A State of Independence
The world of work is rapidly changing, and nowhere more so than at the professional end of the so-called ‘gig economy’. Highly skilled and experienced professionals are leaving the confines of the corporate world and going it alone. As liberating and entrepreneurial as this may seem, it does throw up a number of challenges that often go unnoticed.
No safety net
Devoid of the usual trappings of being part of, say, a large MNC, with all that that brings, how do experienced independents manage their wellbeing when the safety net is taken away? Independent professionals who are self-employed value the autonomy they have, unshackled from corporate stresses. They have the freedom to innovate, express their own views, have influence beyond their own role and compete with other companies and people. All of these factors lead to an increased sense of wellbeing and purpose.
However, this is not to say there aren’t challenges with working on the outside of corporate life. As an independent you are walking away from the security, guaranteed income and often generous benefits packages that come with corporate full-time employment. It can be daunting and at times stressful: the fear of the unknown.
As a full-time employee in a mainstream consulting firm, you have guaranteed income, probable upside in the form of an annual bonus, benefits that usually include private medical insurance, gym membership, pension, paid sick leave, paid annual leave, life insurance, maternity/paternity leave… the list goes on. As an independent all of these benefits are removed: it’s up to you to earn enough to replicate them for yourself. And that is not easy. It can often lead to stress and a reduced feeling of wellbeing.
The death of the pyramid?
And yet, the supply and demand of independent professionals is steadily increasing. Harvard Business Review estimates there are 150 million workers in North America and Western Europe who have left the corporate world to set up on their own. Furthermore, a recent report by think tank IPPR found that almost a third of people working in the professions in the UK are now self-employed. In professional services, management consulting is seeing the highest rise, driven by clients demanding more flexible and cost-effective solutions, challenging the traditional pyramid structure of mainstream consulting firms.
This professional gig economy is thriving, and the reasons are broad. As consultants reach senior levels in consulting firms, the role shifts significantly: away from delivering projects, and into client and business development, which is not always attractive despite the financial incentives of a partner. Often intrinsic motivations outweigh the extrinsic ones. In addition, to progress through to partner, the ladder is becoming increasingly precarious.
So people are leaving, disillusioned with corporate life. They want to improve their work-life balance and take control of their career. A survey by IPSE, the association of independent professionals and the self-employed, mirrored this in their research last year, reporting the top three reasons to go independent were better work-life balance, control of work and maximising earnings.
Supporting the self
Finding positive wellbeing in your independent working life, encompassing everything from health and happiness to stress-free working conditions and freedom of expression, a strategy of self-discipline, planning and positivity is essential. Without these elements life as an independent can rapidly become isolating and stressful, with potential negative mental and physical health implications.
Baruch Harris is a US based independent consultant to the life sciences sector, and former McKinsey consultant. He reports that being based in Boston, at the heart of the biotechnology hub, has increased both his job satisfaction and his wellbeing. “I tend to travel less because of proximity to my clients. More importantly, I am hired for my specific expertise and tend to be much more focused on value-added activities. The distractions and pressures of internal politics, while not completely absent, are less impactful and much easier to manage or extricate myself from if the dynamics are dysfunctional and the overall cost/benefit of working with a company is not there.” Harris adds that stress from financial instability has lowered as a result of having built a portfolio of clients “alongside my own network whom I regularly enjoy interacting with”.
In the UK, Tracey Barr, an independent consultant to the National Health Service (the world’s largest and oldest public healthcare system and one of the biggest employers globally) and former L.E.K. strategy consultant has experienced this “potential isolation of working alone”. To help, Barr joined a network for female entrepreneurs: “It’s a community of like-minded women, and we each draw on each other for business advice and support. We have monthly business breakfasts, lunches and workshops where we meet. It creates a sense of belonging, an alternative structure to a corporate.”
Alumni networks are an increasingly important way for independent professionals to maintain contact with peers, share learnings on best practice and combat “industrial isolation”. Without a corporate office, it is essential to find places to work to avoid feeling rootless, be that clients’ offices, shared workspaces or a well-set-up home office.
“Working as an independent consultant means you have to take full responsibility for your own health and wellbeing, and this is a very positive thing,” says Andrew Simmonds, an independent consultant, executive coach and former Managing Partner at Accenture. He adds: “You generally have more control over your own time and more freedom to organise your lifestyle in the way that’s best for you. Because I control my own diary, I spend less time in stuffy meeting rooms and am less exposed to the stresses within corporate environments. Yes, there are some downsides: you have to organise your own health insurance; you don’t have the support of a corporate health programme; and it’s much harder to gain access to regular medicals and health checks.
“I’m also acutely aware that my success depends on what I do myself (there’s no corporate machine working on my behalf) so I can see clearly the link between my energy levels and the results I achieve. Maintaining those energy levels is vitally important to me, and that means good nutrition and lots of fresh air and exercise.”
This sentiment is echoed by Wayne Henderson, a former Booz & Company Principal, now an independent consultant who lives in Australia and the UK. Henderson feels it is ultimately about control. “You make the decisions; you have the freedom and flexibility to decide what you do, and this can be incredibly liberating. It often has a good outcome for your mental wellbeing.” Henderson is pragmatic understanding that there are downsides of working for oneself, including financial unpredictability, but his motivations are more intrinsic. He became an independent when his first child was born, as he was travelling extensively across Australia. Being independent now means he has taken back control.
Inga Umblija has been an independent consultant since 2007, and is currently delivering a major programme across the Nordic region. “Planning for pay gaps is key,” she says. Umblija has learnt to save money as a buffer to carry her through quieter periods, otherwise she says she would never take a day off. “You have to look at it over a year and plan downtime.”
The longer she has worked this way, the better she has become at managing her time, and the happier she has been. Last year she took a month off, devoting much of it to yoga. “That would be hard for a full-time employee to do,” she adds. Emer Wynn, a former EY Senior Manager and now independent consultant agrees, and suggests “investing in any short spaces between projects, using that time to reflect, re-energise, capture learnings and recommit to purposeful work”.
Life in the professional gig economy can be fraught with anxieties, but it can also be liberating: it is ultimately a choice. Independents must pursue a different kind of success to that of their full-time counterparts, a success based on individual wellbeing maintained through a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.
Our work and our legacy are core to our sense of purpose, and the opportunity to have freedom of choice can enhance our mental and physical wellbeing.
As businesses increase their use of independent consultants, this will in time provide additional benefit of financial security to the freedom they already enjoy. However, as humans we need attachments and a plan, we need routines, we need interaction and we need purpose. Having self-discipline and courage to embrace the independent life can lead to heightened wellbeing, and happiness, but it is a journey that is not without its challenges. The independent’s life has to be managed skilfully, with that in mind.
This article was originally published in Odgers Berndtson’s global magazine, OBSERVE Issue 14.