Professional services – what the gig economy means for the white-collar freelancer

Changing attitudes, technological advancements and shifting client demands are seeing more professionals join a free agent nation than ever before.

Wading through office politics to get your job done? Lost the meaning of your work? Alarmed by the ethics of a client? If this sounds familiar, you might consider cutting your ties and going solo.

Flexible work is one of the biggest drivers of the transformation of business models. In 2016, research by the European Forum of Independent Professionals showed the number of freelance workers in Europe had increased by 45% in just three years. As borderless teams, co-working spaces and freelancing are on the rise, the lines between corporate and gig life are becoming blurred.

Recent headlines have centered on digital platforms such as Airbnb, Uber and Upwork and the low-end gigs they offer. But the demands of corporate life – such as the mantra “do more faster with less” – are making meaningful, short-term projects more attractive for experts working in professional services. The industry provides a case in point for the changing nature of work. What constitutes work is changing by the day.

There are many sides to this story, but there are three core engines:

  1. The independently minded – the specialists taking on independent work, why they do it and whether they are happy with their careers
  2. The connectors – the innovative platforms at the intersection of clients and high-end freelancers, providing talented people with meaningful work
  3. The clients – the open-minded firms tapping an open talent market.

Severing the corporate umbilical cord

Who are the professionals circumnavigating their lock-step careers? They include consultants, lawyers, accountants, strategy specialists and more, some who are side-gigers and others who have chosen to go-it-alone.

What drives them to make the leap? Meet growth and innovation consultant Nishita Dewan, who after completing her MBA at INSEAD joined Uber as an operations manager to scale its offering from London to across the UK and Ireland and the Nordics. She left Uber because she began to question her social purpose and observed the culture of the firm change as it grew. “But I didn’t leave Uber to become a freelance consultant,” she says. “I left Uber to gift myself 12 months to figure out what I really wanted to do and rediscover my values.” Nine months into her reinvention sabbatical, Dewan is now separating out “the jobs for money versus the jobs for meaning”.

So the definition of independent work is about more than autonomy and control. It’s about defining personal purpose. This notion is not in itself new. Speakers pointed to Herminia Ibarra’s book Working Identity, which suggests career transition is not a straight path, but a journey where people try on “possible selves” they might become.

The independently minded also appear to share a natural curiosity and an appetite for risk. A survey by Julian Birkinshaw, Herminia Ibarra and Dena McCallum, founding partner at strategy firm Eden McCallum, found that 92% of independent consultants were moderately or very satisfied with their career. People like working on projects in which they are interested – and intellectually invested – but they don’t relish the uncertain flow of work.

Beyond an appetite for risk, independent consultant Christopher Tchen says freelancers must have an appetite for life. “You have to be comfortable with making time to try new things. You’re managing your career more proactively than ever before because every minute of your day belongs to you.”

As well as shaping the work that they do, independents must set their own measures for success. In the absence of a traditional firm’s supporting framework – where titles, promotions such as “making partner” and development programmes are clear markers – what does success even mean? “Unless you’re proactive and interested in lifelong learning, you’re going to get stuck,” says Tchen. The first measure of success is, therefore, to develop or become irrelevant.

The next measure, says Change Agency partner Tim Johns, is to get over yourself. “Lose the hubris about who you think you want to be and dig a little deeper,” he says. Johns recalls his sixth-month professional gap year where he spent his first weeks walking around with a Blackberry in his pocket. “No one was going to ring, there were no emails. I just couldn’t stop taking it with me. It takes a long time to remind yourself of who you are and to think about how you want to work in the future.”

What makes you tick? What keeps you going? What turns you off? Are you comfortable being the head of development, chief innovation officer and your own boss? It also takes a special kind of solopreneur to look in the mirror and say a confident “well done”.

The platforms connecting people to projects

Emerging players in professional services are now linking independently minded people to high-end gigs. The scope – and benefits – of these innovative platforms are considerable. Take, for instance, London-based strategy consulting firm Eden McCallum. Liann Eden and Dena McCallum launched the business in 2000 before the gig economy was called the gig economy: in a pre-Uber world. Today it serves more than a third of the FTSE100 and more than 50 of the Fortune Global 500. Co-founding partner McCallum says: “I started my consulting career at McKinsey, but back in 2000, we came up with this crazy idea of creating a consulting firm with no consultants on the payroll.”

The duo wanted the calibre of consultants to match their former McKinsey colleagues, without the pyramid of the full team – and without the overheads such as offices to house consultants. They’ve created a pool of independent consultants who they match – based on the right experience, skills and personality fit – with the client’s individual projects.

Both Eden McCallum’s clients and consultants benefit. Clients get their work at a lower cost; consultants get paid a little more. Research by Eden McCallum reveals other advantages. McCallum says: “Clients say they benefit from more experienced, tailored teams, and they work in a more collaborative way.

“Our consultants say that they’re doing more interesting work for great clients, which has a big and immediate impact.” Nobody brings in Eden McCallum to rubberstamp something in the board room, she says. The firm is brought in to “make stuff happen”.

Examples of organisations matching talented workers with the work they want to do are broad and varied. For instance, tech-based firm Catalant, which uses smart algorithms and AI to match people with projects. Some platforms are even owned by established firms. Take PeerPoint, a subsidiary of law firm Allen & Overy. Richard Punt, CEO at PeerPoint, points to another advantage. “There’s a certain loneliness in being a consultant,” he says. “So, we’ve worked on building a sense of community between PeerPoint and consultants, but more importantly, between the consultants themselves.”

These innovative firms lie at the intersection of independent experts and clients, and they each offer something unique. But whether it’s cherry-picking talent, curating projects or providing a peer-to-peer network, they each do their job.

Who’s booking the work?

The open talent economy could hold the key to one of the biggest constraints for giants such as Unilever: lack of resource. By tapping talent on-demand, employers are able to draw from an exceptional, international talent pool.

At Unilever, the business hook is to offer “manpower unlimited”, says Jeroen Wels, EVP of Human Resources. “We’re looking at talent on and off the balance sheet through joint ventures, outsourcing, online marketplaces and hiring freelancers,” he says. But getting managers to think in terms of “on and off the balance sheet” is tough. “Around 75% of our middle managers have no clue about what’s happening outside,” he admits. “It’s my job to raise awareness.”

So, what happens when the full-time workers and free agents work side by side? Do the workers tied to job titles and descriptions welcome the contractually obliged now sitting in their teams? “It will be a collaboration challenge,” says Wels. “But one we can overcome.”

As Unilever experiments with crowdsourcing talent, partnerships and more, Wels is keeping an eye on the early adopters. “I’ll watch how the other 25% of managers make it work. Then together, we’ll scale it up,” he says.

And holding everything together is a sticky purpose glue. The company’s reason for being must cut through the potential chaos and encourage coordination and collaboration. It must help externals working on specific projects and internal employees focus on the bigger picture.

How do independent workers, revolutionary platforms, employed staff and professional services firms all fit together? It’s not yet clear, but one thing’s for sure: they don’t rule each other out. The greatest people will always seek to work with the greatest organisations. It’s just that today the independently minded are on a purposeful mission – and they’re exercising free will.


Anna Johnston is a writer at London Business School. This article was first published on 19th June 2017.