Last year saw rapid growth in the freelance economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. freelance workforce is now 15.5 million strong. More encouraging still are the findings of a study by Intuit, in which it is estimated that the American freelance workforce will have reached 60 million people by 2020.
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If all of this seems a bit unbelievable, consider that 40 percent of the U.S. workforce already holds a contingent job of some sort.
While these figures give us some undeniably useful insights into the current popularity of freelance employment, it's not necessarily clear why so many organizations are opting to expand their freelance workforces. Many may also be wondering why, exactly, so many professionals are gravitating toward the prospect of a freelance career.
Autonomy Attracts Freelancers
Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of Freelancers Union, believes the increasing number of freelancers may have something to do with a desire to achieve ultimate working autonomy.
"People want a 'freelance 360-degree' life where they can decide what they want to do and how much they want to work," Horowitz told Forbes.
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One global organization, QuickCall.com, is fast establishing a reputation as a flexible and freelance-friendly employer by paying attention to the desires Horowitz outlines. President Dan Banu has created an international freelance workforce spanning Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the United States that continues to expand.
"Our contractors are professionals who actively seek interesting and challenging opportunities that fit their own work schedules, and they know that by joining us they [can] have ultimate flexibility in their work lives," Banu says. "From our perspective, we benefit because we can hire the best of the best, wherever in the world they may be located."
Furthermore, organizations are more frequently reevaluating how their workplace cultures and benefits packages can attract and develop long-term business relationships with the very best freelancers. Banu says one of the more unique and highly attractive benefits that QuickCall.com offers its contractors is time away from the organization.
Banu maintains that by allowing his freelancers to take time off – up to three months at a time – whenever they need it, he builds mutual trust and increases contractor retention.
"The concept of giving a freelancer 'time off' feels alien to many, but for contractors, it can be difficult to find the time to invest in expanding your freelance work in other areas at the same time as working on existing projects," Banu says. "When a contractor takes a long period of time off, we let them return to work on their previous schedule. We retain a valued asset, and they benefit from our flexibility."
"Flexibility is a big feature of our organization, because we know how important it is to our freelance workforce," Banu adds. "It's also one of the ways we are able to effectively manage a global workforce, and it definitely enables us to choose and retain the very best people from around the world, giving us a major advantage against competitors."
Freelance Isn't Free
But even in the midst of the freelance boom, with more and more employers learning to accommodate freelancers' needs, some concerns remain. For example, in the Forbes article cited above, Horowitz said that "episodic income is a huge point" for many freelancers still. This concern led, in part, to the passing of the Freelance Isn't Free Act in New York City last year.
The Act, introduced in an effort to offer greater financial protection to freelancers, requires that written contracts are in place for every freelance appointment. This will enable freelancers to comprehensively document working agreements, and it will empower freelancers to file complaints with New York's Division of Labor Standards against clients who fail to make full or partial payment for their services.
With financial protections now arriving, freelancers and the organizations they work with can more safely benefit from their partnerships – and perhaps even exceed the $1 trillion collective earning of U.S.-based freelancers in 2015-2016 in coming years.
Freelancing arrangements seem to benefit all sides: Businesses save on costs by leveraging freelancers, and freelancers and consultants get to work with maximum flexibility on projects that offer greater diversity.
Banu says the growth in the freelance workforce is looking like a win-win. He might just be right.
Sarah Blythe is a British writer, editor, and communications consultant whose work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines, and industry publications. Connect with Sarah on Twitter.
Spencer Maus of SpencerConnect Communications is a senior-level public relations executive.