It took a pandemic, but the side hustle finally got promoted…into the C-suite. 

Even before COVID, independent workers were a growing part of the U.S. labor force; by one pre-pandemic estimate, more than a third of workers were involved in the gig economy. In 2020, their wages and participation grew 33%. 

That’s partly because of the economic and emotional roller coaster of the past year and the need for quick decision-making, nonetheless. Or “once bitten, twice shy,” as Stephanie Nadi Olson characterizes it; Olson is founder and CEO of We Are Rosie, an on-demand talent company. “People had to lay off friends and were hesitant to build back up,” she says. “They became open to hybrid models and asked, ‘How do we rebuild in a de-risked way?’”

Based in Atlanta, We Are Rosie is a freelance network of marketing talent that helps brands and agencies staff up. Partly in response to COVID, the company launched Rosie Recruits, which allows employers and employees to try each other out for six months. 

This shift in power dynamics is key to the rise of independent workers. The pandemic ignited people to prioritize values and purpose in their place of employment. Economic uncertainty forces employers to do more with less. And the Black Lives Matter movement prompted scrutiny and introspection, from startups to corporate America, on issues of pay equity, representation, and diversity across all rungs of a company. (Workers of color have long made up a higher portion of the gig economy, a vast category that includes delivery drivers and chief marketing officers.)

recent hiring survey found 92% of respondents thinking it’s a good time to look into gig work. More than half said they would like a long-term contract with flexible hours. 

Even as Americans begin to tiptoe back to in-person work, this desire for flexibility remains.  

Three predictions drove Michael Saloio to launch Huddle, which dubs itself the home for highly skilled independent workers. 

  • The future of work is remote. 
  • The future of company leadership is fractional. 
  • Workers want ownership in what they are creating. 

When most people think of independent contractors or temp work, they think of junior-level talent. Saloio uses the example of a top designer leaving, say, Airbnb after its successful IPO last year. The current landscape of temp work wouldn’t lure that talent, even though it should, Saloio notes. “Those are the people you find through your network,” he says. “Founders are looking for that dream team of people really invested in the project. The process of finding them is super daunting.”

Fractional leadership allows startups to find highly skilled talent willing to work on a part-time basis. Saloio uses the example of a chief marketing officer: “I want a seasoned CMO, but I can’t afford to hire them full-time. So I’ll hire a fractional CMO for two to three days a week. Bring them on while you are growing.” Lastly, he says, “our freelancers can earn equity in the companies that we plug them into. The most in-demand people want upside in their projects.”

Earlier this month, executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles acquired Business Talent Group, which provides independent consultants on-demand, in a show of the blurring lines between full-time and part-time talent search and staffing. “COVID was such an unusually uncertain period,” says Business Talent Group cofounder Jody Greenstone Miller. “The notion that you could do work with someone who is not a full-time permanent employee, there was a greater openness to that…It’s very hard to predict what’s going to work, and you want as many at-bats as possible.”

Three-quarters of those who leave an employer to freelance report making more money than in a traditional job. Some staffing agencies also provide health care and regular paychecks, among other benefits. Most significantly, the nature of the work allows employees to pick and choose what they work on, avoiding rote projects or monotony.

“It’s more about a passion economy,” notes Huddle’s Saloio. “Goldman Sachs for eight years? That is not what Gen Z is doing.”

Business Talent Group was launched in 2007 after Miller, a venture capitalist, noticed a trend among startups: “Every single startup needs talent, and they need talent right away—even talent within big companies.” She notes that the greatest number of conversions from independent work to full-time hires came after the Great Recession ended in 2009, and expects a similar trend in a post-COVID economy. 

Indeed, Carlos Aguilar, founder of Glean, a self-service data company, is emblematic of that trend. After launching in mid-2019 and getting through the past year with a mix of freelancers and offshore contractors in Latin America, he’s ready to hire full-time staff and look for office space. “When we were in the experimentation phase, we were more open to having contractors work on experiments,” he says. “Now we have many paying customers, and we have a more set R&D road map, so we’re looking for full-time folks. The core of the invention happening in a room together is incredibly important.”