Could a remote work backlash harm freelancers?

One of the benefits of freelancing often mentioned in IPSE research and interviews is the freedom to choose your work location and hours. And while it’s not an option that’s available to everyone, the self-employed sector has led the way to full or part-time careers operating from a home office. 

It’s an experience now shared by many employees during pandemic lockdowns. But since restrictions were lifted, a growing number of articles and opinion pieces propose forcing everyone back to their offices. Company mandates to return may have led to some staff choosing to work for themselves, potentially contributing in part to a boost in self-employment numbers, but could a remote work backlash harm freelancers?

Clients and business decision makers may start believing remote work is less productive and effective, with various bosses and politicians suggesting that  working from home is ‘morally wrong’, ‘lazy’, or ‘second best’. And while a sudden rash of news articles, opinion pieces and studies have tried to position home offices as the reason for  a record rate of long-term sickness in the UK, cognitive decline and a drop in creativity, and even daytime drinking and drug habits, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that for many, home working is a healthier, happier, more economical alternative to the daily commute.

Research by IPSE revealed 84% of freelancers believed remote working positively enhanced their experience, 45% stated it provided them with more flexibility, and the same percentage revealed they had more time available due to reduced travel. While there are certainly challenges to overcome if you’re predominantly working from home, just 3% of those responding felt less productive as a result.

The link between remote working and long-term illness came as part of record numbers recorded as not working due to health problems in the ONS Labour market overview for May 2023, due to an increase in those reporting neck or back problems.

This assumes most people working from home are hunched over their laptop on the sofa, rather than investing in suitable equipment, thinking about ergonomics, doing desk exercises in privacy or using flexible hours for breaks and fitness. And it largely ignores that muscle and joint pain are recognised symptoms of both Covid-19 and Long Covid. 

Freelancing and self-employment also offers more flexibility and options for managing a disability or chronic illness, and many people begin working remotely due to a pre-existing condition. Those who are concerned about the ongoing risk of Covid-19, or are more vulnerable to infection are also able to control their personal level of risk, without being forced back into potentially infectious social settings.

Does remote work lower innovation, creativity, and productivity? It’s possible to find research supporting both sides of each debate. But often the studies don’t reflect the opinions behind shared, for example associating the detrimental impacts of loneliness and isolation with remote working, or reporting on higher rates of anxiety and depression reported by hybrid and remote workers during a global pandemic.

They also seem to ignore the innovations of fully remote companies including Automattic (the makers of WordPress), Zapier and GitHub, or the long history of the self-employed in creative fields, including authors, designers, artists, and inventors choosing a solitary working environment.

Isolation and a lack of social interaction can certainly be a challenge for a proportion of the self-employed. But it’s not mutually exclusive of hybrid or fully remote working. From IPSE local member meetups and other work-related events and meetups, to spending more time with family, friends or on social hobbies, it allows anyone to tailor their interactions to suit their preferences rather than being forced into post-work drinks and office politics they might prefer to avoid.

The outcry against remote and flexible working practices is unlikely to go away any time soon. Aside from the potentially vested interests of those who own or rent expensive office space, a Microsoft study highlighted the productivity paranoia of business leaders who find it challenging to have confidence employees are being productive when they can’t see them hunched over a desk.

Fortunately, it also offers suggestions which will reassure anyone worrying about a remote work backlash harming the self-employed. These include companies focusing on rewarding impact over activity, alongside providing clear goals, and objectives.

And that aligns with the desires of many self-employed professionals, who prefer to work with clear briefs, and deliver valuable outcomes, for their clients, rather than running up billable hours with busywork. 

While some senior leaders may continue to run down working from home, the shared experience among employees and the self-employed community may actually lead to more mutual respect and understanding of each other. And potentially more people deciding that they’d prefer to become their own boss in the future.