Whatever happened to free agent nation?
Back in 1997, Fast Company published an article that was a wake-up call for businesses. Its premise was that workplaces were being flipped: the old model of the boss calling the shots and having all the power was going the way of the dinosaur. The employee, as a valuable knowledge worker, was now in the position of being able to pick and choose where they worked and for whom. If they didn’t like the work, conditions, management, colleagues, culture, or whatever, they could move somewhere more amenable. Knowledge workers were mobile workers. And powerful.
Park that thought for a minute.
I’ve been reading What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith. The book, in essence, is a leadership coaching book. Goldsmith maintains that the higher you go in an organisation, the more likely it is that the problems you experience are likely caused by your own (flawed) behaviours. One sabotages one’s chances for success and the book highlights 21 behavioural flaws (with fixes) that hold people back. Kind of what Morrie Schechtman was on about when he said there are no business problems: there are only personal problems that manifest themselves in a business setting. But I digress. What I found interesting about Goldsmith’s book was that it devoted a chapter to free agents, with the advice that managers needed to step up and lift their game. Or else. Staff were free agents (and knew their value) and would walk.
So back to the concept of the free agent*. Have we really moved more in that direction since the Fast Company article? And as others, like Goldsmith, would have us believe? Or has free agency been a big, fat much ado about nothing? And is it only relevant to certain industries? Worse, has the concept of free agency given workers false hope?
I ask these questions because I love the idea of free agency, where the employee calls the shots, and walks—quickly and easily—into alternative work. I joined the government so that I could be a permanent free agent: I go where the need is. It’s not as easy as it sounds though, because each move means I am issued with a new employee number and email address, and invariably have to chase up my leave entitlements! I also have to apply for roles in order to move around, and regular readers know how I feel about the recruitment process—it’s bullshit! So I think as a concept, the potential free agent operates on the idea of a promise, where the reality is quite different. And while I wish the reality was different, here’s why I think free agency hasn’t quite taken off as predicted:
Table of Contents
Continued global financial unrest
From an individual perspective, people are a bit skittish about leaving permanent work (if they are lucky enough to have it) to be a free agent. The current climate (and this has been the case since the GFC) has meant continued uncertainty around employment. Why would you risk more uncertainty for a shot at free agency that may or may not pay off (pun intended).
You would have to be very sure of your continued employability to throw caution to the wind and risk a regular paycheck. A large mortgage, kids in private schools and an annual overseas trip make the certainty of a salary (and regular money in the bank) an attractive proposition.
That said, government departments where I work always employ a certain number of temps and contractors. One department in particular was chock-full of free agents, but they are all IT specialists and business analysts. And they are not necessarily free agents in the true sense of the word: they have to go through a labour hire company in order to even get a look in. And uncertainty around project funding meant some had been let go with only two weeks notice.
Risk averse hiring processes
The wrong hire is considered a major risk for business, even if that person is only around for a few short months. So what do businesses do to mitigate this risk? Make people jump through hoops to “prove” they aren’t a dud hire, even if they are a temp or a contractor. This means writing application letters, answering selection criteria, resumes, portfolios, testimonials, interviews, reference checks, contracts, writing tests, presentations… all before we even have the job! Employers, rather than bearing the risk of a poor hire themselves, will often choose recruitment companies to select short-term employees.
What this means is entry into free agent roles—assuming the roles are there in the first place—is not necessarily easy, which is crazy. It is clear that while workers want free agency, employers just haven’t caught up.The quid pro quo of work has been replaced with hoops. Lots of crazy hoops to jump through and over. The many crazy hoops consequently turn into lots crazy deadlines because the hiring process was just. so. damn. slow.
Of course, I am well aware of the power of networking and word of mouth. And that expertise can be showcased quite effectively via LinkedIn and personal websites… like this one! But this also assumes that the freelancer is providing a sought after service, and this is not always the case.
Leading on from the above point, many employers, rather than selecting free agents themselves (too busy, don’t have HR staff on tap, too hard, can’t be bothered etc.), use recruitment firms to handle the selection. This has created an “industry” around short-term contract work that often does not work in the best interests of either the employer or free agent. But it does keep recruiters in a lovely power-mongering, gate-keeping kind of job where they call the shots. My opinion though, is that when employers use recruitment companies they exacerbate the culture of risk averse hiring, rather than freeing up the organic nature of roles.
I would love to be able to deal directly with companies, and be hired directly by them, but this would require a significant change in How Things Are Done, so it is likely that the status quo of indirect hiring will continue for some time yet. Recruitment companies have managed to make themselves an indispensable component of the recruitment process because organisations have happily deferred their hiring decisions to a third party.
Explosion of freelance sites
Along with the recruitment company gatekeeper syndrome, which makes it difficult to gain traction as a freelancer, there are an overabundance of online freelance sites that ironically make it too easy for companies to post freelance work. If you have ventured onto sites like Freelancer and UpWork there are a gazillion people posting work… and a gazillion people applying for it. I have a profile on both and at any given time, there are often hundreds of people bidding for the one job… and bidding is not about the highest price, but the lowest. Of course qualifications and experience count, but so does price, and it’s a buyer’s market.
And there is so much crap on these sites. If you list your skill as “academic writer”, jobs will appear in your feed asking you to “rewrite a report”. I worked out quickly that this was code for plagiarise, and there is a demand for native English speakers. Join the dots. Not that I would plagiarise, but for the money they offering, it would hardly be worth anyone’s while even if you were lacking a moral compass. My point is that finding bona fide work via these sites requires a lot of time and effort (at this point, my preference is UpWork mainly because it’s a nicer interface) and when you do find bone fide work, the competition is so stiff (and by stiff I mean in terms of numbers and people who have established profiles) that it’s hardly worth going to the effort of submitting a bid.
If you are familiar Fiverr, you’ll know that people offer a range of services, starting at US$5. The money is made in the add-ons: faster turnaround, bundled services… that kind of thing. As a freelancer, time is money, and the things about Fiverr is need to price correctly so as to not spend too much time on delivering services. Quick turn around without too much effort is the key to success. I don’t have a problem with Fiverr per se (I sell gigs on it), but for all intents and purposes, it’s almost akin to slave labour. Yes, I’ve heard of people making thousands on the site, but like most things, this is probably the exception rather than the rule. Except that the exception is dressed up to look like the rule so that everyone registers and the site’s traffic grows.
The main problem (and it’s the same as with all the freelancer sites) is that unless you jumped on board early, it’s very difficult to get traction. For example, there are so many people offering proofreading for $5 that have fabulous reviews that late adopters (like myself) are relegated to the back of the queue. No one hires a person with one review when there is someone else with a gazillion. Unless you want to spend a lot of time and energy (and probably money) chasing maybes, it’s difficult to have any cut through in what is essentially (again) a buyer’s market.
It seems (and this is by no means based on robust, scientific research, merely my observations in the workplace) that certain skill sets are more able to take advantage of free agency than others. When I look at those who have greater work choice and flexibility, it’s people with (more or less) an IT or business analyst background. The reason for this (I think) is because businesses are looking to downsize and streamline and cost save and transform, and they are doing it with IT solutions. That’s why coders and developers and data dudes are in demand. It’s much easier to change and update IT systems rather than people. And these systems need upgrading almost constantly. A lot of care and feeding goes into maintaining IT. And IT is tangible. It either works or it doesn’t.
Someone like me, whose key skills are in education and training and communication and organisation development is seen more in terms of “nice to have” rather than “need to have”, particularly in times of shrinking work forces. My value is seen as “less than” when compared to a coder or a developer or a data dude. I say lucky them! I wish my brain worked that way, but it doesn’t. Having said that, I could add tremendous value to an organisation, but they have to see and want and appreciate my particular skill set. My area of expertise is more long tail: results aren’t easily visible or tangible, so I totally get that organisations are hesitant to invest.
I wish freelancers did, in fact, rule the world, because I think the world would then be a happier, more productive and interesting place. People could pick and choose who they worked for and when. And where. They could choose the types of work and projects they wanted to work on and this choice would come packaged with a more lucrative income. We could free ourselves of tyrannical bosses and soul-destroying cubicles and annoying co-workers and the golden hand-cuffs of a fortnightly paycheck. For most of us though, free agency is a side gig: it’s something that we do on top of, or as well as, our salaried work. Of course, we dream of being able to tip the balance in favour of full-time freelancing, but I can’t see free agents gaining momentum in the marketplace for a few years yet. I see portfolio work becoming the norm, where people have three, four, five different kinds of income streams that include part-time work, freelancing and hobby businesses. And that’s the direction I seem to be heading.
Interestingly, I’m not the only one to question the whole free agent thing. This article on Psychology Today unpicked why the model is flawed.
*When I talk about free agency, I am being a bit general. I also include those people who use recruitment firms to access short-term contracts, as well as those who are guns for hire in the true sense.
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