Blog: The rise and rise of independent workers in India

Strategic HR

The rise and rise of independent workers in India

A major chunk of the working population across the globe is moving towards being experimental and trying out freelancing
The rise and rise of independent workers in India

Manuraj Jain, an MBA graduate from INSEAD, did not think twice before setting up Vinculum Capital Partners, when an expected role did not pan out. He currently runs a successful practice focused on finance and high-end strategic advisory to small and medium enterprises based out of New Delhi.

Sucharita Narsimhan, mother of two young children, devotes her time researching for a digital media company, defining product and sales materials, creating white papers for an operations technology firm and handling communications for an NGO. She not only loves what she is doing but also appreciates the many hidden rewards that come with her work such as the absence of a long daily commute.

Ranjan Pal went independent after a long stint in the corporate sector to pursue his passion of working in the education space. His first assignment …to help set up the Indian School of Business!

Manuraj, Sucharita and Ranjan represent the bold new face of today’s freelance community. Not only has freelancing become a vibrant and thriving industry by itself, but it has also undergone a steady transformation in terms of what it stands for and the people it represents. While the trigger to enter this space varies by individual –stagnation, desire to pursue a long-held passion, negative culture at the workplace, hunger to achieve more, faster, or the need to strike a better balance between personal and professional life, the end result is the same. That more and more people today are voluntarily going independent and reaping the benefits of flexible working.

Globally, growth in independent professionals or freelancers is expected to be one of the most significant employment related trends over the next couple of decades. In the U.S. alone, independent workers are expected to make up 50 percent of the workforce by 2020, up from 30percent in 2006, according to data from Freelancers Union and the Government Accountability Office.[1]

The value of work transacted through freelancers online has already crossed $1 billion. It will double to $2billion in 2014 and reach $5billion by 2018, according to a forecast by Staffing Industry Analysts. [2]

In India too, the signs of freelancing becoming increasingly relevant and attracting professionals from a host of functions, are everywhere. Let’s take a look at some key trends impacting this space.

Disappearing gender skews

Contrary to what you might expect, Indians engaged as freelancers are not just women managing young families who can’t or don’t want to get into full time jobs. While that segment exists, today professionals offering advisory and consulting services or those opting for project-based work are equally likely to be men or women. This is true not just in the creative domain, but also in technical sectors as well as for professionals going independent post a long stint in the corporate world. [3]

Mainstream is the new reality

In the past, sectors that attracted the bulk of freelancers were creative, design and information technology. Individuals here loved the idea of working on a variety of assignments as also building a stronger work portfolio in a comparatively shorter duration of time. While these domains continue to flourish even today, we are simultaneously witnessing a huge surge in individuals from mainstream professions taking up consulting or part-time assignments. In fact, professionals from core functions like strategy and business development, general management, marketing, sales, research, academia, human resource and finance together account for close to 70 percent of the independent talent pool today as per a survey undertaken by Flexing It ( a platform that connects such professionals to assignments. [3]

Emergence of powerful new segments

In addition to the ‘mainstream’isation of freelancing, another fascinating development is the arrival of new kinds of professionals on the landscape, who hardly existed a few years ago. Take for instance, Corporate Freelancers. These are professionals who have transitioned into freelancing after an extended stint in the corporate world. Like Salone Mithal, who turned a consultant after spending over twenty years with several MNC banks because she wanted to better manage both job content and time. Salone and other corporate freelancers constitute the largest segment (close to 40 percent) within the Indian freelance network today. Over two-thirds have work experience of ten years or more, indicating that professionals at the middle-management stage or beyond in their careers are the ones taking the maximum risk of leaving cushy jobs.

Then there is Dhruv Swamini, an ex-McKinsey consultant who turned entrepreneur recently. Dhruv takes up independent assignments to generate cash for her new sports venture. She represents the segment of Entrepreneurial Freelancers. As the name suggests, these are entrepreneurs who have started their ventures and are offering part-time services to keep their cash flows going till the time their own businesses start yielding fruit. Next up are Professional Moonlighters. These are people in full time roles, looking to leverage their skills post regular working hours! One such example is Uday Lakkar. He is a PE investor on weekdays and takes up assignments as faculty and consulting for new ventures on weekends. His motives for moonlighting are to expand his network and to challenge himself by learning about new areas. Of course, the other more established segments in the freelance community include young mothers/professionals with personal commitments and professionals pursuing specific interests such as music or writing.

So what’s attracting these new segments, professionals from mainstream functions, men and women alike, into the freelance marketplace? Besides function-specific advantages, the biggest motivation is the desire to have more control over one’s schedule and time. The need to be one’s own boss, the freedom to pick assignments, the flexibility to choose working hours as long as timelines are met and the opportunity to take on work that is more challenging and fulfilling, are strong levers driving more and more individuals towards this way of working.

On the other side, companies too are finding it lucrative to outsource assignments to specialists. They get an enviable mix of talent and skills, an individual or team committed to their project, at a cost far lower than what they would have paid, had they hired a large firm and with greater flexibility and often expertise that they would get from full-time hires. As Raghu Kolli, VP & Head of Innovation labs at IMRB says “We need specialists for some projects and freelancers are the obvious choice as they are agile, flexible and affordable”.

Also, with more and more unpredictability in business cycles, companies across many sectors are finding it advantageous to engage professionals on an as-needed basis when the demand for a particular skill or role is unusually high, rather than get weighed down with underleveraged employees on permanent rolls. In fact, for small enterprises and start-ups, getting independent contractors helps keep the running costs low, especially at a time when every penny counts. Money-Wizards, a start-up in the financial literacy space actively leverages freelancers as “ the cost of managing a part-timer is less …and it also helps us analyse the person’s potential which can open up possibilities in the future” according to Raghunath their VP, Business Development.

In fact this trend of hiring freelance, skilled professionals is catching on globally as well with organisations renting ‘MBA’s by the hour’ to access the same pool of talent as you would in a top tier consulting firm. [4]

It seems like a win-win situation for both organisations and freelancers. Though the picture is not fully rosy yet… at least for the freelancers. There is currently no organised industry body to take care of their unique needs. A constant source of worry for many is the need to build a pipeline of clients to keep future assignments coming. Then there’s the hassle of invoicing, taxation, maintaining book of accounts and other administrative and legal issues, which they wish could be taken care of. Sometimes organisations too treat them differently, leaving terms and monetary benefits unclear, which gets frustrating when it comes to light after the job is done.

Having said that, there is no doubt that independent working is here to stay - close to 70 percent of freelancers surveyed evinced high levels of satisfaction with their current line of work and more than 85 percent are optimistic about their future. These numbers are much higher than comparators we would see for professionals in full-time roles. Or as one freelancer puts it more simply, “I don’t think I have been happier…my productivity has increased manifold, the cash flows are great and I am enjoying my life more than ever before!”.

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[2] -
[3] - Results of Primary Survey conducted by

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Topics: Strategic HR, Life @ Work, #HRInsights

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