Will COVID spark the demise of the 9-5?

women sitting on bed with laptop and a cup of coffee

This year, myself and several people I know have gone through a very similar experience when it comes to work: after losing our jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve decided to go freelance or set up our own businesses.

For quite a few people I’ve spoken to, it’s something they’d always thought about doing, but they imagined it would be further into the future. Then the whirlwind that has been 2020 came along and hit the fast-forward button.

That was certainly the case for me. I’d always planned on working for myself at some point in the future, and when I found myself redundant in March, I figured: no time like the present!

But this isn’t the only way in which COVID has shaken up the world of work. With practically every office having to switch to remote-working overnight, the pandemic has proved to be the catalyst to a sea-change in the way we work.

We’ve had the technology for remote working and networking for years. It’s never been easier for people to work from home or, as a freelancer, get themselves out there via the internet.

However, these options have never been fully embraced until now, as have we clung on to outdated ideas about what work should look like. Namely: sitting at a desk from 9-5.

Here’s why I think COVID might spark the end of that, and what that could mean for all of us going forward.

Could freelancing *actually* offer more job security?

The downside of freelancing (the flipside to the autonomy and flexibility) has always been the fact that your income isn’t guaranteed. You’ve got to hustle to find and keep clients, and if you can’t work, you don’t get paid.

However, the sheer number of redundancies caused by the pandemic – in some cases by unscrupulous companies looking to save profits before jobs – has been a stark reminder that as an employee, you are often dispensable and your job is by no means safe.

When I lost my job, freelance work was actually a lifeline.

Of course, many freelancers have struggled during the pandemic, and some industries have been hit harder than others.

But as a freelancer, you will usually work for a variety of clients and therefore have multiple streams of income. If you lose clients, you can try and find more.

As an employee, you have one income stream and no control over whether you get to keep it.

Freelancing isn’t for everyone. But for many, being pushed into something they may have been tentatively considering has turned out to be hugely positive, changing their perception of what work can be.

I am a member of a wonderful co-working group for female freelancers and business owners, The Co-Working Club, and I know that several members have had this experience. Many of us feel liberated by the ability to design our own lives in a way that works for us.

An increasing number of people these days are seeking a level of fulfilment and work life balance that a 9-5 office job often can’t deliver (especially us pesky millennials).

With modern technology and the ability to work and network online, easier to achieve than ever.

Barriers to the freelance revolution

Despite my effusiveness about freelancing, I know that many freelancers have been hit hard by COVID-19. A recent article from Freelance Corner reported that nearly a quarter of a million Brits have exited self-employment since the start of the pandemic. The article suggests that this is largely due to the lack of financial support that has been offered to freelancers by the government, compared to what employees of companies have received.

While the government’s job retention scheme paid 80% of the wages of employees who would otherwise have been laid off, freelancers were one of the groups that fell through the gap. For example, to claim a government grant you had to have submitted a tax return for the 2018/19 financial year. This meant no support for those who had recently become self-employed – it’s no surprise that many sought an income from an in-house role instead.

While a rise in freelancing could offer a great alternative means of income for some and meet the demand of companies who can’t afford to hire people in-house right now, the extent to which this happens will also depend on government policy and support for freelancers going forward.

Employees can and *should* enjoy more flexibility too

Of course, not everyone has the opportunity or the desire to go it alone and work for themselves. However, as we all know, COVID has prompted a huge and sudden shift in the way we all work: namely, the majority of office workers have had to work from home this year.

Many have found this quite a seamless switch in terms of the ability to carry out the work. As I mentioned earlier: the technology has already been around for a while.

In a 2019 workplace survey, over 50% of people cited “challenging a long-standing non-flexible working culture at a company” as being the largest barrier to a switch to remote and flexible working. As well as old habits dying hard, a general mistrust of employees carrying out work unmonitored is probably a big contributor to this.

But now that companies have been legally-obliged to let people work from home where possible, as long as the work’s still getting done, they don’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to refusing to let people WFH.

Personally, I think it makes good business sense too. A study by Oxford University found that happy workers are 13% more productive, and a lot of people will be happier if they can forgo a gruelling commute, pop out and pick their kids up from school and be able to sit and have their lunch in the garden.

Of course, many people miss the social aspect of the office, and sometimes face-to-face meetings are required, but that’s the beauty of flexible working: it’s flexible. If employees can choose when and where they work, surely they are likely to be happier, and therefore more productive?

The new status quo?

The pandemic is ongoing and everything is still in a state of flux. But we’ve already seen some major changes taking place in the world of work, and it will certainly be interesting to see what the “new normal” (sorry) is when the dust settles.

I for one hope that we see people having more autonomy and the ability to create fulfilling lifestyles that work for them.

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