A male professional freelancer working on a laptop

Why understanding freelance work is more important than ever in a post-COVID world

By Dr Kevin Broughton from the Centre for Business in Society

As the pandemic has eased, many employed people have looked towards freelancing as an alternative way of working.  However, do we really understand enough about freelance work to make policies that effectively help people who are self-employed?

The Research Centre for Business in Society (CBiS) at Coventry University has undertaken some research into the way freelancers in the creative sector work. The research team consisted of Professor Nick Henry (Project Lead), Dr Victoria Barker, Dr Paul Sissons, Dr Kevin Broughton, Dr Peter Dickinson (Warwick University), Dr Jordon Lazell and Dr Tim Angus.

Dr Kevin Broughton, from CBiS, explains that we need to learn much more about the industry:

The COVID-19 pandemic affected almost every aspect of our lives, with the way we work being one of the biggest things to change for many of us who are office based.

Working from home became the norm for a lot of people used to commuting into an office, and some people were furloughed from their jobs through no fault of their own.

The pandemic has seen more and more people place a greater value on their ‘work-life balance’, especially now that restrictions have eased, and people have recognised the benefits of flexibility in the workplace.

Realising such an aspiration has been seen as one of the drivers of what has been a long-term growth of freelancing in the UK economy.

Yet, more broadly, our knowledge of what drives freelancers and the way they work in a huge variety of sectors is very limited compared to the traditional employer-employee model, which can produce headaches for policy makers.

Indeed, this has already been seen with COVID compensation schemes implemented by the government at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

While the furlough scheme was useful for direct employees, the income safety measures for freelancers and self-employed people did not take into account the variety of the work they do and how they make their money.

For many freelancers, the government’s compensation scheme was completely inadequate. A one-size-fits-all approach was never going to be satisfactory when the freelancing economy is so varied.

Within CBiS, our team has undertaken research into the way freelancers in the creative sector work to inform decisions made by policy makers about how to support the critical role freelancers play in supply chains, the economy and place making.

The research started before the pandemic struck, but the work took on much greater importance when the inconsistent levels of financial compensation from the government for freelancers highlighted the lack of policy understanding of this group.

We interviewed 84 different freelancers working in creative professions across Coventry, Waltham Forest and Northumberland and explored their economic, cultural, and social value.

After data-gathering, we were able to classify these creative freelancers into six categories: Creative Entrepreneurs, Creative Contributions, Creative Work-Life Balancers, Precarious Projectors, Creative Ecologists, and Community Creatives.

We found that while these groups of creative freelancers worked differently in what they wanted to achieve from their freelancing, they still faced similar challenges, such as misunderstanding their often-critical role in supply chains, the economy and placemaking. For too many, employment insecurity and low overall incomes were the norm.

And with the labour market evolving, we questioned if existing employment, tax and welfare policies are robust enough to help creative freelancers overall.

This led us to recommending policies to support creative freelancers, such as supporting movements for good work, developing income support and employment schemes, and better systems of adult skill development and CPD.

We also found that contractors overwhelmingly set the agenda for creative freelancers’ contracts, which led them to recommend improving business practices in the creative sector, enabling debates around stakeholder responsibilities to freelancers.

Finally, the report found the creative sector’s pipeline of funding and talent was significantly weakened during the pandemic, which led us to propose changing business support and funding models, investment in creative freelancer infrastructures such as supporting home working and using place-based policies to maximise value of creative freelancers.

The pandemic gave people the chance to take stock – and many ultimately took the decision that their current job just wasn’t right for them. This means that a large number of workers in the traditional employee-employer model may be moving away towards freelancing for the extra flexibility it gives them, even if it means working extra hours overall.

While some simply changed their job and moved to another place of work, others took a leap of faith and went to go it alone.

For these people to be supported effectively, the government and business organisations need to have a much better understanding of the freelancer market given its continued growth and significance.

This research is a small starting point in one sector, but much more must be done if we are to truly understand – and therefore improve – the post-COVID freelance economy.