During this seemingly endless pandemic experience I’ve often felt like a person hunkered down in a storm shelter just waiting for the tornado to pass over. I know that there’s another world outside the shelter, but I don’t even want to daydream about opening the door yet because that tornado is still out there destroying everything.
But with the positive vaccine news over the last few weeks it seems that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, we can at least begin dreaming about the world outside this storm shelter experience.
I know I’m not alone in beginning to wonder about what the world will look like after the pandemic. McKinsey & Co released a massive report about the Future of Work After the Pandemic and The Atlantic has even begun dreaming about the potential of a “normal” summer if the COVID-19 numbers continue to decline.
No matter when it happens, the pandemic will, eventually, be over. We’ll actually have to step out of our storm shelters. Many of us will have to stop working from home. And all of the changes that were implemented in our lives due to the pandemic will be re-evaluated. We’ll keep some, toss some, and modify others.
Millions joined the independent workforce in 2021. Some did it voluntarily and others were forced into the indie lifestyle by layoffs. Will these millions be part of a massive permanent shift to freelance work in larger society? Or will a majority of new independent workers return to full-time employment? With the widespread acceptance of remote work, will freelancing become less unique and therefore less appealing? Will federal regulations begin to protect independent workers in the same way as full-time employees?
To get some answers to this and other questions I consulted AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at indeed.com.
SB: The future of freelancing after the pandemic is such a broad topic. What are some ways we can break down the future to get a better picture of what we can expect?
AK: I think we should start with what the world of remote work looks like because that ties in with freelance, contract, and gig jobs. Right now it is tough to say how much of remote work is going to take hold after this crisis is over. Is it going to be that everybody wants to be around their coworkers five days a week or do they want to go to the office a couple days or do they want to stay fully remote?
I think the fact that we have done this experiment for the last 12 months and counting opens the door of opportunity for freelancers. Now they can make the argument that they don’t have to be in the same city. The geographic requirement is eased up so much. Though it depends on the business you are in. That may not work as well if you are a photographer and you have to be onsite in person, but you may be able to take some meetings remotely. I think it does open the door for freelancers. I think it’s particularly helpful for very niche freelancers because it helps them maximize their potential across the bigger market. The downside of that is it’s going to become more competitive. Suddenly you will be competing on the national stage rather than your local market. That may be a challenge to some freelancers depending on what they are doing in their line of work.
Suddenly you will be competing on the national stage rather than your local market.
SB: Is it possible that with everyone being able to work from home now, both full-time employees and freelancers, the advantage freelancers used to have as far as remote working skills is lessened?
AK: I think that is a valid point. Before there was a clear cut between freelancers and a full-time employee. The non-freelancers were going into an office 9-5 and the freelancer wasn’t, but now that line is kind of blurry. We have to wait to see how that shakes out. There are other ways that freelancers can differentiate themselves in terms of the cost benefit to a project or a business. To say “I know this is a temporary project, bring me on for a couple of weeks and I’ll add value to your company or your project, but I know you’re not looking for somebody like this to be a full-time employee and stay at the company for years.” I think that is going to be the angle freelancers can sell themselves because there is that flip side to the easing of geographical requirements.
SB: There’s also a thought that companies will hire less full-time employees and instead seek out more contract and freelance work because they’ve realized that the distinct advantage of having a full-time employee in the office isn’t as important as they thought. Do you foresee this?
AK: That’s a possibility, but I think that is hard to look ahead and see because it really depends on the nature of the recovery and how the pandemic ends. It also depends on if the recovery is a fast, robust, quick one or if it’s going to drag the way it did after the Great Recession. The jury is still out on that one because we haven’t reached the end of the pandemic yet.
SB: In McKinsey’s report on the future of work after the pandemic, the one line dedicated to independent work refers to the potential that the government could consider extending benefits and protections for independent workers. What might those benefits be?
AK: I suspect they may have been referring to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) which was one of the programs that was designated by the CARES Act (the first stimulus bill signed in March 2020) to allow freelancers and gig workers as well as some other people who could not apply for regular unemployment benefits to have unemployment benefits during this crisis.
Those PUA numbers have shown that there are plenty of people who are navigating the labor market through freelance and gig opportunities. Of course PUA is just the number of claims filed so it’s definitely not any sort of proxy for measuring the size of the freelance economy, but I think it has shown us that there are plenty of people out there who are hurting right now and without that program they wouldn’t have received any unemployment benefits. I think that program has shown us that there is definitely a share of people doing important work for the economy and we can’t forget about them.
SB: What are some other trends related to freelance and independent work that might crop up once we are in a post-pandemic world?
AK: Once we are finally in a post-pandemic world we may see a rise in part-time freelancing to boost savings. So many people’s savings and financial well-being has been decimated by this crisis. Some of the skills that people have learned in this pandemic aren’t just going to go away overnight. One example would be teachers who have been able to adapt and do classes online. Usually in the summer teachers make extra money by tutoring. Now that they have their work from home figured out they could potentially tutor kids in other states. They could build out a full schedule over the summer instead of a few kids from their school district. The fact that they now have the equipment and the skills to do it well, that is something that may continue and transform once we move into the post-pandemic world.
We may see a rise in part-time freelancing to boost savings.
It can be hard to be optimistic after what we’ve gone through as a society over the last year, but looking ahead to a future without this pandemic provides some home. Konkel’s insights show that independent work will still play a vital role in the post-pandemic economy. Indies are uniquely positioned to respond to all kinds of challenges and changes. Check out the ways that Indy can help independent workers prepare for whatever is thrown their way in the future.