The growth of high-skilled freelancing supports free agency advocates, who proclaim that it is attractive for knowledge workers such as consultants, with in-demand skills and enough experience, to work independently on short-term projects for clients. My last two articles have looked at why high-skilled IT consultants branch out as freelancers and the benefits they gain compared to regular employment.
However, freelancing can also be paradoxical according to the experiences of IT freelancersin the US. A career in freelancing is not without its challenges. For example, the picture of freelancers enjoying periods of downtime (or beach time), while being able to manage their time more flexibly, did not match the reality according to one study. Market forces and the nature of technical work meant freelancers placed more rather than fewer constraints on their time. A survey of IT freelancers in Germany indicated that their biggest challenges were finding the next project and maintaining work-life balance.
These examples led me to ask the freelancers I interviewed, what the most challenging aspects of managing an independent career were, and how they fit into the story of being a freelancer. At IT Optimiser we wanted to gain insights into the pain points, small or big, that freelancers experience. I have tried to include the stories, examples and insights they shared in the following four themes that came up frequently in our talks.
4 Challenges of Managing a Freelance Career
1) Administration & Business Development: There may be unforeseen expenses, there are administrative costs (time is a big one), updating skills is a must to stay ahead of the game and some feel they have less bargaining power.
2) Uncertainty: You never know when you may be out of a project, or waiting awhile for the next one. Having the ability to say no to a project does not mean that you do, and even when you take time off you might not feel free if a recruiter comes calling.
3) Social: Freelancing can be lonely and feel like being an outsider for some.
4) Project and Clients: Adjusting to new projects can be challenging even if exciting, and managing expectations when working with new agencies and clients can be tough.
Administration and Business Development. Running a one-man business has administrative issues that were the most frequently cited challenges. There were unforeseen expenses and business costs that were part and parcel of running a business. For example, the administrative hours they could not bill or the risk of not getting paid on time. Taking care of accounting, insurance and investments was frustrating for some, while others who were more experienced or business savvy did not see it as a problem.
Allocating time and money to update skills and/or certifications was another issue brought up by consultants, and was often accompanied by having to stay up to date on which skills to update and where. Moreover, a portion of the consultants mentioned having less bargaining power when negotiating benefits such as pension and insurance, although some freelancers were happy with the freedom to arrange these on their own.
The administrative challenges mentioned, together with the search for a first contract, were especially prominent when they started freelancing. In general, while there were perks of being a freelancer, it also meant giving up a lot of the perks from regular employment.
Uncertainty. Another frequently mentioned theme of managing a freelance career was uncertainty. The most common source of uncertainty was clearly over where and when the next project would be. Added to that was the uncertainty of being contracted out on unpredictable projects, that could be terminated without notice for any number of reasons. Examples were when it was difficult to get along with the team/management or if budgets were squeezed incidentally (an inherent risk of tactical or strategic IT projects).
Moreover, the uncertainty when they were not on a project meant that consultants reported less flexibility to choose projects than expected, while also exposing their work and personal lives to greater unpredictability. This had an impact on the increased autonomy that many of the participants reported as a drive. Almost half of the consultants described a feeling of never being truly off work. They needed to be available at least 8 hours a day when searching for a contract, or ready to pick up the phone and compete for fleeting contract opportunities. This supports other findings that a good number of freelancers don’t take advantage of more flexibility, even when they can. It is worth noting here, that building experience and reputation in their occupational circles may change things with time.
Social. Social challenges were noted as a potential side effect of achieving more autonomy too. Some consultants described being treated as an outsider at a client's premises every now and then, meaning it wasn't possible to escape poor company cultures entirely. Those who had such experiences talked about the vast differences between particular clients.
Loneliness, missing the social bond with full-time colleagues and not having a support base, were all issues that were emphasized as contributing to the feeling of being a hired gun.
As a type of supplier, freelance consultants seemed to exert more tact and had to distance themselves from discussing internal issues, even if employees would involve them, or if the issues would affect them directly.
Project and Clients. Issues with projects or clients was another reported challenge. Adjusting to new projects was challenging, and for some, it was the flipside of the desire to have more project variety. Some freelancers brought up mismatches in expectations and responsibilities once they started projects. Adjusting was extra difficult when internal processes did not support a smooth onboarding. Managing and communicating expectations (for example: the expected level of support), especially at the beginning of a project, was important and sometimes lacking.
A few consultants brought up the way employees reacted to their presence, which contributed to the outsider treatment mentioned earlier. A couple of them cited the potential issue of having to work for unreasonable clients, hiring managers or agencies.
If you read my last article you may wonder about the seeming conflicting accounts about the joys of freelancing vs. the challenges. How can more choice over work be an upside when freelancers also say that they have to take what they get? Of course, given the differences in individual experiences, freelancers might experience such paradoxes to a greater or lesser degree (if at all). Yet they were often observable in their individual stories. I have reflected on some of them below and the table of quotes at the end of this article contains some insightful examples.
Although many noted that the life of a freelancer was marred by uncertainty, a couple of them positioned themselves as being more secure than permanent employees in today’s market. Each project meant they gained experience that increased their human capital. Even though the majority spoke of earning more overall, a few also said that expenses and higher uncertainty made it tough to say whether they actually earned more in the end.
One consultant talked about having to work on tasks that permanent employees avoided or that put them out of their comfort zone, yet noted that they were also more challenged and had a steeper learning curve than when they were employed on a full-time basis. As explained earlier, some freelancers observed that the perception of more flexibility, in terms of time and projects (a reason for leaving full-time employment), did not always materialize during projects or when they were looking for work. Gaining independence being offset by feeling like an outsider, resonated with others too. Also, the flipside of achieving job variety and working on new or exciting projects was adjusting to new projects. I presume most freelancers can think of others that I may not have mentioned here.
Quotes from the consultants
The challenges cited by high-skilled freelancers seem to reason that one of the most important skills of being a freelancer is learning to balance or manage the linkage between upsides and downsides. Yes, most of the freelancers I talked to were satisfied with their career and would probably not go back to full-time employment. Yet they were clearly the more experienced ones, who had become experts in balancing the aspects of their freelance profession. For example, higher uncertainty was felt less by the experts who knew to create a buffer for rainy days. How freelancers deal with the precariousness of their situation has been observed and explained in different ways, but managing paradoxes is an evident one.
Want more insights like this? Follow IT Optimiser.
Klik her for at læse artiklen på LinkedIn.