There was talk of the great resignation and the tech talent crunch in Southeast Asia. While we didn’t really see the full impact of the great resignation, there was a perceptible shift in the employer-employee landscape.
This has led to change in many industries with employees realising they have more say in their careers and some businesses learning how to adapt. There is also a underground swell of those looking for non-traditional career alternatives and freelance might be the answer.
With so many talented people around the region, access to talent and retention of talent is a challenge. Outsized, a specialised freelance talent acquisition platform, is looking to fill in that gap and create a new category of work in Southeast Asia. Focusing primarily on technical and specialised project-based roles in management consulting and financial services, the company helps businesses find the right talent and provides experienced freelancers with a way to generate income without a traditional full-time job.
They estimate that there are around 20 million freelancers in the highly skilled segment of the market including Southeast Asia. This presents a lot of opportunities for businesses to access talent and might be a solution to a growing talent problem in the region.
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We speak to Anurag Bhalla, the Managing Director and co-founder of Outsized, about the freelance industry in the region and what it means for the Southeast Asian region.
What are some of the common misconceptions that companies have about using freelancers?
In Southeast Asia, many companies are still surprised by the fact that the market is so developed as it is in terms of skilled independents; both in Singapore and in the other larger economies in the region! There is a thriving freelance scene, with people choosing to go freelance by choice, not by necessity. The myths about the security and development opportunities in permanent employment are being busted, not least in our region.
There have also been historical concerns that using the talent you don’t ‘own’ brings more risk. However, with the curation and quality assurance, we do at Outsized and the increasing reality that the people organisations were happy to hire permanently are now the same people making up the independent ecosystem, this concern is reducing. This is helped by positive experiences and the fact access to agile talent now represents a competitive advantage for organisations.
For the talent side, there are cultural and social norms that are still needing to be broken down. Success has historically been connected to your job title or the brand you work for and so going home and telling your family you’re a freelancer can often create concerns amongst generations that have only known and seen a traditional approach to how a career is built. However, seeing how successful independents working alongside them can be, the careers they can build, the rates they can earn and the flexibility they gain is helping to provide tangible reassurances and making freelancing an aspirational career choice.
Individuals are increasingly seeking more control of their own careers. People’s identities are now more defined by their skill or area of expertise as opposed to the organisation they work for and priority has moved to the speed at which they can accumulate a rich portfolio of knowledge, experience and skills as opposed to longevity in a single role or company. In addition to this, the myth of a permanent role being secure is slowly being eroded removing a lot of the upsides as well as a key constraint that had previously slowed the growth of the independent market.
We’re now seeing a market where there is no longer a hard divide between those who freelance and those in perm roles. Professionals now are less bothered by the nature of the contract they are on and instead are more interested in the value they get from each work engagement.
Which industries have been the most receptive to hiring freelancers on a regular basis and in your estimation why?
We focus on enterprise clients in management consulting and financial services, and both of these industries are accelerating their use of flexible talent models at an enterprise level. Clients use us for two main reasons: Either because they need to bring in the expertise they don’t have in-house (ie capability gap), or because they lack the bandwidth to deliver and need more resourcing for a period of time (i.e capacity gap)
editor’s note: some of the examples shared by Anurag include
An insurer or a bank wants to deliver a digital transformation project but lacks certain skills in-house that are needed for the next 6 months. Outsized provides them with those skills from its platform of vetted independents, eg an agile coach, a data scientist, a UI/UX designer or a technology architect.
A consulting firm has won a number of projects and has capacity constraints. Within a few days, Outsized helps them onboard a number of scrum masters, freelance strategy consultants and digital product managers – all vetted and meeting very high-quality demands from the consulting firm.
How do you overcome the issues or concerns of potential skilled freelancers, especially around the uncertainty of freelance work?
Being independent is like running your own business, with all the pros and cons that come with it, including the necessity to find your next project. We recommend that you shouldn’t go freelance until you have secured your first project. The exception would be for those that have given themselves a good runway, say 6 months, and have done the research to validate that there is demand for their skills. For us, the advantage is that our projects are mostly full-time, with great brands and comparatively long durations (typically 3-12 months). This means that freelancers can start off with confidence, and the second project is always easier to win than the first.
What’s more, we have a dedicated team supporting our Talent and providing access to valuable added value services to support their upskilling, help them win more and better projects, whether through Outsized or not and give them a sense of community.
Our community offering allows independents to connect and share knowledge, ask questions to experts and peers, participate in live events, and even find collaboration partners for projects. This provides the critical support network a freelancer needs to be successful.
With the recession looming, how do you foresee this impacting the way Southeast Asian companies hire in relation to outsourcing?
First of all, I’d like to say that we have not seen any signs of a decrease in demand, quite the contrary. At least in the skilled segments where we operate, companies are crying out for experienced professionals who can help them execute key growth and efficiency initiatives in a flexible way.
In uncertain times, companies are reluctant to add fixed costs in terms of permanent employees and there are often hiring freezes rolled out during times like these and so instead opt to hire talent on a flexible / project basis which shifts their cost base from fixed to variable. Big businesses still need to continue to execute their growth and efficiency strategies but it is critical to do this in a way that provides the necessary flexibility to adapt and pivot in what continues to be a volatile political, social, environmental and economic landscape.
The organisations that win will be those that are able to remain resilient within these conditions and a key characteristic that drives resilience is agility.
What’s next for Outsized?
We remain dedicated to our key client segments within our key geographies: management consulting and financial services are two of the fastest-growing sectors and Asia and Africa represent some of the fastest-growing markets. We’re passionate about growth markets and feel we have a critical role to play in building the necessary infrastructure to enable the market to work fairly and be sustainable.
From SE Asia, we have already seen our clients pull us into adjacent markets such as HK, Japan and Australia and so there are some organic expansion opportunities which we will of course continue to assess and pursue when it makes sense to do so.