In early 2016, I left my job at a well-known Chicago tech company to forge my way as a freelancer. There were many reasons for the move; the most important being I wanted to explore a different career path as a writer and editor and needed to develop a portfolio of work. During the months since I made the somewhat, possibly crazy decision, I've learned that freelancing is harder than I thought, especially when combined with a career change.
Between freedom and feedback
In spite of some uphill battles I enjoy working with a variety of different companies and love my new vocation. I like the challenge of seeking work that both pays the bills and provides a sense of accomplishment and growth; a sometimes-magical combination when found. I'm also lucky, because unlike some people who are full-time freelancers, my position was a choice, not forced on me by corporate downsizing.
Since my first plunge into the growing freelance marketplace, I have also learned a thing or two about management. When I was an employee I took certain things for granted; feedback, career education, office culture, and in the best scenarios, someone to vouch for me when the occasion called. Now, I am an outsider looking in and find myself with a variety of work opportunities (sometimes juggling up to four or five different income streams) but lacking in solid feedback. It does not need to be this way. The growth of the freelance workforce demands we take a look at these relationships and consider ways to cultivate a system built on mutual respect and inclusiveness. Especially with the rise in the independent and remote workforce.
Rise of the freelancer
Welcome to the gig economy. As of September 2016, there were 14.6 million Americans who identified as self-employed. “Going gig” is neither restricted to the music industry nor a fleeting trend; the gig economy is a huge reality in today's job world.
“Going gig” is neither restricted to the music industry nor a fleeting trend; the gig economy is a huge reality in today's job world.
According to the National Career Development Association (NCDA), the gig economy, portfolio careers, on-demand labor, or any number of other monikers refer to work "where income is generated from a combination of part-time employment, temporary work, freelance assignments, entrepreneurial ventures and/or working full-time while pursuing other interests…"
The term “freelancer” often serves as a catchall term for any independent worker, but there are many varieties. The people who make up the flexible workforce are as varied as their talents. McKinsey's Global Institute recently completed a study on independent work choice and the gig economy and discovered there are four different types of workers. "While demographically diverse, independent workers largely fit into four segments (exhibit): free agents, who actively choose independent work and derive their primary income from it; casual earners, who use independent work for supplemental income and do so by choice; reluctants, who make their primary living from independent work but would prefer traditional jobs; and the financially strapped, who do supplemental independent work out of necessity.”
Here, the focus is on those who derive their full income from non-monogamous work—through multiple clients or jobs.
Work versus jobs in the gig economy
Diane Mulcahy is an adjunct lecturer at Babson College, where she teaches an MBA course she designed on the gig economy. She was talking about the “gig” long before it became a buzzword; her goal is to get her students to stop looking for a job. Sounds strange for a professor? Maybe. But Mulcahy says, “Instead of creating jobs, companies are increasingly disaggregating work from a job. There are fewer full-time journalist jobs available anymore, for instance, but there is plenty of freelance reporting work. Similarly, that former director of marketing job has now morphed into the work produced by a social media contractor, an outsourced PR agency, and a marketing strategy consultant. Where there once were jobs, in the gig economy there is now just work."
Diane Mulcahy was talking about the “gig” long before it became a buzzword; her goal is to get her students to stop looking for a job.
Directors, project managers, and executives know more than anyone that there is more than enough work to go around and often not enough employees to fill the gap. That's where freelancers come in.
In an article by the NCDA, a 2006 report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) predicted, "independent or contingent workers...and freelancers will make up close to 40 to 50 percent of our workforce by 2020." They were right. The current number of self-proclaimed freelancers is 34 percent, and it's growing. With a workforce rapidly shifting and more individuals trying to claim ownership over their work-life fit and career paths, managers are finding themselves presiding over a larger number of freelancers or agile talent.
Benefits of Working with Agile Talent
Once a freelancer, or free agent, signs a contract they become part of a team for the duration of a project or longer. Most often, a manager or director is responsible for doling out projects and ensuring the freelancer is brought into the fold as much as possible, without overstepping boundaries from contractor to full-time employee.
Steve Cadigan, former CHRO of LinkedIn, turned talent solution leader says, “I don't think most companies put a great deal of thought into how they treat contingent workers. . . "[Organizations] see [an independent contractor] as more of a stop-gap resource, or as someone who's just going to fill in for a small project." Companies should challenge themselves to think bigger picture and develop talent retainment strategies for freelancers. Especially because studies show that, “51 percent of global executives surveyed said their organizations plan to increase the use of flexible and independent workers in the next three to five years.”
Agile Talent Collaborative says companies increasingly rely on agile talent because of the enormous value they provide beyond what regular employees can contribute. One such example is challenging a company's previous thinking and assumptions with an outside perspective. This insight is crucial for businesses stuck in a creative or strategic rut. Sometimes a person who has not been in the trenches as long, or isn’t even part of a brand’s organization or industry, can lead teams towards exciting and potentially lucrative directions. Another benefit is leveraging the increased availability of expertise.
The Freelancer POV
Media outlets are no stranger to specialized freelancers; with newsrooms continuing to shrink, freelance journalists are taking their talents to multiple outlets. Kenji Fujishima is one such free agent—he’s a freelance film critic who has been featured in a range of culture publications and has a Twitter following of close to 5,000.
Fujishima worked at The Wall Street Journal as a news assistant for eight years. "When I was working at the Journal, there were times I thought about freelancing. And what it would take to make a freelance life viable." Sometimes he would even take on freelance film assignments on the side. Then, a little over a year ago, Fujishima was the victim of Journal layoffs and given a chance to go freelance full-time. Albeit not in the way he imagined.
Now, Fujishima works from home and during the average week writes up to five articles for publications such as Paste, Brooklyn Magazine, and The AV Club. More often than not, Fujishima is working with a section editor who also manages many other freelancers. He says his experiences working with editors varies by outlets. Some engage in a back-and-forth dialogue to help him craft his piece and give notes, while others receive his work and go silent. Fujishima says it's not unusual that he will send an article to an editor and have to chase people around to know when it is published. I sympathize with Fujishima.
As a freelancer, Fujishima says it's not unusual that he will send an article to an editor and have to chase people around to know when it is published.
One of the unexpected challenges of freelancing, Fujishima discovered, is his need to keep going long after the day is over. "I feel like I've discovered recently that I'm more of a workaholic than I've been prepared to admit." Fujishima tries to keep a nine-to-five work schedule, but often work bleeds into his evenings. While he loves what he does and knows that for a freelancer, even a great one, work can come and go. It's a hard balance to strike. Editors have deadlines which Fujishima respects, though he says, "I've heard from full-time staff writers….they have more of the luxury of time to craft certain pieces rather than freelancers who sometimes have to just get something out there."
Plenty of work if you want it
Editors know that freelancers need the money and need the work, which they are all too happy to give as they have plenty on their plate. It is a classic example of Diane Mulcahy’s lessons to her MBA students; there are fewer full-time journalist jobs but plenty of work to go around. Freelancers just need to be hungry enough to grab it.
While the possibility of working way over forty hours a week looms overhead, with little to no leadership feedback, Fujishima feels he cannot say no when a project comes his way. Freelancing gives him the opportunity to amass an extensive collection of clips and expose himself to different assignments. Fujishima is doing what he loves and wants to ride out the freelance life as long as possible, saying that for right now being a freelancer, even with its ups and down, is his best option.
Rachel Henry is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. She's a firm believer in having chocolate every day and is an avid reader of just about anything. Find her on LinkedIn.