It can’t just be me who seems to have a spate of friends suddenly deciding to leave their nice, safe, stable jobs and branch out on their own. Self-employment is becoming more and more popular, and this is borne out by the statistics we see. In 2008, there were 3.8 million self employed people, according to the Office for National Statistics. By 2015 there were 4.6 million, an increase of more than 20% over just 7 years. With the rise of the gig economy, it seems the trend of “going it alone” is one that is here to stay.

What does this mean from the perspective of an employer? Well, organisations everywhere are having to wake up to the fact that, with the rapidly increasing numbers of individuals deciding to go into self-employment, we are seeing a proportional dilution of the talent pool. Not only do we run the risk of losing some of our best employees… we might never have the opportunity to make them our employees in the first place!

Why self-employment?

Is there anything we can do about this? I think the answers may lie in the reasons people choose to go into self-employment. Sure, there are some individuals out there who have an incredible business plan which is going to make them millions and fast-track them to fame and fortune. But they are the minority. If you look more closely at the self-employed, the vast majority of them aren’t doing it because they truly believe they’re the next Mark Zuckerberg. They are doing it for a number of different reasons… and they’re reasons that all employers need to be learning from.

If you speak to people about why they’ve chosen to go self-employed, you’re almost guaranteed to get one of the following answers:

“I just need more flexibility.”

“I can’t cope with [insert frustration] about my current organisation any more.”

“I want to do something I love.”

The irony is, as employers, we can tick all of the boxes which are currently causing our employees to leave and go self-employed. All we have to do is to listen.

Working when you want

Let’s start with flexibility, which from my experience is a factor behind pretty much every single example of self-employment I know. Now, here’s the key thing. The people leaving to go self-employed don’t want to work less. There’s a common misconception that greater flexibility equals reduced working hours, and that simply isn’t true. I think if you ask most people who have gone self-employed they’ll tell you that they work more, not less. The key difference, though, is that they’re working when they want.

Not everyone performs at their best between the hours of 9am-5pm. More to the point, not everyone is able to work between 9am-5pm. More and more, we are seeing people seek to flex their working patterns. And not simply to a four day week, or to work school hours. Those who are self-employed may work an entirely sporadic working pattern. One day, they may be at their desk from 6am-10pm with minimal breaks. The next day they might find themselves logging on briefly in the morning, and then doing nothing further until after dinner with their family at 8pm. The day after that they might work from 6pm until the early hours of the morning.

Whatever they choose to do, the salient point is just that. They have choice. They have the ability to flex their working pattern – and I mean truly flex it, not just align to a revised set of fixed working hours. If they wake up one morning feeling under the weather and not fancying working that day – that’s okay. Similarly, if they suddenly find themselves with a clear weekend and nothing much to do, they can clock up the hours then and give themselves time off during the week. That level of true flexibility can be intoxicating, and it’s the reason so many of those who have been self-employed find it so hard to return to the workplace.

Stopping tiptoeing around the subject

Can we truly emulate that level of flexibility in the world of employment? Well, it’s a difficult one. But that doesn’t mean it’s not what we should be striving for. Within organisations, it’s not just one person’s working pattern we need to think about. It can be hundreds, sometimes even thousands of people. There is a need to align the working patterns of various teams; to ensure that there is cover in place when we need it.

At the moment, though, we are tiptoeing around the subject. We’ve comforted ourselves with the fact that we know everyone within our organisations is able to request flexible working. We’ve ticked that box. But it’s the tiniest step forwards in the requirement for flexibility that the newest generations to the workforce are positively demanding. We all need to think further outside of the box, and look to the world of self-employment for inspiration. If we can start to deliver true flexibility for the people who work for us, we have taken a major step towards keeping hold of our valued employees and stopping them from looking for that flexibility elsewhere.

Ultimately, we need to find ways to show our employees that we trust them to manage their own working patterns. We do so by judging success on output, not visibility in the office. If we have an employee who is delivering stand out results for our business every single time, then it shouldn’t matter one iota where and when that employee is working. It’s all about the delivery.

It all comes down to culture

What about the frustrations which have led to people leaving to become self-employed? Aren’t some of these just part and parcel of working life? Well, yes and no. There will always be some elements of any workplace which can’t be changed… but you might be surprised by just how few and far between these are.

As is so often the case, it all comes down to culture. Take a look at the data you have from employee feedback, be that exit interviews, staff satisfaction surveys, or anonymised feedback submitted through a regular feedback programme. Look at the common themes which come up. They will provide the key to removing the cultural barriers which may have crept up, particularly as organisations have scaled and grown.

Perhaps people don’t feel they have the autonomy to make decisions. Maybe the way management speak to employees is causing frustration. Or is it as simple as the length of the commute required to get into the office which is getting employees down. Any one of these can be solved by taking a cold hard look at the organisational culture you have in place and making a decision on the behaviours you will accept. Whether it’s clarifying the decision-making process, being clear with managers as to the behaviours you accept from them, or encouraging more regular home working – in all instances, there is a remedy. And it’s a remedy which might just stop some of your employees jumping ship, either to your competitors, or to become self-employed.

Something you love

Finally, there’s the big one. Arguably the biggest reason anyone decides to become self-employed: that desire to do something that you love. What’s interesting though is when you go and look at the types of profession people take up when they become self-employed. While some might be following a real passion – maybe turning a hobby into a career path – actually, in the vast majority of cases, that’s not the case. When people state that they want to do something they love, it turns out that what they really mean is to have something which is theirs. Something of their own, something they can have a real, tangible impact on. Something they understand, and something they can see grow. Something they are able to feel proud of.

The question is, why can’t that ‘something’ be the organisation they work for right now? Because goodness knows, if we could find a way to channel that passion, which every single person in your business wants to put into something… then wouldn’t that be one of the most powerful business tools we could possibly imagine? Wouldn’t that give us the opportunity to deliver something truly incredible?

It really would.

Transparency of communications

We need to get far smarter about how we communicate across our organisations. We need to treat every single employee who works within our business as a key stakeholder, and provide them with the information and transparent communication they need to see our product, service or business as theirs. To enable them to make the decisions they would make if that business was theirs; decisions which are made in the best interest of the organisation. To allow them to become our biggest advocates. To facilitate them reaching the self-actualisation stage in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Because that’s when they derive true value and satisfaction… value which they will in turn be able to plough back into the business for which they work.

We are going to continue to see more and more people becoming self-employed. As employers, we must ensure that we hang onto our best people and provide them with a role and working conditions which are just as desirable as anything they might experience when self-employed. To do so, we need to revolutionise our workplaces and ensure that we are not left behind. There is a huge opportunity here. We must ensure that we grab it.