Profiles & Interviews

Freelancing: Opportunities and challenges for all involved

Callum Adamson, CEO at tech startup Distributed, discusses the increasing number of freelance workers within the technology industry, and what this means for those on both sides of the hiring process

The employment composition of the technology industry is a changing face. High-skilled workers are no longer confining their careers to single companies and job titles, while firms within the sector are beginning to break down the shackles of monotone employment structures. “You are going to see a whole new industry, way of work and way of building careers emerge over the next five years,” says Callum Adamson, CEO at tech start-up Distributed.

As a firm that provides both “democratic access to talent and democratic access to opportunity” by linking high-skilled technology workers to companies across the world, Distributed straddles both sides of the ever-growing freelance hiring process.

According to a study conducted by Upwork, there has been a 30% year-on-year boom in the number of tech freelancers over the last four years. Adamson claims that if the rates continue on their 2016/17 trajectory, without even considering the impact of Covid-19, “there will be more freelancers in the tech industry than there are permanent employees” within two years. 

Adamson feels this shift in attitudes of what constitutes a “normal” working life to be symptomatic of a generation that is growing “more and more adaptive, on demand, composable, and agile”. Adding this change in worker dynamic to a climate where high-skilled workers are trimmed from core teams due to streamlining strategies, and the number of displaced and fluid employees looks only set to increase. 

“In any economic environment where the future looks shaky, uncertain, or unpredictable businesses will always look to move their fixed costs to variable costs,” Adamson says. “What that more often than not means is getting rid of headcount, reducing their permanent headcount down to a core team and using flexible staffing options to make up the difference where they either have spikes or additional customer requirements. 

”You may find that a lot of high skilled workers fall into that ‘not part of the core team’ section in the way that businesses think as they are reducing their permanent headcount and fixed overheads. What that means is actually there is a lot more opportunity for independent career professionals, but there are certainly risks ahead for high-skilled workers who are in one of the larger organisations that are looking to move their fixed costs to variable costs.” 

This drastic shift in the makeup of working teams brings a new set of challenges for managers and HR workers alike. In 2017, Upwork found that only 18% of baby boomer managers were likely to leverage freelancers to help fill skill gaps. While this number has almost undoubtedly increased, Adamson believes that many businesses remain a long way off achieving a full understanding of how to successfully implement and manage distributed staff, a strategy that has been highlighted as especially crucial during the pandemic. 

“Managing effective, happy, productive distributed teams is really hard,” Adamson says. “You can’t just take all the things you did in the office and move them onto a webcam and expect it to work in the same way. That’s the benefit remote-first organisations already have, they already know how to work this way and are seeing the benefits of it. But a lot of the larger organisations are going to have to learn this over the next ten years, because it involves a rebuilding from the core of the organisation.”

Meanwhile, HR professionals are having to contend with “many new considerations, from IR35 to cultural impact,” according to Adamson. “Every business is unique to some degree, the main challenges will be ensuring that the recruitment, qualification and retention of this flexible workforce is at the core of their new flexible workforce strategy.”

In order to keep up with the ever-changing dynamics, Adamson suggests that as a company, you need to focus on the team that is “defining the future of your business for your customers and for your own team members”. While this core team should consist of the staff members that are creating the IP, the assets, and your business’ unique selling point, this does not mean that high-skilled specialised workers should be ignored.

He adds: “You should be tapping into freelance and independent resources to assemble the right team for the right job at the right time to support that core team. You don’t need, can’t afford, and can’t access the talent that would enable you to build bigger and bigger and more specialised permanent teams. 

“You need to work more fluidly, focus on your core team and the future that they are creating for your customers, and tap into those independent resources on a flexible basis.”

Looking forward, Adamson says that the future of work is a “moving target”. However, he is clear in stating that, especially in the technology industry, employees will have “more independence and more control” over their careers. He adds that there will be “less worry about who you work for, your job title, or how many people you manage, and more about the value that you have created in the world”. 

Whether organisations will be able to efficiently adjust to this change, extracting the highest possible potential from a mixture of core and distributed teams, remains to be seen.

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