The future of the freelance consultant

Consultants haven’t exactly had an easy ride this past 12 months or so. Yes, many of the larger firms were able to rebuild their pipelines after the initial shockwave of the pandemic and end the year in a relatively healthy position, but getting there wouldn’t have been possible without the concerted effort of their workforces. Virtually everyone in the industry—from first-year analysts to senior partners—has had to learn new skills and familiarise themselves with new ways of working and of managing client relationships.

Freelance consultants, however, have had an even bigger mountain to climb. They’ve had to go through that same process of adjustment and do it all without the support structures available to someone safely ensconced within a firm. Making life even more difficult for freelancers was the fact that many clients responded to the crisis by pulling up the drawbridge, so to speak—taking the view that, in a time of uncertainty, it was best to redirect their consulting spend towards large firms with whom they already had a well-established relationship, rather than take a risk on untested boutiques or individual freelancers.

In the years leading up to 2020, freelancing had started to look like an increasingly attractive option for mid-career professionals. Talent-on-demand platforms, like COMATCH and Catalant, made it easier than ever for talented independent experts to connect with clients in need of their services. As clients started taking advantage of these platforms in greater numbers, a positive feedback loop was created. There were some who thought we were well on the way to the eventual gigification of the consulting industry.

Now, though, the risk/reward balance of freelancing has started to look very different. There are still so many unknown unknowns when it comes to the future of both the consulting industry and the world at large. It is difficult to imagine a senior manager at a top-tier firm looking out the window right now and telling herself that now is the right moment to cut loose and trade her comfortable salary and reliable stream of work for the lifestyle of an independent service provider.

So, is the pandemic likely to result in a long-term slowdown in the growth of the freelance community? Well, probably not. It certainly seems premature to declare that this is the end of consulting’s slow march towards Uberisation. In fact, look below the surface and there are some convincing reasons to be bullish about the future of freelancing.

If there’s one lesson consultants have learned from the past year, it’s the importance of flexibility. Firms today understand the value of being able to rapidly scale up or scale down their workforces in response to fluctuating demand. And everyone’s grappling with the same fundamental question: Without stretching ourselves too thin, how can we make sure we have access to the capabilities we need, when we need them—in a world where client priorities can change dramatically at the drop of a hat?

Freelancing could provide an answer to this conundrum. Large firms may well find that making greater use of freelance talent within their resourcing models—and learning how to effectively manage project teams made up of a mix of in-house consultants, ecosystem partners, and individual contractors—is the key to becoming a more flexible and agile organisation—one that can respond faster than its competitors to changing market dynamics and changing client needs.

Even before the pandemic, many firms were already tentatively moving in this direction. Some—like Deloitte with its Open Talent community and EY with its GigNow platform—had even gone so far as to create their own formalised associate networks. In many cases, the infrastructure was already there; what was lacking was the impetus of an external shock to get firms to start taking full advantage of that infrastructure.

Now that COVID has provided that impetus, we could be about to see a significant expansion of the role that freelancers play in the resourcing models of larger firms. Instead of marking the death of the independent service provider, the pandemic may just have paved the way for freelance consulting to play a considerably more important role in the overall ecosystem of professional services.