It used to be that freelancers had to fight to be taken seriously, with their search for projects beginning with the question, “How can I, as a freelancer, get a leading company to hire me?” Yet as industries become increasingly competitive, and as the internet has given freelancers a platform to showcase their talents, it’s the organisations who are now asking themselves, “How can we, as a leading company, attract and retain the best talent?”
This growing interest in utilising freelance talent within traditional organisations could be the key to increasing workforce diversity if companies can overcome their ingrained cultural obstacles and embrace working with online platforms.
That ‘Work-Life Balance’
Let’s rewind. It’s circa 2009 and we’re all familiar with the notion of ‘consulting’ or ‘freelancing,’ yet the disbelief that employees would actually opt to leave secure and well-paid jobs for the risk associated with freelance work is enough to provide corporate companies with the security of staff retention. But fast-forward back to our current times and things have changed. Since 2009, the freelance economy in the UK has grown by 25% and generates an estimated £109 billion each year.
These days, when people think of freelancers they think of millennials. Millennials get a bad rap, often cited as demanding and fickle, but they’re also incredibly productive and flexible. Companies are feeling the pressure to shake up their operations and adjust their workplaces in order to accommodate millennials, who typically aren’t loyal and generally distrust corporate company values.
However, freelancing is not something that’s exclusively reserved for the younger generation—the independent workforce represents people from all walks of life. Many have pursued the freelance lifestyle for years in order to achieve a better work-life balance. And many have even made a living from writing about being a freelancer, inspiring people ‘just like them’ to take the plunge.
The benefits of freelancing are widely discussed online, ranging from flexible working hours to ‘being your own boss’. The gig economy offers the perfect opportunity for those who have some sort of special circumstances to take the brave leap into freelancing, to make their career work in harmony with their personal life.
When people detail their freelance journey, they typically write about how they had been climbing the corporate ladder—comfortable but bored—until something life-changing happened to them, like a new baby or sudden health issues such as unexplainable crippling panic attacks.
One such writer, Sarah Knight, author of ‘Get Your Sh*t Together‘ had her first panic attack at 31. She took this as a sign that it was time to jump off the corporate ladder and pursue her dream of being a freelancer, even moving from NYC to the Caribbean while she was at it. “The day I walked out of my high-rise office building, I eliminated a whole category of things on which I had previously wasted time and energy: supervisors, co-workers, my commute, my wardrobe, my alarm clock.”
Others report that their freelance journey was born out of being forced into the situation. “Having no choice is a wonderful motivator, and looking back, I think the only way I actually made it was by never looking down,” says Lorraine Sommerfield, who went freelance at 40 as a divorced single mother.
But contrary to what you’d expect, the gig economy can actually work alongside personal challenges to improve a person’s wellbeing and standard of living. It can provide genuine job security: as freelancers have the freedom to pick and choose their clients, they rarely have to worry about their job being in jeopardy. They have more control over their schedules, allowing them to spend more time with their children, and even work from home to save on childcare costs. And it’s an opportunity to switch careers and follow your dreams: Even without a lot of experience, an online portfolio makes it easier to overcome the often tough barrier for entry in a traditional work setting.
The same goes for other invisible barriers that exist for those who represent diversity in the workplace, as pop-culture freelance writer Tatiana Tenreyro can attest. “When you’re a marginalised person, whether it’s being a PoC, a woman/non-binary/trans, etc., your opportunities are limited.”
In this way, the gig economy actually provides an opportunity to increase diversity in a company, since it allows people to work with some anonymity. It’s more difficult to judge based on appearances, social status, or gender if the conversations, briefs, and work itself are purely digital.
Breaking Down Barriers
Industries from healthcare to advertising wax lyrical about welcoming diversification in their workplaces, but due to some organisations’ internal culture, achieving inclusivity might not always be as easy as it sounds. Many companies also find themselves under fire for hiring freelancers, accused of taking advantage of them in order to cut costs. There are concerns that hiring freelancers reduces the opportunity for internal workers to prove their worth or develop into a new role within the company. All that matters is the bottom line: profit.
Yet companies still need an edge over the competition in order to be profitable, and hiring the best talent is a good place to start. Finding the cream of the crop means reaching that potential no matter who and where it is around the world.
Online platforms provide a unique space where the most skilful talent from around the globe can connect with organisations who require their specific skills. And when it comes to diversifying a workforce, through anonymity, online platforms remove barriers that companies may have previously had difficulty overcoming. Irrespective of age, race, location, gender, marital status or physical ability, it’s individual talent that sits front and centre. It allows organisations to both change their culture and attracts the best talent—an essential for staying competitive.
“Diversity and inclusion is not an HR strategy; it is a business strategy,” says Josh Bersin of Bersin & Associates. “Research also shows that teams that operate in an inclusive culture outperform their peers by a staggering 80%.”
Hiring freelancers from diverse backgrounds allow companies to address this change, modernise their values, attract the best talent, and improve results because the platform economy is more representative of a global network of skills and international perspectives.
The creative industries understood the concept of freelancers as an imperative cog in the creative machine, drawing on opportunities such talent presents to position themselves as unique and competitive. Online platforms have taken this concept beyond the creative sphere and opened it up as a model to the rest of the world, making it easier for freelancers to find interesting work, and making talented creatives more accessible to clients.
Despite this new wave of creative diversity, there are still obstacles to overcome, particularly when it comes to knocking down the barriers of outmoded company culture. The 9-to-5 way of working is so deeply entrenched in many companies’ cultures that, despite the wealth of talent available at the click of a button, the concerns surrounding time zones, physical presence, timed lunch breaks, and long meetings are still a barrier.
There is obviously lucrative work in the gig economy that can challenge a rigid corporate structure. Diversity in the workplace is only to be truly welcomed if organisations are open to adopting new ways of working, flexible working hours, and different time zones into the ordinary working day. The benefits of this emerging global workforce allow for attracting niche talent who have a good work-life balance that allows them to work in a way that’s best suited to their varying needs.