The next COO at your company will work remotely, stay with the company for 6 months, and never even get a company email account. But they will be the best hire you’ve ever made. How can this be possible? Thank the Supertemps. These are workers that are highly educated and high performing that have elected to work as freelancers. And they are quickly becoming a go-to source of talent for agile companies with quickly evolving work force needs. While many think of freelancers as gig economy workers ferrying around passengers or delivering food, the Supertemp cohort consists of former management consultants, architects, engineers, and other white collar professionals that command top dollar for their services. Advances in telecommunications technology & work platforms, coupled with rising disinterest in traditional work arrangements have empowered these freelancers to mimic their pro sports free agent forebears “take their talents to South Beach” or any beach with WiFi. But its not just the beaches of Bali or Phuket attracting digital nomads untethered by geographical bounds. Some have chosen to take their talents to small towns where life moves slower and their earnings stretch further. But leaving the cubicle for the couch is only one reason for the rise of freelancers in professional services. There are a number of economic, societal, and technological trends at play.
Working for oneself used to be the American Dream. A nation of farmers, artisans, merchants, and the like all forged an identity as strivers in charge of their own destinies. In 1860, 80% of the workforce was self employed. A hundred years later in the 1970s, that number plummeted to 7%. People chose to work for employers due to strong unions and a perceived level of loyalty and commitment to employees. Since then, those factors have diminished. Respondents to a recent study on freelancing in America say that employers are less loyal (56%) and less trustworthy (38%) to employees over the past ten years. That lack of care from employers is pushing previously high performing employees to strike out on their own as freelancers. And as more of them take to freelancing, the previous stigma attached to the practice diminishes too. In years past, freelancing was viewed as a a last resort for individuals that struck out in traditional roles or for those that were otherwise undesirable employees.
Now, it seems the most talented individuals are betting on themselves and the technology to do so is coming along right on time. Applications like Slack keep teams connected and organized, no matter where they are located. And video conferencing options provide the “face time” that some teams require to effectively work. Steady WiFi and a laptop is all it requires for freelancers to get to work, wherever they are. In addition to the tech tools they use for work, digital platforms are making it easier for freelancers to find companies in need of their services.
Despite the excitement and opportunities in the freelance space, disadvantages remain for both worker and corporate client alike. The main hindrance for freelance workers is the lack of a benefits package that is typically included in the overall compensation from an employer. These workers must pay out of pocket for health benefits and more directly manager their retirement funds. By nature, freelance work lacks the consistency and stability of a salaried job. When surveyed on the topic, 41% of traditional workers cited that financial uncertainty as the biggest barrier to joining the freelance workforce. Freelancers often work remotely, so they don’t get the in person opportunity to build camaraderie with co-workers. This translates to a challenge for companies employing them as they must make deliberate efforts to produce cohesion across teams that don’t work in close proximity nor for the same employer. While this arrangement brings agility to the workforce, it also creates a more dynamic situation to manage. The lack of consistency leaves room for simple miscommunications and misunderstandings that are less common for employees that work together long term. To combat this and other issues that arise with freelance work arrangements, employers can take proactive management efforts.
The first step for companies to take in augmenting their teams with freelancers is to establish a strong network of talented individuals for their needs. This can be done the traditional way via networking or asking for introductions. But several platforms have emerged to take the happenstance out of this process. Services like MBO Partners, Wethos, and UpWork all provide platforms for enterprises to engage vetted freelance professionals. As freelance talent is identified and selected for project work, establishing relationships and managing politics is essential. Full time employees may feel threatened by the arrival of freelance help, resulting in rocky relationships. The manager’s role is to ensure team work and ease any tensions within the full time team. Kickoff meetings can be used to accomplish this and they also serve the purpose of establishing clear expectations for all parties involved in the engagement. As freelance projects cycle through to completion, feedback is essential. Survey all constituents impacted by the freelance projects about ways to improve or what works well.
Freelancing has reached a tipping point. The number of workers viewing it as a long-term career option now equals those viewing it as a short term solution. The ethos of the creative class and the technology at their disposal has enabled them to pursue freelancing as a lucrative and fulfilling work option across most industries and career fields. In fact, freelancers contribute nearly $1 trillion to the US economy. Still, many large corporations have yet to invest into the people, processes, and tools needed to make the agile workforce a reality for themselves. In doing so, they run the risk of losing ground on talent acquisition to more nimble organizations. Freelancing offers flexibility to companies that must quickly augment their workforce for unexpected challenges and freedom to workers that want flexible and remote work arrangements. Embracing this emerging paradigm shift positions all parties to succeed in the future of work, no matter where or when that happens.