Empowering the Freelance Economy

Remote workforce to spur new microbusiness opportunities and open barriers for talent

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More than 20 per cent of the global workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office, according to a report published by McKinsey.

“If remote work took hold at that level, that would mean three to four times as many people working from home than before the pandemic and would have a profound impact on urban economies, transportation, and consumer spending, among other things.”

With great change comes great opportunity. Rather than seeing this shift to a remote working model as a negative, solopreneurs, contractors and microbusinesses should start to brainstorm how they can adapt their products or services to this new phenomenon and monetize it.

In some cases, freelancers could pool their resources and talent with fellow freelancers to create a much larger business proposition to the remote workforce and to the areas where they are located. On the other side of the coin, they could swoop in and take advantage of empty retail and office space for repurposing to bring that remote and freelance talent together to create new business opportunities in the local community.

With talent now dispersed across the country into more residential areas rather than centralised in major cities, this brings a welcome and unexpected opportunity, according to Carl Reader, a Berkshire-based small business expert and author of Boss It: Control Your Time, Your Income and Your Life

“Nowadays the biggest challenge for a startups’ velocity is access to talent, which is being nurtured in areas like Cambridge and in other cities such as Manchester, where tech hubs are popping up. But COVID has really opened up the barrier, opened up boundaries for accelerators on a regional level,” Reader tells The Freelance Informer.

“Imagine if you had 10 small businesses, sharing the cost of £5000 pounds for a space in an unused retail or office – the many that we see on our high streets today – but they’re not just paying for the physical space, they’re paying for an all-encompassing support service to help them build scale, promote their business, become educated in new strategies and technology, collaborate with fellow founders. All of a sudden, that becomes a facility cost – one they are more than happy to have because it gives back to their business and their self-employed economy,” says Reader.

With the greater acceptance and cost-effectiveness of remote working, Reader also sees time zones as “irrelevant” because if you want to be successful, make new connections and go out of your comfort zone by getting new business in new markets, you soon find that everyone can find a time to match and connect.

“I would like to think nowadays businesses can work anywhere and collaborate with team members globally, even as far as Australia as I have. Even if it’s 11 o’clock at night. It’s irrelevant where they’re working because everyone’s got Slack, and Confluence and all of those tools to collaborate,” he says.

“The bravery of investors now is to accept that a business doesn’t need to be set up in a tech hub. And I think that we’re going to see a rise of many incubators going forwards, but aren’t necessarily just for high growth startups, but long-standing businesses that are adapting and pivoting to new business strategies” says Reader.

Whether the shift to remote work translates into spreading prosperity to smaller cities remains to be seen, but if it is going to become a reality it will because of SMEs, freelancers, and an increase in remote workers working in smaller cities and residential areas.

In the past, MGI research in the United States and Europe has shown a trend toward greater geographic concentration of work in megacities like London and New York and high-growth hubs, including Seattle and Amsterdam.

“These locales have attracted many of the same type of younger, highly educated workers who can best work remotely. It remains to be seen whether the shift to remote work slows that trend, or whether the most vibrant cities remain magnets for such people,” said McKinsey.

Remote v Non-Remote

McKinsey’s research in terms of geographical spread is vast. It conducted its study in a range of countries, including China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“We used MGI’s workforce model based on the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) to analyze more than 2,000 activities in more than 800 occupations and identify which activities and occupations have the greatest potential for remote work,” said McKinsey in a statement.

The study found that remote work potential is concentrated in a few sectors.

  • Finance and insurance have the highest potential, with three-quarters of time spent on activities that can be done remotely without a loss of productivity.
  • Management, business services, and information technology have the next highest potential, all with more than half of employee time spent on activities that could effectively be done remotely. Examples include information gathering and processing, communicating with others, teaching and counselling, and coding data can theoretically be done remotely.
  • These sectors are characterized by a high share of workers with college degrees or higher.

But the sectors that can work remotely are much larger than just these mentioned above ranging from legal, online and small shop retail, bookkeeping, journalism, to web design. Look at our report on Hopin, a UK-based virtual events company that has grown exponentially in under two years and is now valued at £2bn and has a remote-worker model across the globe.

Working from home means no commute and less structured working hours which can accommodate school hours for those that have or take care of children, however, many of us are working harder and longer than pre-pandemic. The meetings can last all day, with little time for a break, especially if you work with an international team across several time zones.

“We’re starting earlier, finishing later, and squeezing out more from the time that we once considered wasted. And with that, our risk of burnout is rocketing, with England’s Centre For Mental Health predicting that 10 million of us will need mental health support as a direct result of coronavirus,” reported Allbright, an international women’s club for female entrepreneurs.

“It’s something that small business owners and self-employed freelancers – in other words, those who’ve been doing this WFH gig for much longer – are well aware of,” said the report.

The report cites that some solopreneurs, such as floral artist Bex Partridge knows all about pushing your mind and body too hard: “While her work draws from the gentle ebb and flow of the seasons, she herself has suffered a couple of near burnouts since starting her dried-flower business Botanical Tales just over four years ago.”

Remote workers may also shift consumption patterns, according to McKinsey. “Less money spent on transportation, lunch, and wardrobes suitable for the office may be shifted to other uses. Sales of home office equipment, digital tools, and enhanced connectivity gear have boomed.”

This is where freelancers and small businesses should look at what services remote workers may require if they are working more hours and have less downtime. Here are a few examples:

  • Mental and Well Being Health Services and Products
  • Localised errand services: parent helpers (school runs, pre-made lunch box meals, babysitting, tutoring), laundry collection services, dog walking, farm and butcher shop order collection
  • Mobile breakfast and lunch meal delivery service
  • Mobile barbers, hairdressers and beauty and massage therapists
  • Personal trainer
  • Career and personal development coaches
  • Window cleaning and exterior maintenance
  • IT repair and diagnostic services for high-security remote workers
  • Mobile car repair

However, more than half the workforce has little or no opportunity for remote work, the McKinsey report reminds us. “Some of their jobs require collaborating with others or using specialised machinery; other jobs, such as conducting CT scans, must be done on location; and some, such as making deliveries, are performed while out and about,” said the report.

Many physical or manual activities, as well as those that require use of fixed equipment, cannot be done remotely:

  • These include providing care, operating machinery, using lab equipment, and processing customer transactions in stores.

Some such jobs are low wage and more at risk from broad trends such as automation and digitization.

While the report suggests remote work thus risks accentuating inequalities at a social level – that is only if new shifts in how we work and live are not seen as new business opportunities that can be monetized for the convenience of the remote worker and to the financial benefit of the non-remote earner.

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