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Freelance workers provide path forward as pandemic drags on

Short-term projects, side hustles gain ground as remote work goes mainstream


Throughout the pandemic, many industries transitioned to remote work. What started as a short-term solution is now a new way of life for many Canadian employees, and an expectation for new candidates. (DimaBerlin/Adobe Stock)

Remote work and flexible schedules are some of the biggest changes the past year has brought to the workplace.

For freelancers in the gig economy, it’s a normal that’s anything but new. What is new is the increased focus that the pandemic has placed on the gig economy.

A major reason for this growing emphasis is the solution that gig workers provide amongst current cross-industry financial uncertainty.

With many employers unable to support a full staff — and thus many workers without a job — the gig economy offers both parties a path forward when traditional avenues may be unavailable.

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In sectors such as retail, service, and travel, this uncertainty has not just impeded jobs, but has created circumstances where these industries may never recover to their pre-pandemic levels, according to Brian Kreissl, an HR publishing manager for Thomson Reuters in Toronto.

“Many of those people have been forced to pivot and engage in other types of work,” he said.  “I think a fair number of those people likely would have gravitated towards the gig economy.”

Canadians cash in on hobbies with ‘side hustles’ as COVID-19 crisis cuts jobs

Pandemic growth, setbacks

The increasing similarities between freelance and salaried work conditions may also be another factor driving the gig economy’s growth.

Through the blurring of this line, expectations for more flexible and remote roles may emerge, said Kreissl.

From that, “there will be a greater take-up of ‘gigs’ and short projects completed remotely among both employers and employees,” he said.

The indirect and remote managerial style many employers are now working with should lead them to reevaluate freelancers as a viable option.

Meanwhile, employees “increasingly wary of putting all of their career eggs in one basket … will be open to short-term projects and side hustles, either as a way to make some extra cash or to explore a new career they are interested in,” he said.

Gig workers grapple with ‘unsustainable’ business models amid COVID-19

Despite the rise of the freelancer, the gig economy has still been subject to many of the same economic obstacles as the working world at large.

Like the majority of other sectors, contract workers were affected greatly, especially during last year’s lockdowns, said Greg Hussey, president of impactHR in St. Alberta, Alta., and himself an occasional independent contractor.

The influence of these obstacles depends on the area that freelancers operate in. “Some industries were hit harder than others,” noted Hussey.

For those who “primarily worked with start-up companies, I would think they would have seen a decrease in business volume. Same goes if they worked in only one or two industries that were hit particularly hard by COVID-19,” such as tourism, hospitality or gaming.

Managing workers in the gig economy

Contractual clarity needed

With this normalization of freelance work largely the product of widespread uncertainty across industries, the growing role of the gig economy as a solution for workers and workplaces alike may last until things begin returning to a more stable paradigm.

“I think it’s going to go on for awhile,” said Lynn Brown, managing director of Brown Consulting Group in Toronto.

“Until more permanent positions open up, I think there’s going to be more of these independent contractor or gig workers out there, filling these niches.”

As freelance workers become more regularly sought by employers, Brown noted the importance for companies to familiarize themselves with the unique set of protocols and responsibilities that properly managing a roster of contract workers entails.

Beyond distinct employment legislation, a key consideration with gig workers, according to Brown, is maximum clarity regarding the terms and contractual obligations of the work they are being hired to do.

“Managing independent contractors is about being really clear on what the expectations are, and to have a really clear contract that covers both the business and the independent contractor,” she said.

Clarity is most necessary in the scope, objectives, and payment involved in the work being done, said Brown.

“Companies should really invest in getting a good contract agreement if this is going to be their focus going forward — don’t just do it on a handshake. Be really clear on what’s in there and what you’re expecting the deliverables to be.”

Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.