Over a quarter (26.3 per cent) of UK organisations rely on freelancers to complete core business tasks. But in more than half of UK organisations (50.3 per cent), HR departments are being cut out of the hiring process. These results come from the latest survey conducted across five European countries by the payroll & HR services provider SD Worx and Antwerp Management School.

The research uncovered how organisations are using freelancers, in which departments, for how long and what kind of tasks they are hired. The survey found that businesses employ freelance workers especially for highly specialised tasks, with just under half (44.9 per cent) of UK organisations bringing independent workers in to capitalise on their specialist skills.

Flexible staff are at the core of businesses

Organisations understand the need to be agile, but are struggling to achieve this with their internal workforce alone, with only 36 per cent of European organisations reporting that the majority of employees have skills that can be used outside of their current job. The research shows that across Europe organisations of all sizes are hiring self-employed workers for a mixture of peripheral and core business tasks. The size of the business makes a significant difference as it is most common for larger companies of 500-999 employees to regularly  use independents for core tasks with 41.5 per cent of European organisations claiming to do so; almost twice as much as businesses with fewer than 20 employees (21.6 per cent). Germany is most likely to use independent workers for core tasks (31.4 per cent), whilst companies in Belgium are least likely to (18.8 per cent).

Interestingly the number of businesses using self-employed workers for peripheral tasks is less than core tasks, with only 21 per cent of UK businesses doing so. This was more common in larger European organisations of 500-999 employees where nearly half (43.4 per cent) brought in freelancers to work on peripheral tasks.

Freelance staff provide short-term benefit

Under half (44.9 per cent) of UK businesses frequently use independent workers for short-term assignments, with firms in France doing so most often (47.4 per cent) and companies in Belgium doing so the least (33.8 per cent). Larger organisations are more likely to frequently use independents for short-term assignments. Over half (55.7 per cent) of European businesses with more than 1000 employees use freelancers frequently for short-term projects, compared to 32 per cent of firms with 20-49 employees.

Fewer European businesses (29.3 per cent) use independent workers for long-term assignments. Firms in Germany do so the most (34.6 per cent), with Belgium closing the list at an adoption rate of 20 per cent.

The Executive Board calls the shots on self-employed workers

Within European organisations the Executive Board holds the most influence (34.1 per cent) on making the decision to recruit independent workers. Surprisingly line managers (16.2 per cent) and HR departments (9.7 per cent) in the region hold the least influence, indicating the need to bring them in to every stage of the hiring process. This is highlighted further by the fact that less than half (45.9 per cent) of European respondents always inform the HR team when a decision is made to bring in self-employed workers – indicating the HR team is left out of the loop in the majority of decisions.

“European businesses understand the benefits that self-employed workers provide, especially in terms of their specialist skill sets, and are involving them at the very heart of the organisations,” comments Hilde Haems, Chief HR Officer at SD Worx Group. “As organisations are increasingly evolving towards more flexibility in the workforce, HR departments will need to have a constant and accurate view on the skills, unique talents and the knowledge of all workers, both long and short-term, within their organisations. Tools for workforce planning can help with this, for the benefit of the employee and the business alike.”

IT departments come out on top for freelancers

On a European level IT departments are the most likely to employ freelancers (36 per cent). IT teams in the UK are hiring the most self-employed workers (41 per cent), compared to Germany (37 per cent), France (34 per cent), The Netherlands (33 per cent) and Belgium (31 per cent). Other departments also see the benefit of independent workers, with production (33 per cent), sales (28 per cent) and marketing (27 per cent) frequently hiring freelancers. Of all European business departments HR (15 per cent) is least likely to hire independents.

Mobility vs. turnover

“There is a correlation between employee turnover and the use of freelancers. Organisations with a higher turnover ratio are more frequently working with freelancers than those with a lower turnover rate. The high turnover rate might urge organisations to quickly respond to the need to people when a person leaves the organisation and that working with freelancers allows to fill in this need more easily than when starting a hiring process. However, it might also be the other way around, i.e.,  when organisations are working more with freelancers this might signal to internal employees a lack of career prospects for them, making them more inclined to search for other career opportunities outside the organisation. It is important for organisations to understand if and how the use of freelancers might affect the commitment and engagement of their payroll employees,” Professor Ans De Vos from Antwerp Management School concludes.





Rebecca joined the HRreview editorial team in January 2016. After graduating from the University of Sheffield Hallam in 2013 with a BA in English Literature, Rebecca has spent five years working in print and online journalism in Manchester and London. In the past she has been part of the editorial teams at Sleeper and Dezeen and has founded her own arts collective.