The big choice for career consultants: Go freelance or stay permanent employee?

The career choices facing consultants are changing. Whereas in years gone by, the critical question would have been: “consultancy or in-house?” Or perhaps: “big brand or specialist consultancy?” Now, the big decision for many is: “permanent role or freelance?”

As demand for freelancers continues to rise, thousands of talented consultants around the world are considering going it alone. Whether you’re fed up with the 9 to 5, or just in need of a change, freelancing can sound like the ideal lifestyle: more money, more flexibility, and the freedom of being your own boss.

However, like any career choice, freelancing also comes with its fair share of downsides, and tricky challenges that you don’t have as a payrolled employee. Some consultants take to it straight away, while others decide it’s not for them, simply due to different personality types and styles of working.

So, if you’re considering taking the plunge into the rapidly expanding freelance workforce, it’s vital to have a clear idea of all the pros, and the cons, in order to make an informed decision of whether it’s right for you.

Why to go freelance – or not?

Freedom and flexibility vs. insecurity and juggling

Let’s start with the most widely talked about advantages of freelancing: the freedom and flexibility it gives you.

As a freelancer, you can choose which projects you work on, and for how long, putting you at liberty to take breaks to travel or pursue other interests, whenever you want. In many cases, you’ll also have the freedom to choose your own hours and work remotely, whether from home or a coworking space, meaning you’ll also finally be free from the dreaded daily commute.

But of course, the flipside to all that freedom and flexibility is perhaps the most significant barrier to going self-employed – worries about financial insecurity. The thought of giving up a secure paycheque and predictable salary is a significant psychological jump for many professionals, particularly if you have a mortgage to pay and a family to support.

Freelancing can be unpredictable at first, and certainly takes some adjustment. Some people find the constant pressure of lining up the next client extremely stressful or become overwhelmed by the constant juggling involved. Many freelancers end up feeling that they can’t say ‘no’ to anything, but then end up with too many projects to handle. It can be a constant balancing act.

However, it does get easier over time, and after a couple of years, most freelancers start to feel more secure. Once you’ve built up a reputation, contact book and have a roster of clients, the worry of where the next paycheque is coming from will gradually diminish. And needless to say, it helps enormously to have a financial buffer in your bank account, so you feel safe that you’ll be covered for any inevitable dry months along the way.

Control and autonomy vs the admin burden

Another common motivation for freelancing is to ‘be your own boss’ and have greater control over your destiny. And there’s no doubt that the majority of proudly independent professionals enjoy that sense of being autonomous and doing things their way, free of the workplace hierarchies and office politics. For many freelancers, this is a vital deciding factor.

However, being your own boss also has a significant downside: the dreaded admin. From sending and chasing your invoices, to tracking your expenses, and filling out your tax return, the paperwork quickly mounts up when you’re working on your own.

As a freelancer, you have to accept it as the price to pay for the career and lifestyle that they want. But bear in mind that you need to be extremely organised to stay on top of it. It can end up sucking a good few hours of your time every month – time that you won’t be paid for.

Isolation vs. peace and quiet

Your feelings on this really depend on your personality type.

If you’ve always worked as part of a team or big company, freelancing can seem like a very isolated lifestyle. Suddenly you’re out in the wilderness on your own, with nobody to talk to, to ask for advice on client issues, or who will check in about your wellbeing and stress levels. It’s normal to worry that you might feel a bit cut off from society.

And it’s fair to say that most freelancers don’t enjoy the same work social life as those in permanent teams. Taking a permanent role gives you a sense of camaraderie and being part of something bigger, that is difficult to replicate as an independent professional. So, if that’s something you care about, then freelancing might not be for you.

Having said that, if you’re more of an introvert, you might thrive when working alone, relishing the space to think and focus, without constant meetings, interruptions and enforced team bonding.

And remember, whatever kind of environment you thrive in, there is a rapidly growing selection of coworking spaces where you can find a community to be part of. Alternatively, you can focus on projects where you spend more time on-site with clients, to retain that social and team atmosphere that you crave.

Higher pay vs employee benefits  

Is it really true that you’ll get paid more as a freelancer? On paper, it will certainly look that way in many markets. The prospect of charging a day rate can be very attractive and totted up across the year is likely to promise you a healthy increase on your monthly salary. However, do your research as this is not true for all markets and segments!

Self-employment also usually comes with some tax benefits, particularly if you choose to set yourself up as a limited company (again, you need to take advice to see what the situation is in your particular country). Although bear in mind that governments are now moving to limit these loopholes, in a bid to ensure the rapidly growing independent workforce pays its fair share.

And again, there is another side to the story, as any perceived pay rises should always be balanced against the employee benefits that you’ll lose as an independent. That’s no holiday pay, pension, health insurance, or gym membership, so replacing these will eat into your salary. Most freelancers will tell you that giving up your income every time you go on holiday can be particularly painful!

Ready to take the plunge?

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer and as with any big life decision, you won’t truly know until you try. If freelancing is an itch you need to scratch, then why not take the plunge and see for yourself whether you love it or not. Before you do, make sure to check out all the resources on this site, perhaps starting with this one. However, if the draw of a permanent role is too great, then perhaps a new position, or a different company, will give you the career boost you’re looking for. Stay honest, being an independent entrepreneur is not for everyone and there’s no shame in that.

Either way, businesses need great people on both sides of the equation. The key is knowing where your strengths lie, then finding the best, and most fulfilling way to put them to work!