FEATURE28 April 2021

Surfing the wave: Freelancers and Covid-19

Covid-19 Features UK

Freelance researchers are used to ups and downs, but none quite as extreme as those experienced in the past year. How did they respond? Liam Kay reports.

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It is probably safe to say that March 2020 will live long in the memory. The pandemic has been a new experience for everyone, requiring significant adjustment to new ways of working and an accompanying economic crisis raising doubts about long-term employment.

Freelancers are, by the very nature of their work, in a precarious position when an economic shock the size of Covid-19 hits. How have they coped in a turbulent year?

The Independent Consultants Group (ICG), which represents freelancers in the research industry, asked several of its members for their views on the pandemic, finding that many had seen an initial drop-off in work during the first lockdown, from March to July 2020.

Experiences differed from sector to sector, with those specialising in leisure, tourism and hospitality having a tough time as the respective industries closed down.

Long-term impacts cited by members include delaying retirement, broadening their client base, instigating more collaboration, or changing employment completely.

Karen Elton, qualitative and quantitative researcher at Elton Research and head of marketing at the ICG, says that the freelance experience has been mixed, but notes that freelancers, by nature, are normally quite resilient. “Everyone’s experience has been different,” she explains. “There were some people who struggled and a few who are still struggling – it is difficult when you are out of the loop to reconnect and get the work back in, and so some people have not yet got work back up to the level it was at before the pandemic. Yet other people have done very well.”

Elton adds: “It depends whether you are working mostly for clients or mostly for agencies. There were some bigger projects that were multi-stage or multi-country where people were unsure about whether to go ahead at that time or not. Initially some people, who hadn't done it before, were nervous about doing face-to-face work online.”  

Graham Booth, managing partner at qualitative consultancy Movement, says that the pandemic has been a bumpy ride, but an overall positive experience, forcing him to try new approaches and reinforcing the importance of strong long-term client relationships.

“At the start of 2020, I had so many projects lined up I was wondering how I would handle them if they all were commissioned. Then lockdown came and everything went off a cliff,” Booth says.

“Fortunately, Zoom arrived to save the day. I frequently run client workshops, but only ever with everyone together face-to-face, so the prospect of running this session over Zoom was terrifying. However, despite my fears, it went incredibly well.”

Booth says that the ICG has helped provide a strong support network for him during the pandemic and the various lockdowns. He also says government support schemes such as the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, deferred tax and VAT payments, Business Bounce Back Loans and mortgage repayment holidays helped overcome any cash flow issues stemming from the first lockdown.

He argues that in the second half of 2020, business began to pick up substantially and recover to pre-pandemic levels. “After the initial lull, I think businesses realised the pandemic was not going to be over any time soon, and they could not sit on their hands and wait it out,” he explains. “Over the course of the year I became increasingly busy. Several of the projects were commissioned by clients with whom I had not worked for years, but they were all people I had kept in touch with.”

Konrad Collao, founder of micro-agency Craft, underlines the difference between the uncertainty of the first lockdown and the recovery seen since. “The first couple of months, there was a complacency that the pandemic would be over in a couple of months,” he says. “This was followed by the realisation that it wasn’t going to be as quick as thought, and large organisations had to come to terms with what it meant for them, and the briefs just stopped.

“In September, the floodgates opened – there was a pent-up demand. Budgets needed to be spent. Ever since then, it hasn’t stopped.”

Some have decided to become freelance during the pandemic, underlining the recovery parts of the industry are seeing in recent months. Tarek Chaudhury, a qualitative researcher and senior strategist, chose to go freelance late last year, having worked at Discover.ai through the early months of the pandemic.

“In many ways I know I’ve been fortunate in my experience as a freelancer,” Chaudhury says. “I don’t take the work I get for granted at all and know that chance has been kind to me; had I decided to go freelance just a few months earlier than I did, things could have been very different.”

He says he has had plenty of work since deciding to go independent, but it has still been an extremely challenging year personally. “In many ways this pandemic has mirrored the ups and downs of life as usual but on fast forward,” he explains. “On a personal level, I’ve had to find new places to live twice in the last year, people I’ve known have become ill and a number of people have sadly died. Some of my loved ones have also faced other hardships with employment and mental health problems as a result of this pandemic.

“On the other hand, as an individual I’ve been fortunate to have been relatively healthy and have had very positive things happen in my work life like new jobs and being able to go self-employed out of choice.”

While the past year has been turbulent for freelancers, in many ways it mirrors the nature of freelance work, according to Booth. “Life as a freelancer who works on a project basis for a range of clients rather than on contract is never predictable. In a month’s time I could be busier than ever, or I could be staring into the abyss. It was ever thus,” he says.  

“Covid-19 feels like this with bells on. The only way to handle it is by doing the stuff that has always worked before: keep in touch with people, generate content in which people are interested and work the network. Take your foot off the gas pedal and business won’t slow down, it will stop.”