The State of Independents
How Covid and the talent economy are reshaping the world of work
The pandemic has been a catalyst for people everywhere to re-evaluate their priorities – and their careers. Now, as the Great Resignation gives way to the Great Reshuffle, the demand for better work-life balance and more fulfilling roles grows.
According to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index, 43% of employees are considering changing jobs in the coming year (up from 41% in 2021). However rather than simply changing employers, many are opting to work for themselves and embracing the flexibility of freelance work. Upwork’s annual Freelance Forward survey shows that the number of freelancers in the US rose from 57 million in 2019 to 59 million in 2020 and remained steady in 2021, despite the pressures of Covid-19.
The popular conception of the ‘gig economy’ is that it is made up predominantly of rideshare drivers, delivery people, office temps and similar. But according to the Upwork Survey there is a rise in highly skilled and educated people, and we increasingly see management consultants, lawyers, and IT professional turning to freelancing and the benefits of self-employment.
And it’s not just a trend in the U.S., the number of independent professionals rose 4.7% year on year to 19.2 million in the EU in 2021, according to Statista. And a study conducted by Source Global Research found that 20% of all management consulting work in the U.K. is carried out by independent consultants.
It’s clear that alongside the gig economy, there is an important and growing ‘talent economy’ of highly skilled professionals choosing a different way to manage their careers.
The acceleration in digitilization and connectivity are major enablers in the growth of the talent economy. The Covid-19 pandemic and the explosion in remote working has further demonstrated the viability of alternatives to traditional ways of working, and has set the platform for future growth in the sector. It’s shown people that they no longer need to be chained to an office or an employer, as the ‘Great Resignation’ demonstrates. But there’s also no doubt that Covid-19 accelerated a trend that was already having a major impact on the world of work.
The case for independence
What’s behind the growth of this talent economy? One reason is that there’s plenty of work to go round.
Let’s consider what’s behind the growth of this talent economy. Well for one, there’s plenty of work to go around. The global consulting market is expected to grow from US$891.88 billion in 2021 to US$973.67 billion in 2022, and reach US$1,320.94 in 2026, at a compound annual growth rate of 7.9%, according to the Business Research Company.
In addition, one survey reports the percentage of consulting work undertaken by independent professionals is on the up, with 40% of UK companies who use consultants reporting using a 50:50 split of traditional management consulting firms and independent consultants. For professionals considering making the switch, numbers like these provide a level of reassurance.
Another reason is that it’s never been easier. Technology platforms have enabled the shift. The effectiveness of remote working is no longer an issue, and businesses are much more open to work in this way than ever before. And for both independent professionals and the businesses that engage them, there are many benefits.
It's good for business
The rise of independent professionals provides businesses with greater access to the best people and skills for the job.
Traditional management consulting firms have a large pool of employees that they need to keep busy on billable work. Sometimes, project teams are chosen with that need in mind, rather than assembling the right skills and expertise for the project.
Independent professionals also tend to offer businesses greater flexibility, diversity, and breadth of experience compared with larger consulting firms. Pyramid structures often mean projects are staffed by relatively junior consultants with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
It’s good for professionals
Taking the leap from a full-time employee to an independent professional can be daunting. But for most, making the switch has paid dividends.
A recent global survey of independent professionals by the University of Toronto found that the majority were extremely satisfied with their independent careers – despite the study being undertaken in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and all the uncertainty it created for freelancers.
The main reasons for participants gave for these high levels of career satisfaction were:
Flexibility and quality of life
As an industry, consulting and other professional services sectors have a reputation for long hours, demanding timelines, and high levels of stress. Working independently provides greater flexibility and better work-life balance which can mean more time to devote to family and other interests outside of work.
"I became independent because I wanted more flexibility in my role. I have two daughters and I wanted to be at home more often, with the ability to scale up and scale down. Independent consulting has been the perfect opportunity to be where I need to be.”"
Employees in larger firms are often constrained to working on similar projects for similar clients, depending on the needs of the business. It can be easy to become typecast as a result. Independent professionals are typically exposed to a much wider variety of potential clients, sectors, and environments.
Building interesting expertise
As an employee, you’re mostly told what you’ll work on based on the needs of the business. As an independent professional, you’ll have much greater choice about the projects you work on and your career direction – whether that’s building your expertise in a specific niche, or growing your capabilities through exposure to a range of different projects and experiences.
One of the frustrations for many consultants is the bureaucracy and office politics that comes with larger firms. As an independent professional you can largely avoid that. Your sole focus is on achieving a successful outcome for your client and the project you’re working on. You are judged on the work that you do and on the results you deliver – nothing else. Many independent professionals also report working on more interesting and rewarding projects than in their previous salaried roles.
"I work on projects that really make an impact. It’s great to be able to really help the clients on projects which matter to them."
These, and other factors, have helped build the acceptance of independent consulting as a viable career option. In a 2018 survey of Independent Professionals by the Harvard Business School and Eden McCallum, 68% of respondents planned to remain independent for more than three years – up from only 32% when the survey was first conducted in 2002.
Is it right for you?
While it has considerable benefits, life as an independent professional is not for everyone. The downsides to consider when making your decision are:
- Isolation – It can be lonely at times, with less connection with colleagues and co-workers. You can also find yourself continuously having to build new relationships as you move from one project and client to the next.
- Income anxiety – While independent consultants can earn more than they did as employees (sometimes considerably more), not everyone will. Going from a guaranteed income to a contingent income can be unsettling, especially if you are the main breadwinner for your family.
- Lack of support – Larger firms have a range of people and resources you can call on to help solve problems or resolve issues. As an independent professional, you need to build those networks yourself. Success is also very much down to your skills and performance – there’s no global brand to fall back on or to provide marketing muscle.
As an independent professional you might need to adapt to working in a different, more hands-on way. While top tier consulting firms tend to focus more on strategy than execution, clients tend to expect independent professionals to roll up their sleeves to help ensure successful implementation.
There is, however, a way to mitigate these issues. You could consider aligning yourself with a partner firm. Take for example, the Genioo business model. We build a pool of independent experts to offer clients flexible access to the very best talent for specific projects. For independent professionals, this eases the burden of finding work, reduces administrative overheads, and offers the benefits and ‘connectedness’ of being part of a team. You can also tap into Genioo’s wider resources and expertise to help solve specific project issues and build your own knowledge and skills.
Making the switch to independent consulting is a big decision, so it’s important to do your research first. Talk to others who have made the transition, learn from their experience, and be clear about the pros and cons for you and your family. Talk to potential partners and sources of work to get the measure of the market and the demand for your particular skills and expertise.
It’s also a good idea to build a support network, both to help keep you motivated and to provide a pipeline of potential work. In our experience, to become a successful independent professional you should typically:
- Build a ‘core’ base of one or two direct clients who are familiar with your work and can provide a certain base income.
- Align yourself with a partner outside of your core base. For example, if you are a consultant with Life Sciences experience, Genioo could be a strong partner, providing you with access to interesting Pharma and Biotech projects.
- Establish a close network of other independent professionals to exchange ideas, act as a sounding board, and even create joint project opportunities. They can also provide a strong social network to mitigate the isolation independent professionals sometimes experience.
At Genioo, we’re always happy to talk to people with Life Science backgrounds about what it means to work with us as an independent professional, and some of the things you will need to think about to help you make your decision.