During the past year I have been doing research for an agency placing IT freelance consultants on SAP® projects. Looking to better understand the freelancers that IT Optimiserworks with on a daily basis, while having the opportunity to observe how freelancing is influencing the market, has been a richly informing experience. Over the next few months I will share some of the insights I have gained with you.
Freelance consulting provides both clients and freelancers with a number of strategic and tactical benefits especially in dynamic, technology-intensive markets (e.g. the market for SAP® consulting services). For example, hiring freelance consultants mean clients can be more agile in responding to technological changes and project requirements, without worrying about increasing fixed labor costs. Also, workers for whom freelancing is a choice and not a necessity, report higher levels of satisfaction across numerous dimensions - even when controlling for country, education, income and age. Although the debate continues as to whether the freelance economy is reshaping the future of work permanently, there is general agreement that the number of freelancers in consulting and professional services is significantly increasing.
SAP® consultants, who work for some of the biggest global clients and consultancies, command good wages. One of the questions I investigated was why these highly-skilled consultants, who have relatively good employment terms, decide to branch out on their own and become freelancers. The consultants that I talked to spoke of three overall drives to begin freelancing, which were comparable to themes uncovered by others in similar settings. You can read my interpretation of these drives, and also see what the consultants said in their own words further down.
Discontent with Permanent Employment. A main reason in the consultants’ accounts of choosing to freelance was discontentment with permanent employment. Incompetent colleagues, employees or management was brought up by over half of those that I talked to. Examples of incompetence were leadership issues, pursuit of personal agendas, over-complex governance structures and micromanagement.
Just as frustrating were reports of inequitable compensation or discrepancies between work and pay that enhanced discontentment. Vague bonus schemes, long working hours and a general mismatch between recognition and effort, were examples of the issues which contributed to permanent employment losing its attraction.
A portion of consultants noted their desire to escape company tripe (the word “fnidder” was used to describe internal tripe by a few of the participants) and organizational politics. These consultants did not care much for getting caught up in workplace gossip and drama. Related to this was their frustration with company cultures that were plagued by rigidity, fear, or a tendency to look for scapegoats.
Expected Gains. Increased autonomy and taking control over their time and work were the most prominent of a number of expected gains that factored into the choice to begin freelancing.
Increased autonomy represented a desire to make more work-related and career decisions themselves, similar to the desire to escape company tripe, but more of an inherent need for autonomy. Consultants hoped that they would answer directly to clients without being subject to the whims of middle management. Control over their time and work was related to the desire for more autonomy, but specifically in terms of desiring to have a say in determining working hours and what projects they worked on. Some consultants wanted to work less to pursue other hobbies, while others wanted to allocate more or less hours depending on their project or situation. Being able to look for stimulating work at interesting companies was an important aspect of this drive.
Other expected gains were that they would earn more, secure more job variety (work on a variety of short-term projects) and fulfill entrepreneurial ambitions. Some expected gains were more common than others, and for a number of consultants, certain expected gains were more important than others.
Situational Circumstances. The consultants mentioned situational circumstances in their lives and careers that either made freelancing seem like a more viable option, or brought an opportunity to freelance across their path.
Random encounters with relevant individuals in the market (old colleagues, agents or clients) were a frequently mentioned door-opener to freelancing. Other circumstances were firm troubles or being let go. This last example would appear to make freelancing more of a necessity than a choice for the consultants I talked to, and for some that may have been the case. Although the majority talked about being out of a job as more of an opportunity to freelance.
A few consultants mentioned being offered an interesting or desirable project as an incentive to begin freelancing. This last indicator differs from job variety, which was more about the need for having a greater variety of projects.
Quotes from the Consultants
Free agent advocates have long suggested that bureaucratic employment’s promises (of e.g. loyalty in exchange for security) have begun to unravel, leading to changing worker perspectives and more self-determination over career paths. Although the consultants I talked to supported some of this assertion, the reasons they gave for becoming freelancers were more nuanced than merely seeking to escape permanent employment. I interpreted the nuances in their individual experiences to be a part of three main drives: Being discontent with permanent employment; Expecting gains from freelancing; and Encountering situations that made freelancing attractive or viable.
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