Covid-19 has given rise to a new era of remote working, potentially opening up more income, and regions, to New Zealand’s freelance economy.
For many of us, the only obstacle that ever stood in the way of a prosperous life in Dunedin was its tiny job market. Now, thanks to Covid-19 and the fundamental changes in remote working it has wrought, we could all finally be free to pack our bags and head south.
In fact, the rise of remote working and freelancing could open up all the corners of New Zealand as viable places to live and work – provided those places have internet. That’s the hope of ecommerce manager Gideon Banks, who three weeks ago launched Needed – an online platform that connects New Zealand freelancers with New Zealand businesses.
“Most people are in Auckland or Wellington because there are more opportunities there,” he said. “I think if people have that kind of choice to work from anywhere, they will spread around different parts of New Zealand.”
A veteran remote worker (and blessed resident of Dunedin) himself, Banks had long been working on the concept of a “local” freelancing platform after struggling to find New Zealand professionals through mainstream sites.
“We needed someone quickly to do some graphic design, a one-time project, but I couldn’t find one platform that was New Zealand owned. It was very difficult to find someone with local context, someone who could create imagery for a local audience. Instead of sending your money abroad, if you can find locals to do the job, why not pay locals? I thought it would have been nicer to do that.”
After seeing the massive economic shocks and rise in unemployment brought by Covid-19, he resolved to finish the project to provide New Zealanders with a way to market their skills to businesses looking for the right people for jobs.
“Freelancing is going to be more relevant now than ever,” Banks said. “The uptake has been really impressive – there are already 250 registered freelancers and 15 businesses, and that’s just the first week.”
According to Stats NZ, only 5% of New Zealanders worked as self-employed contractors in 2019. However, the surge in interest over the past few months has been felt across the industry. Fintech company HNRY, which specialises in financial administration for self-employed, contract and freelance workers, has reported a 260% increase in sign-ups compared to the same three months last year.
“We’ve seen a huge uptake in our services in the last couple of months as more people look to independent earning as a road to recovery,” said CEO James Fuller. “There’s a broad group of people who are unable to work, people who want to take back control of their earnings. I’ve spoken to a few who’ve said that with a single permanent job, they’d almost put all their eggs in one basket and pegged their own income potential.”
As more people lose their jobs, Fuller said freelancing and independent earning was increasingly seen as a way for people to rebuild and diversify their portfolios and “de-risk how they earn an income”, so they weren’t beholden to a single employer who could make them redundant. While many may have been considering moving to the burgeoning gig economy before Covid-19, Fuller said the crisis had “fiercely accelerated the trend” and provided the impetus for those wanting to make the jump.
“The impact of Covid-19 has been such that they’ve suddenly had to look at changing tact entirely or looking at adapting their services to be more digital ready. They’re also looking at shifting how they earn an income without going for the wage subsidy a second time around.”
It’s not just workers who are embracing this shift, however. Over the course of the lockdown, businesses have had to grapple with new methods of operation, abandoning the “antiquated notion” that employees can’t work from home and remain productive. Fuller said more companies had seen the potential of remote working through applications like Zoom and would be more open to using external freelancers or contractors as a result.
“There are more organisations who are starting to think about what we call dynamic resourcing, which is balancing a mix of those permanent staff and a pool of freelance contractor resources and using that as a way to scale the organisation. Businesses are loving the fact that they get that flexibility and are far more trusting of remote workers now given the fact that everyone has got very familiar with Zoom. It’s an exciting time for both sides, really.”
Erin Harrison, owner of platform The Freelance Village, feels the same way, saying that Covid-19 might be the catalyst for New Zealand’s freelance market to finally catch up with other parts of the world.
“New Zealand has definitely lagged behind,” she said. “Kiwi businesses have been very nervous and cautious about trust and cost, and for other reasons. I’ve had freelancers come from the UK or the US and say, ‘What’s wrong with the market here? No one wants to hire freelancers.’”
Now, however, she said businesses would be more receptive to the idea, not only because of the rise of remote working but also the flexibility around costs and timing that freelancers provided – something that was becoming more desirable in a volatile economy.
“More businesses will be looking to use freelancers because they just don’t have the money to employ someone full time. If the nature of your businesses is that it ebbs and flows then you can get freelancers when you need them.”
A freelancer based in Taupō, Harrison has also seen a recent surge in enquiries and visits to The Freelance Village, which operates as a way for businesses to browse and connect with professionals without going through a middleman.
However, as a niche platform, the number of listed freelancers is capped. Harrison said in this way, a recruiting business could be confident they were contracting a vetted and proven freelancer to do professional work whenever it was needed.
“Businesses need to be aware about what they’re getting, which is a professional and expert in their field who can do the job well.”
She also said that through New Zealand-focused platforms, businesses could be more confident that they were employing locals, rather than using the international sites that pit thousands of domestic and overseas freelancers against each other for meagre pay.
“They’re bad operations for what we do down here and they don’t serve our market. We shouldn’t have to fight and we should work more collaboratively. I think there’s going to be plenty of work out there for the right people.”
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.