Why the Upwork CEO believes the pandemic will lead to more work with freelancers

May 31, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

Upwork, a platform connecting companies with remote freelancers, faces an interesting challenge, according to chief executive Hayden Brown: Customers don’t always want to shout it from the rooftops that they use freelancers. 

“Our customers always talk about us as their secret sauce,” Brown says, noting that clients often say that adding talent from Upwork gives them an advantage they don’t want their competitors to know about. But there’s also a hesitation “to admit that they’re using these alternatives because [using freelancers] can seem unfashionable.” 

The novel coronavirus pandemic might be changing that. Upwork’s CEO believes that the drastic shift to remote work for so many will accelerate the conversation around how companies build their workforce—and employee bases are likely to be constructed in more flexible ways moving forward, she says, with a combination of in-office staff, full-time remote employees, and freelancers. 

Upwork, which grew revenue 19% to $300 million in 2019 and leads the market against competitors like Fiverr, Outsourcely, and Flexjobs, already had thousands of freelancers signing up daily—in 2019, 35% of the American workforce freelanced in some capacity, according to a company survey—before the pandemic. That growth has since exploded as more than 40 million people across the U.S. have filed for unemployment in the wake of a pandemic-induced economic downturn.

“We were seeing our freelancer registration numbers routinely 80% to 100% higher,” Brown says.

Now it’s time for Brown, who took the top job in January after serving as the company’s chief marketing and product officer, to connect those willing freelancers with companies who are, she says, figuring out how to adapt their businesses with a leaner staff. 

“Our platform was built for remote work. It’s built for freelance talent, and suddenly those two things are even more top of mind for executives than ever before,” she says. “We have this surplus of incredible talent that is ready and able to work. So we really are just trying to make the most of this moment to connect these two sides of what’s possible—taking advantage of the fact that people’s mindsets and behaviors have undergone a fundamental change that, I think, will be largely permanent, around how they think about remote work and accessing talent that is not at the next desk.” 

Upwork maintains databases of freelancers in dozens of categories, but the chief executive says that the job skills she’s seeing companies gravitate toward right now track with how businesses have had to shift during the coronavirus crisis. The big three: technical skills to build out web presences; marketing and advertising work to redeploy messaging; and customer support and operations. 

Brown says that new company sign-ups have broken records at Upwork, and she’s excited for what this might mean for what’s to come. Tech giants have led the way with making work-from-home policies more long-term, and some companies are even viewing it as a permanent solution. Being prepared to work effectively remotely is crucial in onboarding freelancers. 

“Companies are really evaluating their fixed cost structure that they have around full-time employees and the level of flexibility they have to spin teams up and down as business needs are changing,” she says, noting that during past economic challenges, companies have tended to bring on contract and freelance employees before resuming full-time hiring. 

And it may be necessary if more of the workforce goes freelance. During the recession in 2008–2009, Brown says, the company saw indicators that people were thinking differently about their relationship with full-time work. 

“The idea that they had this one lifeline of safety and security, and if they were laid off or if that employer was going under suddenly, they were really exposed,” she explains. “So we saw a shift of more people into the freelance workforce.” 

She wouldn’t be surprised if that uptick happened yet again. In the company’s annual survey, which Upwork conducted in partnership with Freelancers Union, the share of full-time freelancers nearly doubled from 2014 to 2019, and more than half of the freelancers responded that they were freelancing out of choice. 

“They preferred this as a better way of working, which is fascinating,” she adds. “And a number of folks also said, ‘There’s no amount of money you could pay me to go back to full-time work.’” 

Brown says she’s talked to freelancers on the Upwork platform who feel more secure during the current economic downturn because of freelancing: They can build a portfolio with multiple clients, so if one has to pull back, they aren’t losing everything. 

So as companies form their COVID-19 task forces and make their plans to reopen, Brown hopes they’ll use freelancers, who she calls a “hidden part of the economy in the labor market,” as a tool in their arsenal—through Upwork, of course. 

“They’re opening their eyes to getting more comfortable working with people who are not on site in their offices and are realizing that they have strategic benefits to be gained through flexing their talent pools much more dynamically than what they’ve done in the past.”