Technology has enabled an increasing number of people to take their careers into their own hands by freelancing. While freelancing in Australia is nothing new, in recent years it has truly surged, as more and more people seek to leave the restrictions of the workplace in favour of greater flexibility and autonomy. The word ‘freelance’ arose in the early 1800s to describe mercenary soldiers hiring out their lance (presumably with the soldier attached) to any master with the right coin. While the freelances of old were armed with long pointed sticks, today’s battalion of freelancing professionals come with a vast array of skills in their armoury. And every year, more employees are choosing to leave the traditional workforce behind to swell the ranks of these independent and highly skilled freelancers.
In 2016, the CSIRO published “Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce”, a massive report that explored a number of workplaces 'megatrends'. One if its many conclusions were that "there are strong reasons to believe the freelancer and portfolio worker will become a much more common model in tomorrow’s labour market." "In a future in which the peer-to-peer marketplace and platform economics enabled by digital technologies radically transform the structure of organisations and employment models. In this future, the majority of Australian workers might be freelancers or portfolio workers with many employers across the globe."
Freelancing by choice, not a necessity
In Australia, freelancers now make up more than a third of the workforce – and that’s not including the further 746,000 freelancing on top of the day job for a bit of extra cash on the side. So why are so many people giving up the security of a full-time position, four weeks paid leave, guaranteed super contributions and predictable cash flow for the potential uncertainty and risk of freelance life? The rise in freelancing is driven by a number of factors, but necessity isn’t necessarily one of them. Increasingly, the choice to go freelance is driven by a desire for greater autonomy and flexibility: no more rigid 9 to 5; no more yearning for choices about which projects to work on; more interesting and challenging work; more time with the kids; better lifestyle; better coffee! This rising freelance culture has both benefits and implications for business operational models as well. Many views working with freelancers as a way to keep the core business focused and lean while providing greater flexibility to source and collaborate with the most appropriate skill sets on any given project. However, while freelancing presents a major shift in how businesses acquire and employ the necessary skills to compete in an increasingly complex and fast-paced marketplace, it also presents a major shift to the balance of power as well.
You’re not the boss of me
For many freelancers, there comes a time when a particular client stops being pleasant to work with. Freelancers often talk about how liberating it can be to, in essence, ‘fire’ a client – refusing to accept more work from them. Sometimes, this can be as simple as a freelancer making themselves unavailable when future projects arise (or claiming to be), in which case a business may not always realise they’ve been 'blackballed'. At times, the reasons are obvious: slow invoice payments, unreasonable demands, disagreements related to the project. Yet a breakdown can also occur if a business wants to extract all of the HR and operational benefits of using freelancers while still enforcing certain employment conditions.
Remember, by choosing to go freelance, these workers most likely sacrificed a secure salary plus benefits because they valued certain other factors more highly: the ability to work remotely; flexible hours to balance work and family; greater autonomy; power to determine their own workflows, preferred tools and equipment; and so on. So, a freelancer is unlikely to work with a client that forces them to surrender the flexible work style they value or the productive autonomy they’ve achieved because the client doesn’t show the same flexibility. It’s all too common for businesses to make the mistake of painting their contingent and permanent workforces with the same brush. Efficiency is essential and sometimes requires flexibility. You have to ask yourself just how necessary it is to compromise their honed routines and workflows – and the very skills and expertise you want to harness – with layers of additional bureaucracy and admin because your internal processes weren’t designed with freelancing in mind.
The dynamic between client and freelancer is, by necessity, not the same as that between employer and employee – and that’s as it should be. Where the future challenge lies is for businesses to stop (unwittingly or otherwise) entangling freelancers back into the workplace structures they left behind and instead become better at managing and collaborating with a more distributed, more autonomous, more flexible and agile employee workforce.