Self-employment in the UK is at its highest level since modern records began. Not only this, but 2 out of 3 new jobs created in the UK since the financial crisis are due to self-employment. The vast majority of the almost 5 million of us self-employed workers (yep, me too) are ‘solo self-employed’, in other words – freelancers.

(‘solo self-employed’ could of course mean you run e.g. a one-person artisanal business, but many of the issues faced in this context are similar to a freelancer working for a client, so I’m going to use the two terms interchangeably)

Freelancing is on the rise, and our current economic and social conditions seem to point to it increasing further in the future, as workers are either forced into it by technological unemployment and neoliberal workforce-shedding practices, or seek to escape zero-hours contracts and the downward-spiralling wages of soulless bullshit jobs.

Going it alone involves difficulties for most people, with both economic and social disadvantages reflected in the fact that self-employed workers earn almost half what employed workers earn and they are more vulnerable, isolated and exploited in some ways than their employed counterparts. On the other hand, there are the advantages: what many freelancers gain from their position, and that is highly valued, is autonomy, flexibility and freedom.

There may always be some trade-off between benefits and disadvantages with freelancing, but there are systems and structures that can help to reduce the negatives of precarity (no sick pay, unsteady income) and exploitation from and vulnerability to clients. This report contains examples of organisation set up specifically to assist the self-employed, such as the Freelancer’s Union in New York, the IPSE (Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed) in the UK, and BECs (Business and Employment Co-operatives) in France. Organisations to support the freelance workforce are hugely important, and we need to expand the ones we already have, and look to new structures as they emerge.

I’m really interested in the culture of freelance work – what are the norms and behaviours that pervade this space, how much of the ways of doing things in a company bleed through into the behaviour of freelance workers, and how could cultural shifts among the freelance workforce overcome some of the aformentioned disadvantages of self-employment.

I’ve worked in shared workplaces for the last 3 years – spaces that are inhabited mostly by freelance individuals or startups, and occasionally small established companies. From conversations with people in these spaces, and with other friends and contacts, I made a few observations:

– Freelancers often bid for and win work as individuals, even when sometimes the work could be done more efficiently by a team of two or more

– When freelancers do work as a team, the contract is often won by an individual or an agency, and the team members are then treated as temporary employees of the contract-holder

– Teams of freelancers are almost always assembled according to word-of-mouth and existing relationships.

Taken together, my conclusions are that freelancers are often either completely on their own, and wholly responsible for delivering their work, or find themselves in temporary hierarchies, where the rules aren’t all the different from working as an employee: you have a boss, someone else pays your wages, and you do as instructed. It’s also hard starting out, when you don’t have the right contacts or networks to draw on and start collaborations. This isn’t the way I wish to work as a freelancer – the ideal for me is to work with people (but not for them) and to engage in a collaborative process with collective, shared responsibility for delivering a piece of work.

I would love to see a change in the culture to collaborative, co-operative freelancing, which is what gave me the idea for CoPitch – a web app that aims to facilitate a move in this direction, through promoting co-operative principles and shared responsibility from the very beginning of the pitching-for-work process. In May, Outlandish supported me with an Outlandish Fellowship to create an alpha version, and now it’s being used internally to pitch for new work.

We’ll be reporting back soon to show how it’s working out – in the meantime, if you’d like to sign up to trial CoPitch later this year, then please go to this website and sign-up.