The future is freelance: Covid catalyses a shift in working

Remote working is here to stay, and new platforms are springing up to take advantage

Illustration: iStock

Illustration: iStock

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Last July, Irish media and advertising industry veterans Úna Herlihy and Peter McPartlin launched The Indie List. It’s an online talent management platform devoted to experienced freelances in the marketing communications and ecommerce sectors and was set up in response to the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on jobs in their industry.

The list started informally when Herlihy and McPartlin were approached by colleagues whose workflow had collapsed due to the pandemic. Herlihy felt they should try to help them to find work and began compiling a list of freelances and matching them with organisations that needed their skills.

However, the founders were unprepared for the speed with which the list grew legs. Within a few weeks it was clear there was an urgent need for a resource that showcased the talents not only of those in media and creative services, but also in marketing, digital transformation and ecommerce.

The Indie List now runs to more than 500 freelances and, so far, about 100 projects have been channelled through the platform. The biggest demand is for people with specific skills in tech, B2B, ecommerce, specialist writing, project management and consumer planning.

“Freelancing has been an integral way of working within the media and creative industries for many years and there has always been a large pool of independent talent here but no proper marketplace for them to get work, network and expand their skill set,” says McPartlin.

“Covid made setting one up even more of an imperative, and the market was ripe for a service that supports freelancers while providing businesses with a simple, fast and very cost-effective way of connecting with relevant expertise.

“It’s a bit of a misconception that freelancers are only hired by start-ups or smaller companies. Many big companies also use them. To date we have worked with major national brands including the National Lottery, 123.ie and Elverys, as well as most of the top communications agencies and a number of the large media publishers here.”

Good timing

Herlihy and McPartlin got their timing right. They also got their niche right, as the freelance market is growing exponentially due primarily to the adoption of digital infrastructure and their impact on the organisation of labour. Companies have recognised that agility is the name of the game and this has meant leveraging the strengths of a hybrid workforce to plug skill gaps and bring innovation and cutting-edge experience to the table.

The process has only accelerated in the past year as working from home has effectively levelled the playing field between employees and freelances. Once the job got done, where the person was and whether they were on the staff or not became less relevant.

In the US, where these things are carefully tracked, there was a 22 per cent rise in freelancing between 2019 and 2020, and more than a third of the American workforce has freelanced during the pandemic.

Remote working is here to stay, and this is expected to further boost the freelance pool as people act on their post-pandemic work-life priorities and companies look to cut overheads.

Furthermore, with all the signs pointing to a future made up of hybrid workforces focused on skills rather than tenure, growth in the freelance market is not expected to slow down any time soon.

 

Building the On-Demand Workforce is a joint research project between Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting. Its focus is the rise of digital talent platforms and how they are creating a new marketplace for highly skilled freelances. The flip side of the coin is how these platforms can be used by businesses to transform their talent model and business strategy.

“The right talent, in the right place, at the right time, is the equation for success in today’s world,” the report says. “In an era of technological change, demographic shifts, and economic uncertainty, companies can enhance their ability to compete by building a flexible work model.”

Talent in a hurry

The researchers found that freelances were being used across all functions but, more often than not, they were recruited because talent was needed in a hurry. So far very few organisations have taken an integrated approach to their use, and the authors say that’s the next step, as freelances represent both an avenue for growth and a potential new source of value.

“Companies that are early adopters of these platforms see a competitive advantage in shifting their workforce model to a blend of full-time and freelance employees, while, at the same time, millions of highly skilled professionals who seek flexible and remote work are using these platforms to connect with employers,” the report says.

And there’s the distinction. “Highly skilled” individuals engaging in professional B2B freelancing is not the same as the gig economy.

“We are definitely not part of the gig economy,” McPartlin says. “Our business is built on the promise of professional and unique talent that will deliver a commercial result and deserves to be rewarded fairly and on time. It is very different to workers being treated as a commodity.

“The Indie List occupies a particular space within the on-demand skills market,” he says. “There are the mega platforms out there with millions of freelances. We’re proving small can be beautiful, too, and our venture is driven by a social imperative to keep as many people as possible in work.

“Between 15 and 20 per cent of our base has found new work through us. The average for the large freelance platforms is 10 per cent at most.”

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