one of the fastest growing virtual job segments involves customer service.
Traditionally these jobs have been filled by employees working in centralized call centers. These call centers have either been operated by the company directly or by outside firms who contract with several different companies to offer inbound or outbound call services.
Many enterprise sized companies around the world have begun outsourcing their customer service department assignments directly to individuals. High speed Internet connections and simplified software services have made it possible for these companies to hire home workers who log in to the company's extranet to access the programs that they need to complete their tasks. Calls are simply routed to them over the Internet. Some of these programs are so sophisticated every keystroke of a virtual worker can be monitored and every call recorded. This ensures the company's control over the quantity and quality of work being done by the individual at home is the same as it would be at a physical company location.
Companies that hire freelancers or independent contractors to handle virtual jobs are usually more concerned with getting a specific project completed or with having routine tasks done by someone else so that they can concentrate their business efforts elsewhere. They are not concerned with when or how the job is done so long as it meets certain minimum quality standards.
As virtual jobs become more plentiful and more people seeking them out to either supplement or replace a full time traditional job, more training programs on how to do these jobs are also created. Several new programs have been added by colleges and technical institutes both online and offline to certify that an individual has the basics skills required to operate standard communication programs and productivity tools that are used to carry out these jobs.
The area is still too new, however, for there to be any across the board standards for what constitutes a minimally or a highly skilled virtual worker.