Urban Work, Independent Work

April 16, 2018

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

Independent Workers - another way to say "freelance" or "independent contractor," or even "self-employed." In 2017, the National Post reported that Intuit Canada says by 2020, 45% of Canadian workers will be independent. Statistics Canada also reports that with trends of joblessness, self-employment rates rise. The Fraser Institute also has concluded that the number of self-employed Canadian workers has increased dramatically in the past few decades - from 1.8 million self-employed workers in 1990 to 2.7 million in 2013. With reports like these, it's easy to see why the Urban Worker Project has created a movement to "give a stronger voice to the growing numbers of independent workers across the country." The group provides resources for independent workers (also often synonymous with "urban workers"), has launched campaigns to get politicians on board with supporting independent workers, and hosts events they call "Skillshares" in Vancouver and Toronto to bring independent workers together and share best practices, network, and learn from each other.

In March, the Skillshare in Vancouver was hosted in partnership with Simon Fraser University's 2018 Community Summit called Brave New Work, and, being someone with the goal of becoming an independent worker, I was able to attend. Here are some things I learned.

Source: Investors Group

The Future of Work is Freelance

Of course, not every single worker is going to be independent in the future, however, there is evidence to show that "alternative work arrangements, such as short-term gigs and self-employment" are becoming "more ubiquitious and mainstream," according to Deloitte, whose website features extensive reporting on the future of work. Deloitte focuses not just on freelance and self-employment, but also on how augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and "alternative workforces," as well as robotics, are shaping the landscape of work today and in the future. (I highly recommend you take some time to peruse the "future of work" section of their website. It is a wealth of knowledge in this area, with too many things to cover here.) They reported in 2017 that millennials are seeking greater stability, but at the same time, seeking more flexibility. Simultaneously, companies in all sectors, from transportation to business services, are "tapping into" freelance workers as a "regular, manageable part of their workforces," and it is expected that by 2030, 40% of US workers will be freelancers.

Source: Wikipedia

The Government Needs to Catch Up

Although work is changing and the number of independent workers is rising rapidly, the government is not catching up. Employment standards in Canada generally do not cover independent workers when it comes to health and dental insurance, Employment Insurance (EI), vacation, or overtime pay. Many workers are working on contracts to earn a living, and many are freelancers and self-employed, doing work for clients instead of as employees of big and small companies. In terms of Employment Insurance, the government has made strides to allow small business owners and other self-employed workers to access "special benefits," including maternity leave and parental benefits, sickness allowance, and compassionate-care payments. But, there are many conditions to satisfy before any EI payments will be made, and many self-employed people are not eligible at all. CBC reported extensively on the program and the tricky catches that are involved.

In addition, many independent contractors are forced by companies to be labelled as such, however, by all definitions, their situation looks like they are employees. Casual or on-call workers face unpredictable income, problems scheduling other commitments and responsibilities, and don't usually have access to the benefits packages of the company where they work.

To combat this, the Urban Worker Project has created a petition entitled "fairness for contract workers," and is actively gathering signatures. They maintain that the "government needs to recognize the changing nature of work and extend protections and benefits to contract workers."

Source: Westmount Psychological Services

Be Flexible, But Know and Take Care of Yourself

Those who are already embarking on an independent career, or who have been independent workers for extended periods of time, must often fend for themselves. As explored in the last section, there is a long way to go before independent workers are more supported by the government's social safety net from which regular employees can benefit. Independent workers must be flexible, adapt to change, know their values, take care of their mental health, and use the tools that do exist for their support.

At the Vancouver Skillshare, as I attended panels and workshops, listened to invited speakers, and participated in roundtable discussions, one theme was very prominent throughout the day: Values. Without knowing your values and what you stand for, it is difficult to be a productive and supportive worker. Core values dictate how you navigate the world, how you communicate with others, and how you do your best work for and with others. It is essential to realize what values you hold when working independently and collaboratively. Another definition of the word "value" is "the worth of something in terms of the amount of other things for which it can be exchanged or in terms of some medium of exchange" -  in other words, the value of your work to help solve a problem that a client is facing. Knowing the value of what you do and pricing accordingly is key when an independent worker.

Being mentally healthy and having a good self-care practice will also go a long way. In a roundtable presentation by Steve Rio of Briteweb, I learned how "focus blocks" can keep you on track with your work and more productive. Steve also stressed the importance of breaks from electronic devices throughout the day, including turning on the "do not disturb" function of a tablet, smart phone, or computer. Steve highly recommends Deep Work by Cal Newport to learn how to get focused in a distracted world. Self care can sometimes be easier when you're an independent worker with a more flexible schedule, and scheduling blocks of time devoted to self care can help fit it in.

Lastly, use tools to support you - anything from mental health apps to events like the Urban Worker Project's Skillshares to joining a coworking community. When you are not employed regularly as an employee, you have to do the work to create your own social safety net.

Are you currently working as an independent worker in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM)? Share with us your advice over on Twitter or Facebook!