How HR can Learn from the Freelancing Boom

by Chantal Haynes-Curley

The COVID pandemic has ushered a radical overhaul of work, and for a growing number of professionals, it has shifted attitudes toward the nature of employment. Faced with furlough or redundancy, many workers have turned to freelancing. For others becoming a ‘digital nomad’ is far more desirable than the masked up daily commute to a socially distanced office, or working from behind a Perspex screen – a legacy COVID is likely to leave with us for some time. The ‘traditional’ labour market for skilled professionals is dwindling, talent is increasingly hard to acquire and technological advancements have reshaped work expectations. The past year has proven that there is no singular way to work and traditional models of employment are just one way to do business.

The Human Cloud

The Fourth industrial revolution – the adoption of cyber-physical systems, has offered up a new type of employment to the masses. Traditionally when thinking of freelancers you would think of photographers or Journalists, today a plethora of skilled workers freelance across a range of professional occupations. The modern freelancer has risen from the increasing popularity of ‘Human cloud platforms’ which are absorbing talent from the traditional labour market.  According to staffing industry analysts total global revenue for human cloud platforms reached  $178.5 billion U.S. dollars, in 2020, an increase of more than 40 per cent from 2019. During the second quarter of 2021, there was a 42% increase in US-based SMEs contracting international freelancers.

The percentile of the Irish labour force working across the freelance economy is hard to assess, although recent studies suggest 9% of workers within the state are actively freelancing and this is continuing to expand while the traditional labour market for skilled workers contracts.  Freelancers no longer skirt along the periphery of the labour market, they are part of the ‘freelance economy’ that HR pros are tapping into to plug talent gaps. Many contemporary workforces now include a contingent segment, like PWC who have hosted their own online work service platform ‘ talent exchange’ since 2016.

Traditional employment

Over the past few decades, a ‘job for life has become an antiquated concept and we are progressively seeing past the dominant 9-5 office-based model of ‘traditional’ employment.  According to the recent  ‘Remote Working  National Survey’ 95% of employees wish to work remotely for some or all of the time.

Flexibility is tremendously important in the new world of work and for HR professionals it acts to support talent attraction and retention. According to Ernest Youngs, 2021 ‘Work Reimagined’ global employee survey 54% of employees would consider leaving their job post-COVID-19 pandemic if they are not afforded flexibility in where and when they work.  Despite this, some reluctant employers are regressing , uncomfortable with the idea of ‘allowing’ employees to work flexibly they are forcing staff back to the office.

HR Talent leaders can learn from the rise of freelancing and the pulling power of mimicking its flexibility. The focus needs to be firmly on work itself, not where it’s done and more employers need to be offering up flexible contracts, location and hours. Leading employers are already embracing the contingent labour force, according to the most recent World economic forums ‘Future of Work’ report, 43% of businesses surveyed are set to reduce their workforce due to technology integration, and 41% plan to expand their use of contractors for task-specialized work.

Freelancing and the Gender Gap

Countless studies have shown the burden of caregiving disproportionately falls to women, many of whom juggle work alongside primary caregiving responsibilities. For years HR has worked to promote equity within the workplace and increase female workforce representation, particularly at senior levels. Despite this, labour force participation for those who go on to become mothers continues to decline, figures from the central statistics office  show that 1 in 10 women in receipt of maternity benefit in 2018 did not return to paid employment the following year. It is evident that traditional employment has done little to facilitate working caregivers and employment legislation doesn’t offer the right to request flexible work in Ireland. Whereas freelancing is offering caregivers the opportunity to remain active in the workforce, by choosing when and how they work.

Employers who do not take stock of the rigidity of traditional employment are cutting off a valuable segment of the labour force. Furthermore, they are helping to keep alive a model of employment that discriminates against caregivers, and women who chose to take up caregiving roles.

The impact on HR Management

Offices are dematerialising into virtual spaces and technological advancements are liberating employees who see flexibility as a priority rather than a perk. The new world of work requires productivity, not presenteeism, keeping up with the breakneck speed of change and technologies is facilitated by focusing on the skills required to carry out the task at hand,  not obsessing over the location. Increasingly HR leaders are using freelancers and flexible working practices to stem the haemorrhaging of skilled labour. Remote work and/ or freelancing allows employers to cast their net out to the global workforce, the government understand this otherwise it would not have introduced the right to request remote working, attracting labour to the market in an attempt to plaster up critical skills gaps. Loyalty and commitment are elicited when offering autonomy and flexible work practices while building relationships with the contingent labour force arms employers with the skills needed to ramp up at pace.

For those HR professionals who are at risk of losing talent to the freelance economy, my advice would be to

  • Make jobs more fulfilling- by using technologies to factor in automation which can
  • Free up workloads -from mundane repetitive tasks to develops skill, increase engagement and job satisfaction.
  • Don’t cut off talent –ease your reliance on traditional employment, push for greater flexibility for employees
  • Consult – don’t expect to dictate what flexibility looks like.

About the author

Chantal is an experienced HR Professional, content creator and CIPD Qualified HR Business Partner. She has worked across a range of sectors to include Government, INGO, and professional bodies. Experienced in UK and Irish employment Law, her areas of expertise include Human capital strategy, Recruitment and selection, Organisational Culture, Wellbeing and Compliance.

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