Do you know the skills you need to work for yourself?
“The work, it’s exciting, every day is different,” Henry told us. Henry, a PhD in biology, had left a career in academia to start his own scientific consulting business. Most of the time, he loved working independently. But he also encountered challenges like an unpredictable work load, financial instability, and conflicting client expectations and demands.
Even though organizations can offer employees a sense of place and identity, relative stability, and a clear career trajectory, many people, like Henry (whose name, like others in this article, has been changed) choose to work independently. According to a recent Upwork survey, the freelance work force in the U.S. has grown by 3.7 million workers in the past five years, meaning that more than 1 in 3 Americans worked independently in some way in 2018. More professionals are choosing to unplug from traditional organizational careers, citing greater autonomy, flexibility, and a sense of control as attractive features of their “gig” lifestyle. (While we often associate the word “gig” with workers employed through Lyft and TaskRabbit, much of the gig economy around the world is composed of knowledge and professional workers.)
Currently, we know little about how “going gig” can change professionals’ experience of their jobs. What are the benefits and challenges that high skilled workers, like Henry, face when they move to independent work? What skills can help them to thrive?
To understand these questions, we worked with management consultancy Eden McCallum (where one of us works) and London Business School to conduct an online survey of 307 independent consultants and 94 employed consultants in Europe and North America. We asked how they experience their work and what capabilities lead to greater success and satisfaction.
The independent consultants in our sample feel like going gig has led to better work, life, and money. Many said they are doing more high-quality, intellectually challenging work for their clients — work that is of higher impact, better value, and more likely to be implemented than the work they did in a traditional consultancy. One respondent remarked that the best thing about going gig was the freedom to choose projects and coworkers.
These independent consultants were also much more satisfied with their work-life balance than their employed peers. They believed that their time was being spent where it mattered — on doing good client work — and not on other things like office politics.
And these respondents reported benefiting financially. Approximately 67% reported earning the same or more as when they were employed full-time (despite working fewer weeks per year). Going gig appeared to dramatically reduce the pay gaps between men and women: women who were employed by consultancies reported a salary approximately 30% less than what men reported on a full-time equivalent basis; whereas with women who worked independently, their reported day rates were only 3% less than men’s. Millennials also seem to find independent work lucrative, as 71% reported earning more than they did while employed, with another 13% reporting their earnings stayed the same.
Of course, working independently also comes with some very real challenges. In the words of one of our participants, “It’s not for everyone — there are a lot of trade-offs that not everyone is willing to make.” We found four main self-management challenges:
Managing security. Going independent means foregoing many of the protections that organizations typically provide, including the assurance of a stable line of work and a clear, reliable wage. When asked about the biggest challenge they face, half of the independent consultants we surveyed mentioned unpredictability, insecurity, and volatility. One explained that she would constantly “worry about landing the next project.” Another described struggling with cycles of “variable income and feast and famine.” Independent workers, without an organization, must find ways to create their own security.
Managing back-room activities. Independent professionals are on their own: they must do the administrative and organizational “back room work” that would be taken care of by other departments or staff in a company. One worker remarked, “there is limited support for ‘chores’ (admin, planning of meetings, etc),” and another explained that it can be “time consuming to build business and income streams.” As a result, many are in “constant selling mode,” which can be draining. Managing this back-room work requires considerable time, a different set of skills than those they’ve gained in their occupation-specific training, and can get in the way of accomplishing what independent professionals consider to be their real jobs.
Managing aloneness. While going gig brings freedom and autonomy, it also often means working alone. One independent consultant said that the lifestyle, “can be a bit lonely sometimes. Even if working in client teams you can’t completely relax the way you would with your own team.” Many others similarly mentioned that they missed having colleagues to bounce ideas off of or commiserate with; managing isolation is one of the unanticipated challenges of going gig.
Managing brand. Working in a company can provide a brand that has meaning in the marketplace. Being a McKinsey consultant clarifies who one is to potential clients and to oneself. Going independent means giving this up. Some of our respondents reported being challenged by lacking “a tangible career path” and not having a clear idea of what they will be doing —and who they will be — in the future. Others struggled with communicating their potential and value to clients. Henry, the scientist quoted above mentioned that he was constantly educating his clients about his worth and value as a professional, and as a result often spent time “dancing around and giving free advice, until [clients] agreed that ‘yeah, we’re willing to pay you for this.’” Working on your own means that you alone are tasked with developing, sustaining, and communicating your professional identity, your personal brand.
What do professional gig workers need to thrive?
In light of these challenges, professionals must think carefully about whether, when, and how they should go independent. As one respondent remarked, “[Independent consulting] requires not only the right level of experience to become a credible and trusted advisor, but also the right mindset to deal with the challenges of uncertainty, lack of financial security, and the ups and downs of the workload.”
What is the “right mindset”? Our analyses indicate that the most satisfied and successful independent consultants have cultivated three capabilities to deal with the unique challenges of working in the gig economy: proactivity, psychological resilience, and mental agility.
Are You Ready to Go Gig?
Proactivity: Independent work is all about self-management — and proactivity is its hallmark. One respondent noted that those entering the field need to learn to “proactively manage your network, manage your peers, and maintain as many external contacts as possible. Invest time in building your relationships.” Another emphasized proactivity in skill development, commenting that anyone interested in independent consulting needs to “become an expert and continue to learn about your field of expertise.” This individual also noted the importance of being proactive with respect to risk: “Be proactive and plan ahead; address issues and risks before they happen. Build a good rapport with clients and build your brand and their trust.”
In our sample, the greater the level of proactivity, the more career satisfaction and success the independent consultants reported. Increasing proactivity means consciously and consistently setting aside time for the big picture, for career planning, and network management. Some of the most proactive independent workers we talked to dedicated part of their schedules for future planning, reaching out to clients and colleagues for performance feedback, and developing and updating core skills. Another way many were proactive was to join consultancies and associations that help connect independent workers to projects and others. Signing up for co-working spaces was a proactive strategy for avoiding loneliness.
Psychological resilience: Independent professionals also need to develop psychological resilience — the ability to bounce back from adversity and to cope with the uncertainty, insecurity, and disruptions. One respondent recommended, “Learn to love the uncertainty and challenges.” The independent consultants we found to have greater psychological resilience also had higher numbers of billable days and greater levels of satisfaction than those with less psychological resilience.
Increasing psychological resilience means learning to accept that independent professional work will be turbulent and riddled with disruptions. Normalizing this as simply a challenge — and focusing on aspects of the work that can be controlled — can help professionals stay on course when a project falls through. For example, while one cannot control whether or not they will picked for any particular gig, they can control how many projects they bid on.
Mental agility: Independent work also requires mental agility — the ability to be open to many different perspectives and think flexibly about one’s work. Several of our respondents emphasized how critical it is for independent consultants to be “adaptable.” In our data, we found a positive relationship between mental agility and the number of days that independent consultants were billing. In other words, mental agility translated into more work, and more financial security.
Professionals can become more mentally agile by taking on other people’s perspectives and exploring different ways to do their core work activities. One strategy for this is presenting ideas to different audiences and in different forums to get more diverse feedback.
While being proactive, resilient and agile are likely important for most professional work, our study suggests that these capabilities are especially important for people working independently. They were associated with greater satisfaction and success for the independent consultants we studied — but they were not significantly associated with work satisfaction in our group of employed consultants. Interestingly, the 30 individuals in our sample who had previously worked as independent consultants and had returned to employment in established consulting firms rated significantly lower on resilience and agility.
If you’re considering going gig, it’s important to invest in developing these skills before taking the leap, in order to see the advantages that come with working for yourself.