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Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Taking the ‘free’ out of ‘freelance’ and bringing it in-house

Let's face it, the freelance life offers numerous benefits

Stephanie Wasek

Let's face it, the freelance life offers numerous benefits. Strong day rates, variety in therapy areas and project types, and the flexibility and freedom to maintain a work/life balance. I’ve done a mix of freelance, in-house and client-side jobs, I've never been bored and I've learned a lot. But there is one lesson that has become clear over the past few years – the freelance life isn’t always the best way to achieve those benefits.

Living in a flexible world

We’ve had the technology to enable homeworking for a long time, and 90% of my freelance work has been done from a home office, even all the way back in 2005. As we establish a new normal in the wake of COVID-19, many companies have had to embrace these capabilities – and I wonder, why didn’t they do it sooner?

When I decided to go back in-house, I wanted to work for an agency that didn’t need a crisis to recognise that flexibility benefits everyone; that had a company culture built around trusting their people to get the job done to a high standard; that understood better work comes from people who feel supported in having time for a life outside of work.

Although going freelance has historically been the best route for guaranteeing part-time, flexible, remote or 'some other arrangement' working, some organisations have embedded the practice of tailoring employment to fit with individual needs. And here's a fun fact that I just learned – at Lucid, more than 20% of their medical writers work part-time.

Crunching numbers

Although freelance work always seems to be out there, you don't necessarily know where the next gig is coming from. Maintaining a steady flow depends on multiple factors, with most being outside our individual control, aligning at the same time. Skills and therapy areas must match the timing and availability of work. For example, an otherwise perfect fit that specifies an ‘immediate start’, when you’re not available for another two weeks, is not so perfect after all. Neither is a contract that’s remote, flexible and for an ideal length of time – but is 90% publications, and that’s not your thing. Don’t forget that the day rate must hit the right level (and it would also be nice to like the people you’ll be working with for the next 3/6/12 months!).

Some of these factors can be mitigated through continuous relationship management with clients, industry contacts and agents. Even if you're not in client services, a lot of (unpaid) time and effort is devoted to business development skills. Successful freelancers make it all look easy, but it’s not.

There’s admin – chasing invoices, deciphering contracts and finding professional insurance that understands that ‘medcomms’ is not actually practising medicine. It all happens in your 'spare' time; even the various professionals you hire can't do it all for you. Life comes with enough admin as it is.

Freelancers are also responsible for their own continuous development beyond learning on the job. That means attending industry meetings or picking up a certification while informally keeping up on therapy areas and communications skills. The efforts are worth it, but staying sharp comes with costs in terms of time and money.

Maximising returns

Freelancers are by nature entrepreneurial doers, but on top of the particular challenges imposed by the impact of COVID-19, the impending changes to enforcement of IR35 may tip the balance. There is a delay, but HMRC will eventually shift the inside/outside determination to private companies, and many agencies will bring most work inside IR35. That leaves freelancers having to choose between less take-home pay or fighting for higher day rates, to consider paying umbrella company fees in exchange for PAYE assurance (but perhaps not other benefits of employment), or to spend more time sourcing IR35-friendly contracts.

No one option is best or ideal. It’s a matter of which trade-offs and choices will be best for the individual. Even with another year to prepare, the allure of PAYE has never been so strong, and the forward-thinking agencies already have solutions to accommodate freelancers. The upside is that freelancers have a lot to offer: excellent communication, client-development, financial and business skills. The variety of experience means freelancers know what they want from a role – as well as how to best serve medcomms agencies.

If you’re thinking about jumping into freelancing, check with your employer and ask about getting the work–life balance you seek. If they can’t offer it, have a look around; the medcomms industry is more open than ever to these requests. Having worked on both sides of the fence, I was wary about going back to employment. Luckily, I found a work culture that fits my needs for variety, flexibility and support for development, all while putting admin tasks back in the work day, rather than my free time. So, if you’re a frustrated freelancer who wants it all, I can safely say it’s possible. There are agencies out there that will deliver. Just ask.

Article by
Stephanie Wasek

Principal medical writer, Lucid Group

18th May 2020

From: Marketing

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