The Rise and Rise of the Freelancer
Or, as Dolly Parton tells it…
"Nine to five, yeah they got you where they want you
There's a better life, and you dream about it, don't you?"
Freelancing is a scorching hot topic right now, particularly that which also involves working beyond the office walls. The speculative figures bounce around up there in the high numbers – 50 per cent of us will be freelance by 2020 and, apparently, freelancing improves one’s efficiency by 76 per cent... There’s even a National Freelancers Day. Yes!
The drive towards being the master of one’s own time is thundering in from so many different angles that it’s hard to pinpoint the leading edge. Age certainly plays a part: the graduates unable to nab a choice full-time role or being disillusioned with the perception of what a life spent working for Evil Corp looks like now. The young families wanting to bring up their children in cleaner air and finding the idea of a three-hour daily commute too ugly to bear. But there are also those who simply don’t want to walk through the same office door every day and those who stepped off the track for a few years and now want to return to work, but on their own terms.
And it’s never been easier. Digital fluency has normalised flexible working with devices, apps and other personal technology that let us communicate from virtually anywhere and still maintain a professional momentum. Real-time chat capabilities such as Skype, Google Hangout and Slack help preclude the sense of loneliness; the toe-curling panic that can kick in when you realise you’ve only spoken to the kettle all day. And the important satellite resources are now circulating in to support the trend as well, offering services like human resources, web consulting, and accounting help – thus removing some of the onus on freelancers to do everything themselves and leaving them free to concentrate on their primary skillset.
For me personally, this freelancer-in-the-clouds model delivers success because, in the wrestling bout between activity and outcome, it removes many of the usual office activities that deliver varying degrees of useful outcome. No surprise meetings, no long commute with patchy mobile reception, and certainly none of the ‘I’d better sit here until 7.30 pm to show willing’ madness. In this model, the meetings are held online and can be recorded as a handy reminder of what was agreed, which is much easier than all wondering who's going to be the first to snap and start eating one of those croissants in the middle of the table. For me it means that, with a modicum of self-control, you can still deliver your best work but you can do it when you’re actually going to be at your best. For some this is during the night. For me it’s really early in the morning when the rest of the world is still calmly snoozing and the day looks boundless in possibility.
Of course freelancing has downsides. Nobody is there to give you immediate advice or feedback, and the Procrastination Promenades from your home desk to the kitchen fridge can become a problem. The lack of a structured working day can mean you're answering emails 24/7 while the working hours blur into weekends and evenings only too easily. But, if this idea fills you with horror, much of this can now be eradicated via the growing trends of co-working spaces that provide support and resources as well as the sense of community that comes from working around others. Despite long hours and no sick or holiday pay, many say that the sense of independence and freedom offered by freelancing often leads to increased levels of job satisfaction for more and more years. You can carry on being good at your job way past the expected expiry date, and long after that terrible day by the water cooler when you asked the younger lot if Kimye was a type of fruit.
But you already know most of this. You read the same articles as me, you have the same conversations with your friends. So why am I writing this? Well, it’s actually a request that starts off with a question…
Where have so many of the amazing women in post-production gone? I know you were here back at the beginning of the internet. I assessed your CVs, I met you at parties, I replied to your emails. And now that you’re older? Can it really be that the entire 35+ female population of our industry can fit in one room above a pub? Did you just wander off, or are you locked away in a vault somewhere, like some kind of permanent Crystal Maze disaster? Because we now know that most of you don’t leave to raise babies. Many leave the industry out of frustration with office environments, salary inequality, disillusionment at career progression, loss of hope and sometimes sheer boredom. Others have caring duties pulling them in too many directions – be it elderly parents or a partner suffering from ill health. But, whatever it is, they leave the traditional office milieu and they don’t come back.
But I want them back! Back on their own terms, bringing all of that knowledge gathered through the years, not disappearing like early morning mist. And I really believe that the new trend for freelancing opens a door to different ways in which women can now come back to work without abandoning everything else they’ve created. And, my goodness, we need you.
The backbones of post-production are creativity and tech, and these fields are both so wonderfully suited to women. Perhaps creativity is a fairly self-explanatory trait in this gender that creates life, but tech? Yup. Technology is no longer the thing done in the basement behind that door with the skull and cross bones on it. It’s at the core of everything we do and the way everyone spends their days. It needs those nuances that women bring to the table. Steve Jobs said ‘technology alone is not enough - it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” It needs the collaboration of minds and hearts to keep driving our digital revolution forwards. And younger women need role models. Please come back and pass on what you know. We need women to paint the picture of a better future that others behind us can demand.
Luckily enough (as perverse as this may sound) to have stared down the barrel of possible death twice in my life has given me the chance to know what's important to me. Work was in there, yes. I wanted to feel that I'd done a good job and could be proud of myself. But more than that I wanted to spend whatever time I had left with the two boys in my life, probably walking across a big field at dawn. That's my all, and it's nicely achievable because it's not the Nobel Peace Prize or an Olympic medal – so I'm really lucky. But, again, WORK WAS IN THERE. I want to be good at my job, but I also want to take great care of family and elderly parents. Why should I tear myself apart trying to honour all of these conflicting, deep, instinctive impulses? And if I want that balance for myself, shouldn’t I be applying the same expectations to my staff?
So I created Able, and it’s already taught me so much about the positive power of freelancing. It has clarified my vision of the world I’d like to live in, where businesses operate in a way that allows their staff to enjoy life, and it consistently reinforces the power and productivity of happy and motivated staff. I can hire lovely folks solely on the merits of their work, not their location, and can engage with individuals in whatever medium works for them. I can keep working with the people I admire, even if their circumstances change or my company grows. And, without that layer of polarising office politics we’re now all driven by the same, unified aim – to create amazing work. Employing these wonderfully specialised freelancers isn’t permitting laziness; it’s promoting autonomy and empowering staff. I’m trusting in them to do their job, and to do it well. And, in return I’m working with balanced, fully rounded people who are probably also fitting in a part-time degree or looking after their kids or feeding chickens every morning. And all of this extra vitality comes through in their work. Creativity drinks in inspiration as oxygen, which is rarely found when chained to a desk.
So. Women of Tech, please come back to us. You don’t need to choose one life or another. Drive your life into the shape you want. It’s yours! We need you. We need your innate strengths to empathise, communicate and persist against the odds. And you can do it as a freelancer. Apparently it’s all the rage.
Louisa Thomson is EP at Able