Global markets retreated in the wake of mandatory shutdowns and stay-at-home orders intended to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), resulting in record layoffs and cuts to planned expansions across the board. It’s difficult to fully gauge the fallout, but the International Labour Organization estimates that the equivalent of 400 million jobs were lost worldwide during the second quarter of 2020 due to COVID-19. However, despite the grim employment outlook, there is a silver lining for those willing to seize the opportunity. As full-time staff positions dwindle, contract and freelance work is actually picking up steam. This includes highly technical roles, including software development, statistical analysis, and big data applications.
Companies still need work to get done and are beginning to get a better sense of what a remote, on-demand workforce can accomplish. If companies pay only for vital tasks as they’re needed and are able to choose from a wider range of geographically dispersed workers, they can better manage the bottom line.The key to survival in the workplace is to adapt. Whether you were already moving toward a more independent working situation or have been prompted by job loss due to COVID-19, it’s in your best interest to consider your options. We’ll look at these broader trends, how businesses are getting work done, and how you may best position yourself for new opportunities during this period of seismic change.
The Rise of the Freelancer…Accelerated
The increasing reliance on freelance workers is not a new trend. The Intuit 2020 Report, published in 2011, predicted that more than 40 percent of the U.S. workforce would-be freelancers, contractors, and temp workers by 2020. The Freelancing in America 2019 report by Upwork (which connects freelancers with businesses) and Freelancers Union estimates that 57 million U.S. workers freelanced in 2019, contributing roughly $1 trillion to America’s gross domestic product.
The COVID-19 crisis injected the global economy with a sense of urgency, however. Upwork CEO Hayden Brown told Fortune reporters that they’ve seen explosive growth in new freelancer registrations and business requests for workers since the COVID-19 crisis began. Even though economic activity has stalled, she attributes this increase to specific, project-related needs and greater confidence in the effectiveness of remote, temporary workers.
Businesses that already were gradually moving toward a leaner workforce have accelerated their efforts due to necessity. Companies that may have been resistant to remote work or using contractors on a project-by-project basis discovered that their workers were just as effective working from home as they were in the office, give or take a few diaper changes or other home-related tasks during quarantine.
The Upwork report estimates that 45 percent of hiring managers expect a hiring freeze for the foreseeable future and 39 percent expect continued layoffs throughout the crisis. However, 73 percent of hiring managers surveyed in the report plan on maintaining or increasing their hiring of independent, project-based freelance workers and roughly half say that COVID-19 has made them more likely to use freelancers in general.
Freelancers and Contractors, Beyond COVID-19
These trends toward a leaner, project-based workforce are expected to continue beyond the current crisis, driven by the larger digital transformation movement and the maturation of online services that match businesses with available professionals. But while COVID-19 has motivated businesses that otherwise wouldn’t have considered using outside help, many experts believe most businesses will consider it a success and continue to use more freelance help in the future.
There are many reasons for this long term outlook, including:
As online platforms such as Upwork, Freelancer, Guru, and Toptal have become more sophisticated, it’s easier than ever for businesses to find the right person for a particular project. This includes software developers and other highly technical professionals in addition to writers, designers, and other staples of the freelance community.
When they’re not paying for long-term employment (including benefits and payroll taxes) or office space, companies can save a lot of money by focusing on project-specific, short-term hires. This is especially suitable for companies that expect a certain ebb and flow with their projects.
Successful freelancers are agile by definition, especially if they simultaneously work for multiple clients or take on short-term roles with limited ramp-up times. They may be better at getting started and turning on a dime than in-house employees, although businesses also need to value the institutional knowledge and expertise that comes with long-term employment.
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