Article: Freelancers and the future of work

Life @ Work

Freelancers and the future of work

As the new world of work moves into a blended model - with employees and freelancers, here's what you need to do.
Freelancers and the future of work

Two hundred years ago - around 1819 - the words ‘’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:

  1. India’s gig economy is projected to grow to $455 billion over the next 3 years. Over 60 percent organizations expect an increase in the number of freelance workers (Deloitte, April 2020). To quote Nicolas Dumoulin, MD,  Michael Page India who I had a conversation with a couple of weeks ago, “The appetite for freelancing as well as working with independent consultants, is growing in India. More companies need expertise for a specific period of time. Therefore, instead of hiring for the long-term, they hire independent professionals. One option is to work with larger consulting firms, though they tend to be expensive and perhaps less flexible than freelancers. So, there is definitely an ask from a client perspective. Though it works best when freelancers and organizations connect through personal networks. This builds the trust that organizations have in freelancers.”
  2. 47 percent 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 may be the more efficient & strategic way forward for organizations*
  3. PayPal research indicates that one in four freelancers globally is from India- with India alone, contributing a whopping 15 million in a wide array of sectors like IT and programming, finance, sales & marketing, design, animation, videography, content, consulting, and academic writing, etc.

So, the data appears to indicate on the one hand an enhanced willingness by organizations to engage with independent professionals and, on the other hand, it points towards a larger 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. She said,  “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 work-force working remotely, also will help in the 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 percent (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?


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 eke 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 favorable ‘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 one 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 “Organizations would benefit from building a reciprocal and inclusive relationship with freelancers. 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 behavior 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 five behaviors for success that stood out are:

  • Networking 
  • Agility & Adaptability in execution 
  • Discipline
  • Balance between being ‘available’ always and setting boundaries when required
  • Persistence 

Here are some quotes:

“As an independent professional, opportunity comes disguised as hard work. We have to put in work into networking, upskilling ourselves and constantly adapting to changes in the external environment” – freelancer in the Media & Film industry.

“It is important for freelancers to work with the similar level of commitment & ownership as a permanent employee. Contextualizing his/her skills to the business need is important. As organizations, we also have a role to play to enable them to do so” – senior HR leader in a large Indian conglomerate.

2. Develop a process for creating work opportunities that goes beyond personal networking

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 three ways in which independent professionals could create continuous business for themselves - 

  • Deliver high-quality work consistently: In addition to personal networks, Nicholas emphasized the need to meet/exceed client expectations consistently. He said, “A freelancer is an entrepreneur who runs his/her business. Each gig will bring you to another, and you have no choice but to deliver. As a freelancer, if you can build a track record of your work, in terms of how you have been doing it, what is the process and who are the kind of clients you have worked with, you are more likely to get business without having a personal relationship with the organization.”  
  • Specialize: This is a tricky decision for every freelancer – to specialize or not? Many independent professionals may have expertise in more than one area of work. It could therefore make sense from a business perspective to work with clients across various areas. However, Nicholas says, “As freelancers, it is important to specialize. Whilst this may impact the amount of work you get in the beginning, over a long-term period it does help to build expertise and become a go-to person within your niche.”
  • Partner with a recruiting firm: Recruitment firms like Michael Page have recently started to connect freelancers & independent professionals to relevant opportunities. As Nicholas put it, “If you’re an individual working with an organization, there could be times when pay gets delayed and other issues may emerge. A recruiting firm will have contact with the client and help freelancers with all their activities. This gives freelancers more stability as well as wider access in the market. When recruiters know your gig is ending in one month, they start looking out for you proactively.”

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 one 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 why a process of looking within is almost a starting point for the five behaviors written about above. 

So, look within yourself, critically examine 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.


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Topics: Life @ Work, #GigEconomy

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