The freedom of going freelance - but at what cost?

'I am thinking of going freelance' is a statement I often hear these days when speaking to candidates keen to explore their career options in the London quantity surveying market. This seems to be based on the perception that by working on a freelance basis, you can really enjoy the best of all worlds. The industry news consistently reports of the shortage of quantity surveyors, there is lots of work out there, you're good at your job so why shouldn't you enjoy the perceivable benefits of going freelance? Here's an objective overview of the pros and cons involved:

PROS

Income

Getting paid a competitive day rate if working full-time, consistently throughout the year can definitely be more lucrative than earning a regular salary. The tax benefits can also be substantial working either under an umbrella company or by setting up a Pty Ltd company. Of course, factors affecting your worth include economic climate as well as supply and demand generally within your particular skill set so speak to those in the know before concluding that what you think you want to earn to make going freelance worthwhile is actually within reach.

Flexibility

The idea that you can work when you want for who you want is far from the reality but certainly if you want to take the summer holidays off and gallivant around Europe for 6 weeks then you may be able to (project dependent). Being on short-term notice means if you want out, you are not trapped and being 'your own boss' comes with a general feeling of freedom that many sit at their desks dreaming about. That said, within the context of quantity surveying and due to project commitments, being freelance doesn't automatically entitle you to work from home or choose your own hours. So be sure to clarify your parameters before making the switch.

Diversity

Working for different employers means you will probably be exposed to different projects and a variety of sectors as well as experiencing a diverse range of office cultures and professional approaches. This can be thoroughly enriching and provide you with a wider perspective on the market as well as breaking up the monotony of the otherwise everyday grind, working with the same people on the same projects, day in day out for potentially years on end.

Building your network

Getting exposure to different sectors and projects also means meeting new clients and working with new teams. As well as being enjoyable on an everyday level, this also means you are likely to expand your network within the professional community. This can become self-perpetuating in terms of looking for the next opportunity whereby you may meet a number of different contacts that can help you when the time comes to find something new and potentially in line with your dream role.

CONS

Instability

There is no getting way from it, if the market slows down and you are working on a freelance basis, no matter how long you have been there or how much the client values you, you're likely to be the first to go. Whilst it is true that some employers will take on freelancers in quiet times rather than committing to investing in someone on a permanent basis, you will never be more than a stop-gap and and in a slow market, you may find it hard to secure something new if you need to. If nothing else, you may have to negotiate on your day rate, something that may counteract the reasons you went freelance in the first place.

Lack of career progression

As a freelancer, you are not likely to be given too much strategic responsibility or team management duties. Your role is always likely to be hands-on, providing technical input with a focus on delivery. You may not get much of a chance, therefore, to widen your skills or develop your career beyond your existing limits. You will not benefit from the investment in your career an employer would otherwise provide and in short, your career growth is likely to be stunted by pursuing the freelance route. Should you wish to go back to being a permanent employee at some point, this is definitely something to bear in mind.

Holidays, sick pay, being 'one of the team'

These are grouped together because they are the standard benefits that other permanent staff can enjoy that you will not as a freelancer. Unless you manage your cashflow very carefully, taking unexpected sick leave may see you suffer bad financial as well as physical health. Going on holiday will never be the same again knowing your sunlounger is costing you an additional £300-500 per day that you are not otherwise earning! But worse than this, you are unlikely to ever really feel 'one of the team'. No matter how welcoming and friendly a business, if you are a freelancer you will probably be viewed and potentially treated differently by your colleagues and most likely your boss. This may not bother some in the slightest but be warned if the idea of feeling like a lone wolf puts you off.

Admin

This is a small point but job hunting every 3-9 months or so is a pain. No matter how wide your network or how efficient your recruiter if using one, attending interviews, negotiating rates and the general logistics of moving jobs is time-consuming and requires a lot of effort. The admin itself in being a freelancer is also demanding with the potential of needing an accountant, etc. All things to consider in these busy times.

So, to be a freelancer or not to be a freelancer?

That is very much the question here. Clearly, there are some well known advantages in going freelance from a financial perspective, namely in the shape of tax benefits (although make sure you speak to an accountant on this before presuming a contract rate is actually going to be more lucrative, especially if you have more than one income stream such as rental returns, etc)

However, there are also a number of drawbacks often overlooked by those considering their options. A counter argument I often hear when the above considerations are highlighted is the fact is that you are only looking for a long-term contract, therefore don't plan to bounce around from one freelance position to another and please can I reiterate this to my clients. This is obviously the unicorn role of the freelancing world and something most people are after as a contractor. However, the very nature of freelance means you are often only considered for a position to cover the peaks and troughs of workload (which may dip as soon as they have spiked in the somewhat economically-sensitive property market) or until the right permanent hire can be made.

Of course, such a long-term contract position may be available if you are already known to the employer. In fact, going freelance with an existing employer seems to be the catalyst in the surge of interest in the freelance market generally. Having worked for a particular business as a permanent staff member, some quantity surveyors out there have managed to quietly negotiate with their existing employer to be paid as a freelancer whereby they have done the maths and seen a monetary advantage to this arrangement and have then managed to persuade their boss to concede. The trouble can start when this same person wants to move on and look for their next gig as a freelancer. The expectations of then securing that secondary elusive position of a long-term contract, on a high day rate, with a business to whom you have not yet proven yourself can often become problematic.

It is worth noting that the more senior you are in your career the more likely going freelance is going to work. You are better connected, have more to offer in terms of hitting the ground running and don't have as much to learn or as much career progression to lose out on. However, if you are less than 10 years into your quantity surveying career then make sure you really do your research and think about your next move with a long-term view.

Being a freelancer clearly works for many quantity surveyors out there and there are no doubt many of you reading this that might disagree with some of the above. Nonetheless, my commentary is made within the context of the market I know best which is cost management across the property sectors specifically within the consultancy field (rather than construction and/or infrastructure). Within this context, I can genuinely say I rarely have clients come to me specifically looking for a freelance QS. I do have some clients that will certainly consider freelance staff however, even then, this is as a last resort and the criteria of that person being a perfect fit otherwise is very stringent.

Supply and demand will always rule the day but despite the huge shortage of quantity surveyors generally speaking, in my experience there are far fewer specific contract roles available than there are people enquiring about going freelance these days. 

If you are thinking about taking the plunge from a secure, stable permanent position into your first potential contract role (good luck with your minimum one month's notice period on this note; often prohibitive when being considered for an otherwise urgent start freelance position!), then please think carefully. What is best for some is not best for all. Talk to us or someone you trust about the specifics of your situation and make sure to make an informed decision, not a greedy one!