The Future of Freelancing: Five Things Managers Can Do  

There’s a seismic shift underway in the workplace, and if this “future of work” trend hasn’t affected you yet, it will.

It’s the current fluctuation from full-time employment to freelancing. In fact, the “Freelancing in America: 2017” research from Upwork and Freelancers Union found that more than 57 million Americans are freelancing today, representing 36 percent of the U.S. workforce and contributing about $1.4 trillion annually to the economy, an increase of close to 30 percent since last year.

If this trajectory continues, the report estimates that the majority of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers in the next decade. And it’s not entirely out of necessity: 63 percent said they freelance by choice, an increase of 10 percent since 2014.

Millennials Make Up Almost Half of the Freelance Workplace

Driving the acceleration? Millennials, almost half of whom freelance. And make no mistake: These workers aren’t just part of the “gig economy,” selling crafts on Etsy or driving after hours for Lyft. Almost 30 percent of today’s freelancers are full-time, up from 17 percent in 2014.

I see several factors contributing to the trend of an ever-larger proportion of the working population freelancing by choice:

  • Freelancing has become more accepted and respected as a career in its own right
  • Challenging, meaningful assignments have become increasingly prevalent
  • Health insurance has been decoupled from full-time employment
  • It offers a sense of flexibility, entrepreneurship and creating your own destiny without actually starting your own company.

When people are making career decisions in the future, I believe they will increasingly mix and match the experiences of working for a company and working for themselves, moving in and out of the full-time workforce.

That means company leaders are realizing that their competition for talent is not just from other companies, but from the opportunity workers have to be their own bosses.

Five Things Employers Can Do To Ensure A Job Is As Attractive As Freelancing

1. Provide variety in the work you offer.

Today’s workers crave customization in their work paths, what Deloitte calls the “lattice,” rather than the “ladder.” So it’s not surprising that 78 percent of respondents say they freelance because it allows them to choose their own projects.

Employers can inject options into the workplace by encouraging workers to “job hop” within their firm, perhaps through rotational assignments or cross training, to help keep the work — and challenges — fresh.  

2. Focus on career development.

It’s vital to offer a robust menu of professional development opportunities, which millennials routinely say is their preferred workplace benefit. Interestingly, that’s something that freelancers prioritize as well. The research found that more than half of freelancers had updated their skills in the last six months, while fewer than a third of non-freelancers did.

3. Respect work-life balance.

According to the research, 81 percent of full-time freelancers cite schedule flexibility as a top reason for freelancing. Most workers today prefer not to be chained to “work” hours, but it’s not because they are working less; it’s because they are working differently. They might happily work late into the night when completing a big project, but then they’ll want to subsequently sleep in or take a leisurely walk with their dog on a sunny afternoon.

4. Make your workspace as appealing as their home or favorite coffee shop.

It’s hard to compete with the concept of zero commute and working in yoga clothes: More than three-quarters of freelancers like that they can work from the location of their choosing. While you probably can’t move your office, there are ways to combat the stereotype of the office as someplace where workers toil away in uncomfortable clothes in a monolithic cube farm.

Dress code is one easy area to attack: While many client-facing businesses need to demonstrate a professional demeanor, businesses of all types — even ultra-traditional banking firms — are relaxing the dress code when possible. Consider working with your staff to determine what events or activities warrant business attire, and when they can wear more relaxed garb.

It’s also worth noting what employers can do to make their physical office space more inviting. A recent  Work Environment Survey from Capital One identified natural light — yep, plain old sunshine — as  the top design element favored by employees. (Snacks help, too.)

5. If you do hire freelancers, remember that they get to choose whom they work for.

While there are more freelancers today, there is also more freelance work available as companies see hiring contractors as a savvy way to get the exact skill sets they need on demand. That means that increasingly managers are vying for the same prime talent pool, and high-quality freelancers can be choosy about which projects they’ll take on.

Just like they might have left the workplace because of a bad boss, you can bet that they will only work with clients who respect their work, their schedule and their compensation needs. So, if you want access to the best freelance talent, make sure you are the kind of “boss” they want to work for.

Of course, there is a dark side to this trend that I want to acknowledge, particularly among companies that are eliminating high-paying jobs under the guise of “outsourcing” as a cost-cutting measure. A Wall Street Journal article this fall, for example, took a deep dive into the lives of workers who have found their contractor status has turned them into “second-class office workers,” without the respect and rights of full-time employees.

But the vast majority of today’s workers are designing their own career path by choice and deciding whom they want to work with. How will your organization respond?

Has your company seen a shift in your use of freelancers? Have you made changes to try to keep your full-time employees satisfied? I’d love to hear what’s working! Please share on Twitter or in the comments below.

Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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