The workplace is not what it used to be. And as it eases into a post-pandemic new normal, one change that took hold before COVID-19 is likely to continue: companies hiring freelancers and independent contractors to save money.
A study conducted by Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group from November 2019 to January 2020 found that 60 percent of the 700-plus US business leaders surveyed would prefer to “rent, borrow, or share talent” with other companies, and 60 percent anticipate a core workforce with fewer full-time staff.
With the pandemic underscoring the relative ease of remote work, it’s likely that some companies may decide to hire freelancers who can log on from anywhere.
And while many may associate freelancing with ride-hailing and food-delivery jobs with businesses like Grubhub and Uber, it’s becoming more common in white-collar areas like IT, digital marketing, and user-experience design as companies look to build out websites and security systems, said Nithya Vaduganathan, an author of the Harvard study and a managing director and partner at Boston Consulting.
“It’s really hard for a company that can’t pay top dollar, isn’t in a location where talent congregates, [or] is not an industry that enjoys a buzz factor to get this type of talent, and the supply is short,” said Joseph B. Fuller, another author of the study and a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.
Using freelancers enables businesses, especially small companies, to hire expensive talent part time and keep costs low.
These independent contractors might offer non-industry-specific skills like coding and marketing. A user-experience designer, for example, could help a technology giant with an app for six months and then work with a department store to revamp its website.
While freelance work has its perks for employers, it also offers flexibility and autonomy to workers, including control over when they work, how, and on what projects, Vaduganathan said.
And over time, experienced freelancers earn similar pay working fewer jobs, said Phillip Lewis, senior vice president at Aquent, a Boston staffing agency with over 500,000 available workers in its pool — many looking for short-term positions. Freelancers can also get experience at multiple companies, he said.
A recent study from the freelancing website Fiverr found that 80 percent of the skilled contractors surveyed said they expected to earn the same or more in 2021 as in 2020.
But there is a downside for freelancers: no benefits. No health insurance, sick time, vacations, or retirement benefits, either.
David Coppins, cofounder and CEO of IntelyCare, a staffing company that matches nursing professionals with nursing and assisted-living facilities, grappled with whether to hire workers as independent contractors. He opted not to, a move he said shows loyalty to his staff.
Companies that can make money only with independent contractors have a “flawed” business model, he believes.
“Classifying workers as contractors is like saying, ‘Let me just use you for a period of time and then let you go,’ ” Coppins said.