Amanda Pocock was working full-time as an interior designer at an architecture practice in Sydney when the pandemic hit in March of 2020.
“Even though the industry hasn’t really suffered very much, there was a lot of insecurity around developments,” Pocock told Business Insider Australia.
A lot of projects were paused, and the majority of the staff in the office were placed on JobKeeper, she said, including herself.
“I just felt incredibly insecure.”
Pocock is one of thousands of Australians who, having lost their jobs or faced mounting insecurity as a result of pandemic lockdowns, turned to the gig economy.
Australian outsourcing platform Airtasker told Business Insider Australia it’s seen rocketing demand for freelance workers since the start of the pandemic.
It said demand has been highest for those with copywriting and graphic design skills, along with web and app development.
Following these were tasks around marketing and social media support, financial and legal advice, and data entry.
Business-related freelance work also spiked at the start of the pandemic, which Airtasker has attributed to companies seeking short term expert guidance in navigating changes in consumer behaviour and demands.
Airtasker recorded a 24.8% increase in finance and business tasks over the past 18 months, along with a massive 48% increase in general business and administration tasks overall.
Similarly, sales and telemarketing tasks listed rose by 90%, and social media support increased by 45%.
Demand for marketing, surveys and internet research rose 145% and website and app development rose 21%.
The company’s findings track with the continuing expansion of the gig economy, boosted by businesses seeking to reach customers in new ways under lockdowns, but reflective of the growth of the sector overall.
Tim Fung, co-founder and CEO of Airtasker, told Business Insider Australia he saw this growth as a positive.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of people offering skills remotely,” Fung said, adding that the platform enabled many Australians to “make money over the last 18 months” they might not have been able to otherwise.
“Throughout the pandemic, we also saw business owners using Airtasker to find skilled Aussies to help them take their business to the next level,” he said.
Opportunity out of uncertainty
Jennifer Down, a novelist who until recently worked full-time as an in-house copywriter, left her job at the start of the pandemic. Since then, she has mostly found work through her network rather than gig work platforms, but noted that the financial stress of lockdowns has impacted her workload.
“A lot of my clients or prospective clients were in the UK when it got its second or third wave, maybe in November-October. And so a lot of stuff fell through then,” Down said.
Kiki Tse, a graphic designer based in Sydney, has been freelancing for the past seven years. They said the pandemic didn’t diminish their workload so much as change the kinds of companies looking to staff projects.
Tse said the biggest increase had been from “old school” businesses looking to reach their audience online during the pandemic, with a noticeable increase in demand for motion graphics, animation and social media projects.
“People who can’t run their businesses are suddenly looking at websites, they’re looking at social media – that whole ecosystem they’re trying to get into,” they said.
One major new client since 2020 has been TikTok, which has ramped up advertising efforts, they said, along with “florists, bakeries and those physical services” pivoting to reach potential customers.
Jess Dally-Butler has been a personal trainer for around eight years and worked primarily through gyms before the pandemic.
She said while lockdowns forced her to strike out on her own because gyms were shuttered, it has opened up freelance opportunities she had never previously considered.
“Lockdown has been probably one of the best things for PTs,” she said, as more people saw the benefit in investing in the additional cost of a personal trainer.
“You get an influx every time there is a lockdown because people are obviously not paying [gym] membership fees, they’re not going out, and they find themselves willing to spend that little bit extra on fitness.”
Dally-Butler said since the first lockdowns in 2020 she has seen an around 15-20% increase in business, with clients seeing the benefits of training outdoors with more personalised attention, and then staying on rather than returning to the gym.
She said the other benefit has been a boost in take-home income.
“You’re quite obviously limited when it comes to an employed position,” she said, because “gyms take a certain amount of money.”
Platforms lend legitimacy to freelance work
Pocock said she started freelance work by finding “tiny jobs” on Airtasker and other gig platforms.
“Just to kind of get like a little bit of evidence to use on my website and that sort of thing.”
She said while she found the pay to be lower than what she’s charged for projects in recent months, platforms are a valuable way to get professional freelance work as a beginner — particularly important in fields like interior design where exclusivity is generally built into employment contracts.
“Every project really just sort of ups my legitimacy,” Pocock said.
“It was a good experience because it was what I needed to do at the time.
“There was definitely the feeling that the people who were putting tasks on there or finding services through that particular app, there was very little value placed on the work. But it was a good opening point, which I don’t think is really anywhere else.”
Tse said they rarely use platforms, preferring their personal network or even Facebook groups over gig economy services.
They said for creative work, freelance platforms, particularly those that source global talent, push prices down.
“You have to put all your work up there, and then you have to compete for this job that you might not get even or get paid for,” they said.
‘The experience of working for myself has been amazing’
Fung said the pandemic accelerated gig economy trends, and believes the next generation of employees will embrace flexible working even more.
He said a recent internal survey examining the working habits of Gen Z found 36% said they would prefer to have multiple income streams, and 33% believe it is important to diversify your income.
Dally-Butler said while adapting during the pandemic has sometimes been stressful, as restrictions barred her from seeing clients outside her five kilometre radius, she said the benefits have outweighed the uncertainty.
“It’s kind of opened my eyes to possible opportunities and kinds of options that I wouldn’t have really thought about doing before,” she said.
“It’s allowed me to have complete freedom.”
Pocock said the pandemic in some ways took the decision to take the plunge into working for herself “out of my hands.”
“I was in a position where I really didn’t think I was gonna get that job back. And I didn’t think there was any opportunity to find a new job at that moment in the pandemic.”
She also echoed a shared sentiment that the uncertainty endemic in freelance work had spread to almost every sector.
“It made me realise how fragile any job is,” she said.
“The experience of working for myself has been amazing,” Pocock said.
“It’s only been good so far in terms of freedom and flexibility and feeling like I’m really sort of doing what I always wanted to do.”
“I definitely feel like being able to work for myself has made that happen.”