Executive Summary

Freelancer Confidence Index Q4 2020

Freelancers’ confidence in their businesses and the UK economy

Table indicates outlook for the next 12 months

 

 

Freelancers were asked to rate the importance of 15 different factors affecting the performance of their business in categories ranging from significantly positive and slightly positive, to no impact, slightly negative and significantly negative impact.

 

Executive summary

  • In the last quarter of 2020, freelancers were on average working more but for lower day rates than previously.
  • As the changes to IR35 approach, for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, higher skilled freelancers (SOC1 and SOC2) cited government tax regulations not COVID-19 as the biggest factor negatively impacting their business performance.
  • Freelancers’ 12-month confidence in the economy is at the highest level since 2017, while 3-month confidence is the highest since Q2 2019.

 

The last quarter of 2020 saw freelancers’ quarterly earnings remain at roughly the same level as the previous quarter – despite them working more (their spare capacity – the amount of time they were without work – decreased from 5 weeks to 4.3). This was because freelancers have lowered their day rates by an average of £16. This suggests increasing competition from other freelancers and the need to cut rates to secure contracts while they were available.

The sharpest cuts in day rates were in SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers (from £254 to £232) and SOC1 managerial freelancers (£555 to £526). SOC2 professional freelancers, on the other hand, increased their rates slightly (£519 to £529). The changes in the amount of time worked were also unequal across the sector. SOC2 professional freelancers saw a sharp decrease in spare capacity (4.5 weeks to 3.8), as did SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers (5.3 weeks to 3.9). Managerial freelancers, on the other hand, actually saw an increase in spare capacity – from 5.3 weeks to 5.7. The result was a sharp fall in managerial freelancers’ earnings, which was offset overall by the relative stability in the other two freelance groups.

Overall, freelancers are also concerned about increasing costs hitting their earnings. In the last quarter of 2020, two thirds of freelancers (67%) expected an increase in their business costs – by an average of 7.9 per cent. This is slightly higher than the 7.5 per cent and 6.1 per cent increases expected in Q3 and Q2 2020 respectively.

Another significant development this quarter is that for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, SOC1 managerial and SOC2 professional freelancers have cited government tax policy – not the pandemic – as the most important factor negatively affecting their businesses. This is most likely because of the government changes to IR35 tax policy due to take effect in April this year.

Another factor behind this change is likely to be the comparative optimism about the pandemic when the sample was taken in December. Vaccine programmes were beginning to be rolled out and the government had announced an easing of restrictions during the Christmas break. This may be reflected in the fact that freelancers’ confidence in the economy over the next 12 months was the highest it has been since 2017 (although it remained in negative territory at -27.7). Their three-month confidence in the economy was also the highest it has been since Q2 2019 at -27.8.

There was a similar optimism about the performance of freelancers’ own businesses. Although still in negative territory, their three-month and 12-month confidence in their businesses were the highest they had been since Q2 2019 at -11.9 and -15.6 respectively. It has been a consistent trend since before the EU referendum that freelancers have had greater confidence in their businesses than the economy, reflecting their resilience in difficult circumstances. The fact their confidence was higher for the next three months than the coming year may reflect their optimism before the temporary lifting of restrictions over Christmas. It may also reflect their fears about the long-term damage done to the sector both by the pandemic and also by the approaching IR35 changes. It is possible that given the renewed lockdown measures since Christmas and the concerns about new strains of the virus, the results for the next quarter will be significantly less optimistic – both for the three- and 12-month outlook.

Business Confidence

Business Confidence

 

After reaching the lowest level on record in Q1 2020 (-62.6), the 3-month freelancer business confidence index has recovered to pre-pandemic levels this quarter but remains in negative territory at -11.9. This is the highest confidence rate since Q2 2019, which was the last time we saw a positive confidence index (+3.5).

After many months of uncertainty, multiple lockdowns and confusing messaging, in Q4 2020 the end of the coronavirus pandemic was starting to come into sight with the approval of the first COVID vaccine and the start of its rollout at the beginning of December, when the survey was live. At the time of data collection, the UK was also looking forward to a Christmas with family and friends and positive prospects for the new year.

These feelings of optimism were felt across all three occupational groups with all three seeing increases in their business confidence. SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers saw the highest confidence levels at -3.9 up from -16.5 in Q3 2020. SOC1 managerial freelancers also saw a large increase in confidence with levels increasing from -26.7 in Q3 2020 to -11.2 in Q4 2020. SOC2 professional freelancers saw the smallest increase in confidence and are the most negative this quarter, reporting confidence levels of -20.9 up from -24.9 in Q3 2020.

The relatively lower short-term confidence reported by SOC2 professional freelancers could be explained by the fact that they are one of the groups who are more likely to be registered as limited companies – the legal form that will be affected by the changes to IR35 in the private sector due to come in to force in April 2021. These changes could have a significant impact on their self-employed businesses, with recent research showing that 21 per cent are planning to close their companies and move to PAYE employees as a result1.

Freelancer confidence index for their businesses over the next three months

Freelancers were asked to identify their confidence levels for future relative to current performance in one of five categories comprising: more confident, slightly more confident, as confident, slightly less confident, and a lot less confident. The confidence index is created by scoring each of five answers with 100, 50, 0, -50 and -100 respectively and then taking the weighted average score for the sample.  The weighted average is based on the relative size of freelancers in the labour market in 2020.

 

 

Similar to the 3-month freelancer business confidence, freelancers’ confidence in their businesses over the next 12-months is the highest since Q2 2019 (-6.7) increasing from -30.5 last quarter to -15.6 this quarter.

However, overall, freelancers are more confident in their business performance over the next 3-months compared to the next 12-months.

Looking more closely at the different freelancer occupational groups reveals an interesting story. SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers actually reported positive 12-month business confidence (0.3) for the first time since Q4 2019 (2.6) indicating that they are expecting a turnaround in their business performance over the next 12 months.

SOC2 professional freelancers, on the other hand, reported the most negative 12-month business confidence (-35.7), even lower than their three-month confidence. As mentioned in the previous section, this group are those who are most likely to be affected by the changes to IR35 in the private sector due to come in to force in April 2021 (Q2 2020). This group therefore envisage that things are going to get worse for their businesses over the next 12-months, once the new legislation has come into place.

Interestingly, SOC1 managerial professionals reported the same level of confidence in their business performance in the short term and the longer term (-11.2). This suggests that they expect things to remain relatively stable over the next 12-months despite the possible end of COVID in sight.

Freelancer confidence index for their businesses over the next 12-months

Freelancers were asked to identify their confidence levels for future relative to current performance in one of five categories comprising: more confident, slightly more confident, as confident, slightly less confident, and a lot less confident. The confidence index is created by scoring each of five answers with 100, 50, 0, -50 and -100 respectively and then taking the weighted average score for the sample.  The weighted average is based on the relative size of freelancers in the labour market in 2020.

 


1 Unpublished IPSE statistics, 2020

Factors Affecting Performance

Factors Affecting Business Performance

Top factors lowering business performance in Q4 2020

Unsurprisingly, despite the approval of a vaccine and the beginning of its rollout at the beginning of December, the top factor negatively influencing freelancers’ business performance has remained unchanged since last quarter and is the coronavirus pandemic (73.9%). The percentage of people selecting this as a factor has however dropped by six percentage points from 80 per cent last quarter.

The coronavirus pandemic has also slipped from being the top negative factor influencing business performance for both SOC1 managerial and SOC2 professional freelancers, taking instead the second and third places respectively. Instead, government tax policy relating to freelancing is the top negative factor influencing freelancers’ business performance for both SOC1 managerial (75.0%) and SOC2 professional (83.3%) freelancers.

This is hardly surprising given that freelancers from these two groups are more likely to be registered as limited companies – the legal form that will be affected by the changes to IR35 in the private sector due to come into force in April 2021. The changes to IR35 in the private sector were delayed as part of the government measures to support freelancers during the COVID pandemic. However, as this deadline approaches and things start to look more positive (at the time of this survey) in terms of the pandemic, taxation once again becomes a pressing issue for freelancers. Looking at the overall sample, government tax policy was the third most negative factor influencing freelancers’ businesses, selected by two thirds (67.4%) of those surveyed.

For SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers, who are more likely to be operating as sole traders and therefore less likely to be affected by the changes to IR35, the coronavirus pandemic remains the top negative factor influencing their businesses (71.9%), followed by the state of the UK economy (69.9%) in second place.

Looking at the overall sample, the second key factor that is having a detrimental effect on freelancers’ businesses in Q4 2020 is still the state of the UK economy, selected by 70 per cent of freelancers (70.4%). With continued confusion over the tier system, a second lockdown in November and uncertainties around Christmas, it comes as no surprise that a majority of the freelancers surveyed selected the UK economy as one of the key factors negatively affecting their businesses.

As in previous quarters, SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers were the only group selecting competition from other freelancers (53.1%) as having a detrimental impact on their businesses. This might be associated with the fact that SOC3 is the largest highly skilled occupational group2, and therefore freelancers in this group are more likely to face competition from others with a similar background and skills.

Freelancers were asked to rate the importance of 15 different factors affecting the performance of their business in categories ranging from significantly positive and slightly positive, no impact, slightly negative, significantly negative. 

 

 

Top factors enhancing business performance in Q4 2020

The top three factors having a positive influence on freelances’ businesses remain unchanged from previous quarters.

Brand value and reputation in the market (58.1%) remains the top positive factor for the sector. However, unlike previous quarters, this is not the top factor for all three groups. While SOC2 professional (54.5%) and SOC3 associate professional and technical (62.7%) freelancers selected it as their top factor, for SOC1 managerial freelancers, this factor moved to the third most positive influence.     

SOC1 managerial professionals instead selected innovation in terms of the services they offer clients (63.0%) as the top factor positively influencing their businesses. This is also the second most important positive factor overall with over half (52.0%) of the sample selecting it. However, for both SOC2 professional (42.7%) and SOC3 associate professional and technical (53.8%) freelancers it remains the third top factor positively influencing their businesses.

Similar to last quarter, the adoption of flexible work practices by organisations continues to be an important positive influence for half of the sample (51.7%) and is overall the third most important factor positively influencing freelancers’ businesses. For SOC1 managerial (59.6%) and SOC2 professional (53.1%) freelancers, it is in fact the second most important factor, showing the increasing importance of flexible working practices such as remote working for driving freelancers’ business performance in very tough external circumstances.

SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers, on the other hand, selected targeting new markets (51.1%) as a key positive strategy above the adoption of flexible working practices.

Therefore, freelancers continue to drive their business performance in very difficult external economic and business conditions by taking their own initiative in brand building, service innovation and taking advantage of flexible working practices adopted by organisations, which for SOC3 freelancers also includes targeting new markets.

Freelancers were asked to rate the importance of 15 different factors affecting the performance of their business in categories ranging from significantly positive and slightly positive, to no impact, slightly negative and significantly negative. The list of factors was updated in Q2 2020.

 


2 IPSE, The self-employed landscape, 2020.

 

 

Confidence in the Economy 

Freelancer UK Economy Confidence Index

 

Similar to freelancers’ 3-month business confidence, their 3-month confidence in the economy has been in deep negative territory since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, reaching unprecedented lows of -86.6 in Q1 2020. Despite remaining in deep negative territory, there has been some improvement this quarter with the index increasing from -48.4 in Q3 2020 to -27.8 in Q4 2020. This illustrates that freelancers believe that there will be some improvement in the UK’s economic situation over the next three months (January – March).

However, this index was recorded at the beginning of December when the first vaccine had just been approved and the most vulnerable were starting to have their first dose. Furthermore, the government was promising five days of looser COVID-19 restrictions so that people could enjoy Christmas with two other households. Both these factors spread the optimism that the UK was beginning to get a hold on the virus.

Despite this optimism in December, at the beginning of Q1 2021 the UK has just entered a new national lockdown with cases and hospital admissions exceeding those seen at the initial peak of the pandemic in Spring 2020. The Q1 2021 confidence index could therefore paint a very different picture to the one reported here.

The increase in short-term economic confidence was seen across all three freelancer occupational groups. SOC1 managerial freelancers were the most positive this quarter with an increase from -52.2 in Q3 2020 to -22.0 in Q4 2020. This was followed by SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers who saw an increase from -47.8 to -24.5 and finally SOC2 professional freelancers whose confidence increased from -46.1 to -35.4.

Freelancer confidence index for the UK economy over the next three months

Freelancers were asked to identify their confidence levels for future relative to current performance in one of 5 categories comprising: more confident, slightly more confident, as confident, slightly less confident, and a lot less confident. The confidence index is created by scoring each of five answers with 100, 50, 0, -50 and -100 respectively and then taking the weighted average score for the sample.  The weighted average is based on the relative size of freelancers in the labour market in 2020.

 

Freelancers seem equally confident about the longer 12-month economic outlook with an increase from -56.2 in Q3 2020 to -27.7 in Q4 2020. In fact, the figure is the most positive it has been since the beginning of 2017. This increase in confidence comes after several quarters in deep negative territory with the index reaching the lowest score on record in Q1 2020 (-77.8).

This increase in confidence indicates that freelancers expect that the UK economy will improve in the coming 12-months as the end of the coronavirus pandemic seems to be coming into sight.

Similar to the other indicators, all three freelancer occupational groups have seen an increase in long-term confidence this quarter. Again, this increase in confidence was driven by SOC1 managerial freelancers who saw an increase of over 40 points from -64.4 in Q3 2020 to -21.0 in Q4 2020. This was followed by SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers who experienced an increase from -53.3 to -27.7, while SOC2 professional freelancers, experienced an increase in confidence from -53.3 to -32.3.

Overall, although freelancers remain negative about the prospects for both their businesses and the UK economy for the next year, they are predicting that the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will start to ease over the next 12 months. However, as we explored earlier in the report, other concerns such as the introduction of IR35 in the private sector continue to impact the sector’s confidence.

Freelancer confidence index for the UK economy over the next 12-months

Freelancers were asked to identify their confidence levels for future relative to current performance in one of five categories comprising: more confident, slightly more confident, as confident, slightly less confident, and a lot less confident. The confidence index is created by scoring each of five answers with 100, 50, 0, -50 and -100 respectively and then taking the weighted average score for the sample.  The weighted average is based on the relative size of freelancers in the labour market in 2020.

Capacity Utilisation

Capacity Utilisation

 

In Q4 2020, freelancers’ spare capacity (the amount of time they are not working per quarter) continued to recover slightly for the second quarter in a row since it reached unprecedented lows in Q2 2020 (5.5 weeks out of 13), but remained very high at 4.3 weeks.

This is still the third highest level on record and means that this quarter freelancers spent 33 per cent of their time without work. The high levels of spare capacity in the last three quarters illustrates that the coronavirus pandemic continues to have an impact on the demand for the work that freelancers do, however this is slowly improving. 

Unfortunately, this is likely to change next quarter with an increasing number of COVID cases being registered and a new national lockdown announced in January 2021, limiting once more the business activity of both freelancers and their clients.

Both SOC2 professional freelancers and SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers experienced a decrease in the number of weeks they spent without work this quarter – from 4.5 to 3.8 and from 5.3 to 3.9 respectively. On the other hand, SOC1 managerial freelancers have seen a small increase in the number of weeks they spent without work this quarter – from 5.3 weeks in Q3 2020 to 5.7 weeks in Q4 2020.

Freelancers’ spare capacity: Number of weeks not working per quarter

The weighted average is based on the relative size of freelancers in the labour market in 2020.

Rates & Earnings

Freelancers’ Day Rates and Quarterly Earnings

Despite a small increase of three per cent in day rates between Q2 2020 and Q3 2020, this quarter day rates have dropped by four per cent from £428 in Q3 2020 to £412 in Q4 2020. This brings freelancers’ day rates to their lowest level since Q2 2019 and suggests that while their spare capacity is decreasing, this may be at the cost of their day rates.

There has however been a lot of variation across the sector with SOC2 professional freelancers actually seeing an increase of two per cent in day rates from £519 to £529 in the last quarter.  SOC1 managerial freelancers have seen a five per cent decrease, in line with the overall sector, with their rates dropping from £555 to £526. SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers saw the largest decrease with a drop of nine per cent from £254 to £232.

An overall decrease in day rates, combined with continued high spare capacity has contributed to a very small decrease in freelancers’ quarterly earnings from £17,305 in Q3 2020 to £17,283 in Q4 2020.

Looking at the differences between the three occupational groups, SOC1 managerial freelancers saw a 12 per cent drop in quarterly earnings from £22,381 to £19,726. This comes after SOC1 freelancers experienced an exceptionally good quarter in Q3 2020, seeing a 29 per cent increase in earnings from the previous quarter.  

SOC2 professional freelancers, on the other hand, reported a ten per cent increase in earnings, from £21,576 in Q3 2020 to £23,648 in Q4 2020, signifying the second quarter of growth in quarterly earnings for this group. SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers also saw a small increase in quarterly earnings of one per cent from £9,786 to £9,851 despite their drop in day rates, as a result of their reduction in spare capacity this quarter.

Looking at the year ahead, freelancers expect their day rates to decrease by a net of 9.1 per cent, with half (51%) predicting a decrease in day rates and two fifths (39%) predicting an increase.

There is some variation in the predicted change in day rates between the three occupational groups. Despite the small increase in day rates this quarter, SOC2 professional freelancers expect their day rates to drop the most over the next three months (-12.7%). SOC1 managerial freelancers expect an 11 per cent net drop in day rates over the course of the next year and SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers predict a 4.6 per cent drop.

Overall, freelancers experienced a drop in day rates this quarter but were mostly able to maintain their quarterly earnings due to working more in Q4 2020 compared to the last two quarters. However, with further drops in day rates predicted and quarterly earnings still far below pre-COVID levels, freelancers still have many challenges ahead of them.

Freelancers’ average day rates and quarterly earnings

The weighted average is based on the relative size of freelancers in the labour market in 2020. Employee earnings are based on ONS data on gross weekly earnings by employees. The weighted average is based on the relative size of freelancers in the labour market in the corresponding year. *Employee earnings are based on Office for National Statistics (ONS) data on gross weekly earnings by employees from the provisional 2020  Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, October 2020, the revised 2019 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, October 2020, the revised  2018 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, October 2019,  the revised 2017 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, October 2018, the  revised 2016 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, October 2017 and the revised 2015 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, October 2016 respectively.

Freelancer day rate expected change over the next 12 months

 

Freelancers' Business Costs

Freelancers' Business Costs

In Q4 2020, freelancers expect a substantial 7.9 per cent net increase in the input costs to their businesses. This is slightly higher compared to their predictions in Q3 2020 (7.5%) and Q2 2020 (6.1%).

Two-thirds (67%) of freelancers expect their business costs to increase in the next twelve months compared to only 15 per cent who expect them to decrease and 19 per cent who expect them to remain the same.

Therefore, freelancers are sceptical about the prospect of economic recovery in the next 12 months and are predicting their input costs will increase at levels much higher than inflation.

SOC1 managerial (74%) and SOC2 professional (72%) freelancers are significantly more likely than SOC3 associate professionals and technical freelancers (58%) to expect input costs to their businesses to increases over the next 12 months. Furthermore, SOC1 managerial freelancers are expecting the highest increase in their business costs at 11.3 per cent, followed by SOC2 professional freelancers (8.2%) and SOC3 associate professional and technical freelancers (5.7%).

The weighted average is based on the relative size of freelancers in the labour market in 2020. Due to rounding percentages may not total to 100.

 

Summary

Summary

Overall, the last quarter of 2020 presents a distinctly mixed picture. While there was more work available – at least for SOC2 and SOC3 freelancers, there was also increased competition and freelancers cutting their rates to ensure they secured contracts while they were available. The picture for SOC1 managerial freelancers was bleaker, with them both cutting rates and finding less work available. The result was an average of approximately the same level of quarterly earnings as the previous quarter, but with many freelancers having to work more for it.

Another concern for the sector as a whole is the approaching changes to IR35. These were delayed from April last year and it seems freelancers are still extremely worried about them, with SOCs 1 and 2 citing government tax policy (including these measures) as the top factor negatively affecting their business performance even ahead of the pandemic. With renewed lockdown measures – and continuing gaps in support – still weakening the sector, it is unsurprising freelancers are concerned about the addition of these changes, which were a major worry for freelancers even before the pandemic.

These largely negative trends were in contrast to rising optimism among freelancers about the performance of the economy and their own businesses. However, this optimism may be due to particular circumstances when the survey results were taken: in December, when the development of successful vaccines had been announced and an easing of restrictions for Christmas was approaching. Now, after a renewed lockdown and rising concerns about new strains of the virus, it may be that the results would not be as optimistic. This will be something to follow closely in the next index, for Q1 2021.

Appendix

Appendix

Mission statement

IPSE’s Confidence Index is a quarterly report that tracks the business performance and economic outlook of freelancers across the UK. It is the only established index of its kind, using rigorously tested methodology and a representative sample of the freelance sector.

The index was created both to inform policy on freelancers and to ensure that their vital contribution is understood and recognised. The aim is for the Confidence Index to be the authoritative indicator used by policymakers at the heart of industry and government.

The Sample

The quarterly Confidence Index report for Q2 2021 was compiled from 667 IPSE and PeoplePerHour members who replied to an online survey. The survey is conducted every quarter. In Q2 2021, the survey composition of respondents was: 36 per cent female and 62 per cent male, an average age of 44, have been freelancing for an average of 9.2 years and are highly educated – 29 per cent have a highest qualification at the postgraduate degree level while 54 per cent have a highest qualification at the undergraduate degree level.

 

  

Defining freelance status

Freelancers are a sub-section of the wider self-employed workforce. For the purposes of this report, the category ‘freelancer’ includes the groups with the highest skill levels, the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) Major Groups 1 - 3:

Managers, directors and senior officials

Individuals who have a significant amount of knowledge and experience of the production processes and service requirements associated with the efficient functioning of organisations and businesses (e.g. managers and proprietors in agriculture related services; transport and logistics; and health and care services). 

 

Professional occupations

Individuals who have a degree or equivalent qualification, with some occupations requiring postgraduate qualifications and/or a formal period of experience-related training (e.g. professionals in science, research, engineering and technology; health; teaching and education; business, media and public service). 

 

Associate professional and technical occupations

Individuals who have a high-level vocational qualification, often involving a substantial period of full-time training or further study. Some additional task-related training is usually provided through a formal period of induction (e.g. health and social care associate professionals; protective service occupations; culture, media and sports occupations).

 

Authors and Acknowledgements

This report was written by Joshua Toovey, Research and Policy Officer and Chloe Jepps, Head of Research, IPSE. The data analysis was completed by Dr Samuel Vigne, Associate Professor, Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin.

About IPSE

IPSE is the largest association of independent professionals in the EU, representing freelancers, contractors and consultants from every sector of the economy. It’s a not-for-profit organisation owned and run by its members. We believe that flexibility in the labour market is crucial to Britain’s economic success, and dedicate our work to improving the landscape for the freelance way of working through our active and influential voice in Government and industry. IPSE aims to be the principal and definitive source of knowledge about freelancing and self-employment in the UK. We work with leading academic institutions and research agencies to provide empirical evidence about evolving market trends. This research supports our work with Government and industry and delivers key market intelligence to help our members with business planning.

About PeoplePerHour

PeoplePerHour is the UK’s leading freelance marketplace. Founded in 2007 the site boasts over 2m users across 150+ countries, and has paid out in excess of £100m to freelancers since. Since its inception PeoplePerHour has become an invaluable resource for small businesses in the UK and outside, allowing them to hire expert talent as and when needed, 'on-demand' thereby staying lean and flexible while they grow. The company's mission is to empower people worldwide to live their work dream, building their business from the ground up and becoming financially and professionally independent.

 

 

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