Freelancers and the Future of Work

Two hundred years ago – around 1819 – the word ‘free lance’ described paid army officers! From two distinct words in the 1800s to the hyphenated ‘free-lance’ in the 1920s, finally emerged the word ‘freelance’ as we know it now. Akin, to how freelancers are now a core part of an ever-increasing part of many organizations worldwide.

As organizations adapt to a changing workforce dynamic, they have accelerated the adoption of independent talent to drive business agility. Here’s some interesting data gleaned from:

  1. India’s gig economy is projected at a market size of $455 billion over the next 3 years. Over 60% organizations expect an increase in the number of freelance workers (Deloitte, April 2020).
  2. 47% of hiring managers are more likely than earlier to hire independent professionals since the global pandemic (Upwork, June 2020). This research also highlights that 3/4th of hiring managers say engaging independent professionals maybe the more efficient & strategic way forward for organizations*
  3. PayPal research indicates one in four freelancers globally to be from India- with India alone, contributing a whopping 15 million in a wide array of sectors.

So, the data appears to indicate an enhanced willingness by organizations to engage with independent professionals and, on the other hand, it points to a significant number of professionals choosing the freelance model over the next few years!

I spoke with Shanu Malkani, Co-founder at IndusGuru Network Partners, one of India’s leading online networks of business experts and consultants. To quote Shanu, “Freelancing gig work will grow in all sectors of the workforce – blue, grey and white collar employees. The trend of digitization accelerated by COVID, resulting in increasing proportion of workforce working remotely, also will help in growth of the freelancing economy.”

Increasingly, working professionals have started to realize that the work-from-home culture makes it even more attractive to choose freelancing as does the relatively higher flexibility and autonomy in an Independent Professional avatar over the full time employee model.

Are we ready for a workforce that comprises 50% (or more) freelancers? What does this mean for organizations?

What does it mean for those who freelance currently or plan to do so in the future?

Insights for Organizations basis a short survey (n=120) that I sent out:

The need to define a ‘Freelancer Value Proposition’ –
Greater than 90% of responses suggest that freelancers face challenges with delayed payments, unrealistic timelines, clients tacitly eking out more than the contracted amount of work without compensation and importantly, not being treated as ‘equal partners.’ As one respondent put it, “I would enjoy being treated as a partner or collaborator, rather than someone who is talked down to.” Inputs such as this are disturbing and could indicate the underlying perception that might possibly be at play.”

Research by Jon Younger, contributor to HBR and author of a Forbes Careers blog supports the premise that freelancer experience matters. As Younger puts it, “Freelancers appear to perform best in organizations that appreciate their contribution. It is important to see freelancers as stakeholders who play a meaningful role.”

Organizations could therefore benefit greatly from building an aspirational brand within the Freelance/Independent Professionals community and establish partnerships with key talent platforms. Similar to an ‘Employee Value Proposition’ (EVP), it would be helpful to build a favourable ‘Freelancer Value Proposition’ (FVP).

For this shift to take place, organizational leaders would need to be sensitized to the valuable contribution that independent professionals make. When leaders experience this shift in perception, the focus could move to attracting the most suitable independent
professionals/freelancers, akin to having a talent acquisition strategy for permanent employees.

The ‘freelancer experience’ is as important as the ‘employee experience’? As I dug deeper and conversed with Dipesh Garg, CEO & Founder at Truelancer – a Global Freelance marketplace with a network of over 1 million independent professionals- he said “Freelancers or Solo Entrepreneurs are the future of work.

The way both large and small organizations are hiring is changing. Companies & founders are even hiring freelancers for the entire quarter.” This appears to indicate that the future of work is shifting towards a ‘blended workforce’. High performance could then depend on the effectiveness with which organizations lead and manage ‘blended teams.’ A focus on providing positive freelancer experience is therefore critical to make this possible. Some examples that survey respondents mention include transparent contracts, consistent process for on-boarding, upskilling & training programs, continuous feedback and involvement in significant events/meetings.

Just as organizations craft talent strategies for full-time employees, similarly they might now need to design specific ‘freelance talent strategy.’ The role of ‘freelancers’ may no longer be limited to ‘delivery’ Assignments such as Advertising & Social media campaign design, defining Organizational Culture or building IT Infrastructure are about more than only executing specific deliverables. They involve understanding the business context, asking the right questions, creating strategy, planning and agility in execution.

A survey respondent working with one of the largest Freelancing networks globally said “Often, I’ve seen companies treat freelancers as pure executors – if you want to get the most out of your relationship with freelancers, it’s critical to have a two way conversation and make them feel like a part of their culture. This could also enhance the loyalty and commitment of the independent professional.”

Given this, organizations could benefit by integrating independent professionals into their business and workforce planning.

Insights for Independent professionals / Freelancers:

  1. It isn’t only about skill. It’s also about behaviour and attitude
    More often than not, knowledge, expertise and marketable ‘hard skills’ are the starting points of an independent professional’s career. Delivering value consistently and ‘making it’ as a freelancer or independent professional isn’t only about ‘hard skills’. In the survey* I conducted, the 5 behaviours for success that stood out are:
    o Networking
    o Agility & Adaptability in execution
    o Discipline
    o Balance between being ‘available’ always and setting boundaries when required
    o Persistence
  2. Go beyond personal networking to create work opportunities
    With the changing business context, increase in the number of freelancers and the ‘need’ to be more visible, is having a personal network enough to create a sustainable pipeline of work opportunities? Michael Page MD, Nicolas, spoke about 3 ways in which independent professionals could create continuous business for themselves –
    • Deliver high-quality work consistently
    • Specialize and find your niche
    • Partner with recruiting firms and freelancing/consulting platforms
  3. Reflect on your Purpose today and how you could continue to evolve
    Many of us choose independent consulting over a regular job, but each of is driven by different reasons – our own ambition, life circumstances and/or potential for financial gains. Freelancing can consume us, leaving little room for introspection- which is way a process of looking within is almost a starting point for the five behaviours written about above.

So, look within oneself, critically examining your purpose – “why am I doing what I am doing?”, “what is the future I envision?” and “how do I communicate this purpose to stakeholders?” These are key questions to reinforce belief and longevity as an independent professional.

The world of work is moving inexorably towards a blended workforce. Given the evidence all around us, it is time that both organizations and independent professionals work on strategies to proactively engage & stay invested in each other’s growth.

By Nikita Singh (Consultant with IndusGuru Network Partners)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of IndusGuru Network Partners

#gigeconomy #futureofwork #freelancers #blendedworkforce