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The Freedom of Freelancing: Why Businesses Shouldn’t Fight the Rise of Independent Careers

The professional status quo has been well and truly disrupted. In particular, the pandemic gave the global working population a chance to re-evaluate their values. Whether greater autonomy, a complete change in direction, or more flexibility, many realised what they want from a career. We are seeing the result of this mindset shift via the so-called Great Resignation, and employers have felt the brunt.

Despite an unprecedented level of job vacancies outpacing the UK’s unemployment rate, businesses are struggling to find the staff they need to drive recovery and growth. So where are all these talented people going?

In a context that has recently suited the employee, and following a pandemic-driven period of recalibration, many have considered alternatives to the traditional working model. This is most prominently manifesting itself via a rise in freelancing, as people seek decentralised and independent roles that allow them to retain the flexibility of the last two years.

The nascent freelance economy

What have professionals learned over the last two years? Across different industries, many have realised they can work for multiple clients while getting paid more than via traditional employment models and having control over how, where and when they want. This is in large part down to the rise of remote working models and increased corporate flexibility.

Research shows that 34% of UK freelancers began their work at the beginning of March, just as the pandemic restrictions began. For many, this may not have been a voluntary decision, but it prompted the start of a movement away from non-traditional working models. As the economy picked up again, the ability to balance professional and personal priorities through more flexible working increased the appeal of freelancing. Now, they aren’t going back.

A recent study found that a third of businesses with fewer than 10 employees now operate as side hustles (this compares to 20.8% in March 2020). And as the UK economy faces the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, it is likely that the appetite for freelance careers will continue to grow, often to supplement full-time work. We’re seeing similar trends elsewhere too, with over 80% of full-time employees in the US actively considering a freelance career. It’s clear that the drive towards independent careers has never been stronger.

Attracting skilled freelance talent

This trend shows no sign of abating. In fact, a key feature of the post-pandemic working landscape has been the evolution of this trend beyond ‘side hustles’ to include the migration of highly skilled workers towards freelancing. As if the labour market wasn’t challenging enough for businesses, the competition for skilled employees is now extending into the freelance field. The emerging freelance platform industry is evidence of this – expected to grow by 15.3% by 2026 – as businesses look for more structured approaches to freelance engagement. This is evolving further into the concept of the private talent cloud – communities of specialist freelancers available for deployment.

It’s the start of businesses having to start thinking more strategically about how they access talent to build the teams they need to grow. For example, we are starting to see companies court freelancers by offering tailored benefits and perks packages that would normally be reserved for permanent roles. Furthermore, establishing more structured career development options – the absence of which has long been a drawback to freelance life – allows temporary staff to learn new skills that further benefit the company. For example, offering opportunities to include freelancers in training courses can foster loyalty and productivity. The battle for talent is shifting to the freelance arena – and businesses are doing what they can to win.

Integrating freelancers into the workforce

This all sounds like a great model for independent workers, but the freedom that is synonymous with freelancing is good for businesses too. Increasingly, we are seeing them engage the services of highly skilled freelancers on-demand. In a turbulent economic environment, this allows them to scale an ‘elastic’ workforce up and down depending on immediate requirements. The growing talent clouds are not only testament to the appetite for freelancing, but from businesses to engage with them.

That’s why a more co-ordinated approach to freelancing is required. Economic uncertainty and a highly skilled talent flocking towards independent careers, businesses must put the processes in place to integrate freelancers more meaningfully into the workforce. If businesses using on-demand staff cite better productivity, efficiency and lower costs, it’s also incumbent on them to treat them as valued staff rather than a dispensable overhead.

As the momentum behind freelancing continues to gather pace, businesses that understand the drivers behind independent careers and effectively engage with a hugely valuable skills pool will reap the rewards.

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