Flexibility attracts one-in-four workers to go freelance

21 November 2023 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read

Nearly one-in-four UK employees are considering switching from full-time employment to become contractors or freelancers. The key motivation for the trend appears to be a greater desire for autonomy in the workplace, and the potential to set their own schedules – both of which many workers enjoyed more of during the pandemic.

The UK’s freelance economy took a hefty hit from the coronavirus outbreak. Earlier in 2021, research suggested that two-thirds of the sector’s workers were negatively impacted by the pandemic itself. Meanwhile the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) found that since reforms of IR35 came into effect in 2021, close to one-fifth of freelancers would now consider a return to salaried life as a result.

According to new research from Workwell, however, Britain’s workforce is increasingly seeing self-employment as a means to better working conditions. The duration of 2022 and most of 2023 saw inflation rise faster than pay, with many bosses refusing to help staff keep up with the spiralling cost of living. At the same time, many organisations commenced the process of bringing workers back into the office on a regular basis – undermining flexibility and work-life improvements which staff had enjoyed during the lockdown era.

Why UK workers leave traditional employment to go freelance

While this initially drove a sustained number of workers to look for other employment – as part of the so-called Great Resignation – that trend now looks to be giving way to a new interest in freelance work. Workwell, a provider of services to flexible workers and recruiters in the UK and overseas, collaborated with IPSE, a community of over 35,000 self-employed people, to see what is driving the change.

According to the findings, 24% of employees in Britain would now consider making a switch to self-employment, freelance or contract work, with almost two-fifths of that portion saying they could make the move in the next 12 months. A majority of the employees that would do so told Workwell that flexibility was a top criteria for them – something which is also common among those that have already made the jump.

Workwell and IPSE also polled people already working as contractors, freelancers and those running their own businesses to find out why they had made the move. A 55% majority said they wanted to have more flexibility over how, when and where they worked, while 45% similarly said they wanted to “be their own boss”.

Andy Chamberlain, director of policy at IPSE, said, “It’s no surprise that self-employment’s offer of increased flexibility and autonomy in work continues to be an attractive option for swathes of the UK’s workforce. For many, this could mean turning a passion project or side hustle into a fully-fledged freelance business, while for others self-employment offers a sustainable route to work for people managing a long-term illness or caring for others. Despite this, those considering a career in self-employment have been continuously overlooked in this government’s ‘back to work’ drive.”

Other motivations

Money was also a motivator – though it was cited by a lower 20% of respondents, who said they moved because they wanted to improve their earnings. More importantly, 30% did so because they did not like where they were working – possibly linked to the 7% who also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic “had made them reassess what they wanted from life” – something which might relate to all the above factors, considering how quickly employees who were praised for their essential efforts less than three years ago have found themselves belittled by their bosses in the ‘post-pandemic’ era.

That is not to say the transition is an easy one, however. While the figures show a strong appetite to operate as a freelancer among the UK workforce, the researchers suggested simplifying tax rules for the self-employed and more tailored support and resources for new freelancers would be necessary to help them to succeed early in their self-employed careers.

Chris Mollan, head of accountancy services at Workwell, added, “Contracting and freelancing remains an attractive option for substantial numbers of employees with around one in four considering giving up the security of working for someone else.  It is clear that the motivation to switch is more about having increased flexibility in your working life and being to some extent your own boss than it is about earning more. However making the move does require planning and a clear idea of what you are going to do as well as expert support on a wide range of issues around accountancy and tax efficiency that people in employment will not have had to think about.”