Last month I shared an article about some of the reasons high-skilled consultants choose to become freelancers. The consultants I spoke to were all IT (mainly SAP) consultants who were actively freelancing.
The purpose of this article is to compare the motivations, reported by seasoned freelancers, with expectations they may have had before starting. Other accounts of high-skilled freelancing have suggested that the reality does not always live up to the expectations, and so, I asked the same consultants what the main drives to remain a freelancer are. I will get to the challenges or risks of a career in freelancing, in my next article. As is the case in other findings, those I spoke with tended to use permanent employment as a reference point to compare their position with.
Some sources say that the rewards of freelancing outweigh the risks. A survey of over 700 Danish freelancers found that around 90% of them reported feeling greater job satisfaction as a freelancer than as a permanent employee (from some degree, to a very high degree). Some of the contributing factors were job variety, flexibility, and the ability to better utilize competencies.
Although the themes I found were fairly similar, I wanted to get deeper, more nuanced perspectives of the drives that sustain high-skilled freelance careers in the long term. The identification of freelancers is largely determined by skill level; in broad terms: low and high-skilled freelancers. There are differences in the experiences of these two groups, and some similarities.
After talking with the consultants, three broad categories emerged as the most important drives, leading them to persist with freelancing. As I did in the last article, I have added excerpts in the consultants’ own words further down.
3 Drives to Continue Freelancing
- Professional Rewards – job variety, expertise, skills, network
- Financial Incentive – pay reflects value, flexibility, bargaining power
- Increased Autonomy – Choice of work, avoiding bureaucracy, control over decisions and time
Professional Rewards. The first main drive comprised the professional rewards, unique to the experience of high-skilled freelancers, that captured the different aspects of job satisfaction.
Working for innovative or interesting clients with a good reputation was described as a key drive in the accounts of some freelancers. A portion of the consultants spoke of increased job variety – in terms of working with cutting-edge technology, projects or novel industries – that echoed the expectations presented in the previous article.
Increased job variety also gave them access to a more comprehensive professional network – and the ability to connect and spar with a variety of experts – that grew with tenure as a freelancer.
Acquiring and applying new, relevant skills was another professional reward reported by the consultants. A few of them suggested that this led to greater job security than permanent employment, with time. Keeping skills up-to-date seemed not only necessary, but also possible.
A portion of the freelancers talked about increased influence and expertise, in terms of building a reputation in their occupation or field and having their professional opinion on project matters valued more, among clients and peers. The consultants noted that their advice and skills became highly sought-after commodities, once they had a number of high-profile projects on their CV.
Financial Incentive. The second main drive was the financial incentive to keep freelancing. Freelancers – especially those with experience, and specialised skills – were to some extent able to negotiate a higher rate for their work.
The consultants were also happy to be freed from unclear bonus schemes, and 60-70-hour work weeks without seeing fair compensation. A sense of getting paid for work done and doing well during demand peaks, were indicators of the financial incentive to continue freelancing. Even the consultants who had only just begun freelancing, reported more lucrative earnings. The level of earnings was still contingent on factors such as, experience, skill scarcity and others – factors that would normally be used to evaluate the match between freelancer and project.
The financial incentive was also that good times allowed them to create a buffer for bad times and that an increase in periodic earnings enabled them to make space for some days a week (or months a year) where they would work on other things – contributing to increased autonomy.
Increased Autonomy. Increased autonomy was the third main drive frequently mentioned. The majority felt happy with being able to escape internal bureaucracy and tripe – a reason for them to leave permanent employment in the first place. Although it was not always possible to avoid workplace conflict, the general sentiment was that they were able to maintain a distance from it. More autonomy also implied an ability to work more efficiently, without too much organisational red tape, though this was dependent on the client to an extent.
More choice over work was a notable indicator of increased autonomy. The consultants said how they were free to decline projects (to some extent) based on preferences, stay open to offers if they were discontent in their present contract, and negotiate better terms by exploiting alternatives.
They were also motivated by the ability to control their time more, whether that entailed how they allotted time to individual projects, or when and how often they were booked. Control over decisions was described as an indicator of increased autonomy too. Not just in terms of project work, but also which courses to take, which computer to buy, how to set up their business, pension, insurance, etc.
Increased autonomy was complemented by the two main drives mentioned previously. For example, earning more allowed participants to create buffers that they could plan their time and work around. Gaining influence and expertise or acquiring new skills gave them more freedom to choose work and exploit alternatives.
Quotes from the Consultants
The drives reported by high-skilled freelancers seem to reflect the expected gains, and relieve the discontentments of permanent employment, to some extent. The consultants spoke of professional rewards that increase with experience, such as job variety, expertise and novel skills. There was also a financial incentive to keep freelancing for the majority I spoke to. Skills in specific technologies such as the SAP suite are highly specialized and thus, well-compensated by clients who have short-term specialist requirements. Finally, increased autonomy was demonstrated in numerous ways and contributed to job satisfaction, confirming the proposals made by others. In spite of however rewarding the benefits were, they often came with challenges that made managing a freelance career paradoxical in nature. These challenges are the themes I will discuss in my next article.
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