Going freelance amid coronavirus: why creatives make the leap despite covid

4 min
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It’s an age-old question but definitely one that is worth re-asking in the ‘new normal’ - what motivates people to go freelance?

Is it the pull of opportunity, the push of threat – or the result of necessity?

Well, we wanted to explore the issues that encourage creative industries workers to go freelance; to find out what influences their decision to become self-employed, and show what pushes them, pulls them and even puts them off, and notably in the current climate of covid-19, writes Liza Haskell, chief administrative officer at Tide.

Firstly, before we delve into the results of the 1,000 people survey we ran in February 2021 (right in the heart of lockdown three), let’s remind ourselves what FreelanceUK readers already know about the impact coronavirus has had on the freelance market.

The pandemic did not create a tidal wave of freelancers

Recessions usually create more freelancers and entrepreneurs. When jobs become scarce, more people look to self-employment as a way to continue earning. But so far, this surge in start-ups hasn’t happened during the coronavirus pandemic. The number of sole traders fell by 174,000 between April-June 2020 and July-September 2020.

This finding does not necessarily mean that now is a bad time to go freelance. To me, it just means it’s an interesting time to go freelance. When the news is so bleak, it can be difficult to see beyond the grim headlines and feel positive about the economic outlook, and even your own prospects.

Out of adversity…

But the truth is that opportunity exists in every situation, especially dark ones. Just ask Amazon and Airbnb – businesses which were founded in recessions!

Right now, as we tentatively emerge from the third national lockdown due to the pandemic, and as everybody’s systems to manage coronavirus mature, shrewd people are identifying opportunities to start something new.

The current conditions for freelancing

To those who want to strike out on their own but not necessarily build an empire, we acknowledge that the labour market is tempestuous. But depending on your sector, or skill, this can mean that more companies are in need of creative-minded freelancers who can quickly plug a skills need, or fill the gap of a furloughed employee.

Like the crises of the past, it remains the case in this pandemic that it is both quicker and cheaper for organisations to hire on a freelance basis than hire a full-time member of staff on a permanent basis. Oh, and yes there are fewer people entering self-employment, but that may simply mean you face less competition!

Motivations: what tempts creatives to go freelance?

Freedom. That seems to be the biggest factor tempting people into self-employment. If we consider that the top four motivations are all ultimately connected to a need for freedom, then it’s undeniable that most people leave traditional employment because they want to take control of their own lives.

Those top four motivations, according to our February survey, are

  • flexibility (44%),
  • independence (43%),
  • control of time and workload (37%), and;
  • work-life balance (26%).
  • ,

‘I want to break free’

This finding is noteworthy because self-employment is often seen as a way to pursue entrepreneurial ambitions, to bring an idea to life, or to bring a product to market. In reality, self-employment is often a choice we make to support a deep-rooted desire for freedom, autonomy, and self-direction.

So contrary to popular belief, it’s much less about business and much more about basic freedoms, and the desire we all have as humans to achieve a sense of autonomy.

Push factors

Another key driver for freelancers (albeit significantly behind ‘freedom’) is necessity. Our survey found examples of people choosing self-employment because of an urgent need, such as a bad work situation (18%), childcare challenges (7%), redundancy (4%), financial reasons (13%), and a lack of viable alternatives (5%).

These statistics are a good reminder that the journey to self-employment is not always a happy story about choosing something better. It can be a scramble to escape something negative, or to move on after losing a job. The good news is that, if this sounds reminiscent of your experience, you’re not alone.

Men and women

Both men and women are broadly motivated by the same factors: independence, control, flexibility, and work-life balance. But we did uncover one key difference between the genders which, again, might make you feel like you’re in good company if this is you.

That is that 31% of men had a specific business idea they wanted to pursue. And similarly significant perhaps, especially as lockdown has given some of us time to pause and reflect, a fifth of women made the leap to self-employment because they were unhappy in their previous, 9-to-5 role.

Will we look differently at childcare and WfH in the new normal?

Childcare needs were also more of a driver for women (9.5%) than men (2.4%). How a prolonged period of home-schooling due to the pandemic might affect these findings remains to be seen. But we already know that running a business at home while looking after children (who were largely not allowed to attend school during the lockdowns), has brought totally unprecedented challenges.

Did the greater control over their work which creatives might have gone into freelancing to enjoy really come into its own? Or did their home-based office being overrun with loved ones not tall enough to read the ‘do not enter’ sign on the office-door convince parents that they need a conventional workplace in their lives?!

What’s next

It is such subtle yet potentially seminal findings from our survey that we will explore a bit more in part two – which will focus on the obstacles to self-employment. This second instalment will also include four top tips on how enterprising employees stuck working for someone else but who really want to work for themselves can overcome these obstacles. Almost needless to say, and even with a pandemic still on, they are not insurmountable!

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