Freelancing goes global – a snapshot from India, South Africa and the UK

Europe and the US might have led the way in harnessing freelance talent, but the so-called ‘gig economy’ is now seeing rapid growth all around the globe. However, while numerous regions are now benefitting from the flexibility and skills that freelancers bring, there are also huge variations in how different countries are using and managing this expanding pool of flexible talent. 

To shine a light on some of the major contrasts and similarities across the new international freelance economy, we decided to draw on the views and experiences from two progressive companies in India and South Africa and contrasting that with how the UK’s leading insurance broker makes use of freelance talent. Our interviews explore how each business is using freelancers to fulfil their skills needs and support their business growth, as well as delving into where freelancing fits within the wider economy and society. 

We spoke to:

  • Sonia Notani, Former Chief Marketing Officer at IndiaFirst Life, now MD South Asia & MENA at Outsized
  • Karen Louw, Head of Group Risk Product and Pricing, Old Mutual (South Africa)
  • Lukas Oberhuber, Group CTO, Simply Business (UK)

What are the main ways that you use freelance talent?

Lukas: At Simply Business, we use freelancers in a few ways. We have occasional, ad hoc freelancers, who bring specific skills to tasks like facilitating meetings, running workshops, executive coaching and training sessions. We also use freelancers through nearshore third-party outsourcers to help build our team quickly. For example, we have nearshoring partners in Ukraine and Poland, which provide software developers where we can’t find the skills in the UK.

Sonia Notani, Former Chief Marketing Officer at IndiaFirst Life, now MD South Asia & MENA at Outsized

Sonia: India First Life has definitely seen increasing use of variable manpower over the last few years. Previously, we would only use freelancers for certain lower-level roles, for example, content writing or software development.

We are now using variable manpower much more for strategic, senior roles.

This can be setting up new channels, where we need skills for a distinct period of time. In this way, they are replacing the role traditionally played by consultants, or certain roles that would have been full-time in the past, rather than having to onboard staff for the long-term.

Karen: The two strategic drivers are first, for projects where we need resources to test specifications and systems, and secondly, where we need to carry out systems improvements. Many of our systems were developed a long time ago and updating these projects requires a fast turnaround. Freelancers are able to dig into these focused projects more quickly than existing members of staff, who have other projects going on. In terms of skills, we are generally looking for freelancers who have actuarial and the most recent coding and programming skills – ideally a combination of the two.

What are the main benefits of using freelancers?

Sonia: Variable manpower has become more intelligent in India in recent years and companies are realising that they can build a layer of consulting for a lower cost than full-service consultants, or by bringing somebody in permanently. Why not get the skills you need for three or six months, rather than having to manage their whole career? In this way, variable manpower is replacing the consultancies and the consulting model, which is top-heavy and expensive. They bring fresh thinking and external expertise which can be very valuable when starting something new. It is a competitive advantage that makes us more smart and agile.

Lukas Oberhuber, CTO Simply Business

Lukas: Where you have a specific need, the biggest advantage is the expertise that they provide. Without that, you can lose months getting up to speed on an area where you don’t already have the knowledge internally. And then, where we use nearshore freelance teams, the big objective is to grow quickly. We’re one of the biggest ruby-on-rails employers in the UK and getting good developers is really hard. We’re trying to double the team size at the moment and nearshoring is a way of doing that.

Karen: Management of deliverables is a pro. Once you have a scope of work, most freelancers are very goal-driven, whereas permanent staff can be more easily side-tracked by politics or other responsibilities. Freelancers are also usually incentivised to do things quickly, as they generally want to get on to the next project, and they’re efficient at getting the information and actions they need from others in the organisation. This all means you usually see fast deliverables and immediate improvements. We also find that freelancers bring fresh thinking and different perspectives to projects and ask new questions about the same processes, which can be really valuable.

How have attitudes to freelancing changed in your business and region in recent years?

Lukas: For Simply Business, our increased use of freelancers was driven by the acknowledgement that we need help when starting something new, and it makes sense to bring those skills in as and when we need them. It was also that we needed to change gear in terms of growth. The ability to work remotely has also evolved dramatically and we’ve had to focus on making this work. There is a tendency to feel that people need to be together in the same room, but technology like Zoom has helped. We had to make sure the tech was solid and robust, but now it feels seamless, with video conferencing and the right technology in each meeting room.

Karen Louw, Head of Group Risk Product and Pricing, Old Mutual

Karen: We’ve always used freelancers at Old Mutual, but for our area, in particular, it’s a bit of a newer thing. I think there are many more freelancers in the UK than in SA, however, it is growing here. One of the big changes has been that we didn’t really have a market-maker before, which meant that contracts were organised more at an individual level. Now we have a couple of platforms coordinating, which makes it easier to go freelance. The big change is having a platform where freelancers can be referred.

Sonia: A lot has changed in India in the last 10 or 15 years, with millennial thinking coming in. Whereas previously there was a cultural tendency to view variable manpower as risky, which meant that skilled professionals would opt for a permanent role, now there is more of an openness to the risk and freedom involved. Added to this, there has been a rise in digital freedom thanks to technology and tools, such as email and Skype, enabling companies to build the expertise they need and then collaborate, irrespective of location. It’s a big access point. Previously there were issues around how you connect with variable manpower and how you ensure accountability.

What about the cost? Do freelancers work out more cost-effective than permanent talent?

Sonia: Unlike international markets, in India variable manpower is typically given equal or even less pay than a full-time role, because there are so many skilled people available that it brings down the cost. This is good for businesses, but it means that very skilled freelancers start to question their decision, and making it difficult for these individuals to be absorbed into the system again. They often have to take a pay cut to get back into the market full-time, meaning it is even riskier for people to make the jump.

Karen: One of the big drivers for us is actually a consciousness of the cost of permanent staff and being more agile with how we spend that money. We want to invest across areas where we can demonstrate returns and how we can get bigger wins.

Lukas: We use freelancers for the skills, not for cost-savings and you pay for that expertise.

It isn’t about cost savings for us, because at times it is more expensive.

If you’re hiring freelancers in the UK, it will cost you a lot more than a permanent person with similar experience.

What are the downsides of freelancing for your business?

Sonia: There can be issues around quality assurance. Some freelancers will be brilliant, and some won’t. When dealing with consultancies, you can complain more easily, but this is more difficult when dealing with individuals. Consequently, this can cause worries and concerns for the team that hired the freelancer, particularly if they’ve had a couple of faux pas early on. It is more stressful than a consultancy if the quality is not met. Part of the issue is that the market is very high on supply and the interview and screening process tends to be less stringent. I think freelancing platforms should provide a layer of quality assurance and vetting.

Karen: With freelancers, you need to remember that you’re not buying an established brand and protocol; you’re buying a personal brand and they operate very differently. You have to understand the style and motivation of a person, but once that’s in place, you can be quick to achieve your outcome. We occasionally have issues, such as freelancers who don’t check in early enough when they’re not clear on the brief and then they have to back-pedal as a result. We’ve also had one or two experiences where the freelancer wasn’t quite as fast at eliciting the information, and you need to allow for the fact that they will lack some of that institutional knowledge and knowledge of the acronyms etc. But our experiences have mostly been very positive.

Lukas: Along with the cost, the legal challenges involved, as it’s a whole new way of engaging employees, particularly when offshoring. There is also the cost of getting everyone together on-site every now and again. And there are the tax issues. You need to have good advice to get it right and, when going offshore, any cost-savings can be illusory.

While our discussion only provides a snapshot of what freelancing looks like in these three global economies, what is clear is that independent professionals are infiltrating all areas of business, in a multitude of different ways. Each company is unique and must, therefore, look at its own business and talent objectives, and decide how freelancers can help it to achieve those. However, there’s plenty of food for thought on how freelancers can help drive business growth, wherever you are in the world!