The Great Resignation: From Full-Time to Freelance

Aug 3, 2021
The Great Resignation: From Full-Time to Freelance

As more professionals see the value of remote work and flexibility, 10 million Americans are considering becoming freelancers

By: Upwork Chief Economist, Dr. Adam Ozimek


As the United States emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are dealing with the challenge of whether to return to the office, and if so, when and how. While management ultimately decides company policy, workers also have a choice.

Using a new survey of 4,000 professionals in the U.S., Upwork finds that many professionals are less than enthused about the return to the office and are making moves as a result. Beyond just the expected move from one full-time role to another, there are also a substantial number of professionals who are considering making the move from full-time roles to freelancing. Already, businesses are dealing with an elevated level of resignations in a trend coined “The Great Resignation.” Our survey indicates that this is far from over.

Key Findings:

  • Offices are reopening: Of those who were mostly remote during the pandemic, 25% are already back at the office and another 38% will return at some point.
  • Professionals are not excited to go back: 34% of workers who were remote are not excited about returning to the office, compared to 24% who are.
  • Remote work has become highly valued for some: Among those who are not excited about returning to the office, 24% would be willing to take a pay cut to work remotely, and 35% would consider it.
  • The return to the office is fueling some of The Great Resignation: 17% of professionals that were working remotely during the pandemic would probably or definitely consider looking for another job if they have to go back to the office. This represents 9 million workers.
  • Many are turning to freelancing: The Great Resignation isn’t just about workers moving from one full-time job to another; 20%, or 10 million Americans, are considering freelancing. Among those, 73% cite the ability to work remote or flexibly as a reason why.
  • Growth in the freelance workforce: The 10 million people considering freelancing would represent a significant 17 percent increase in the total freelance workforce when compared to the 57 million people that freelanced in all of 2019.

Bumpy Return to the Office

The reopening economy means the return to offices is already underway for some employers. In our survey of workers who were mostly remote during the pandemic, 25% are back at the office. For more, the return is coming, with 11% expecting to return to the office full time, and another 27% expecting they will have to work in the office some days. In total, 62% of professionals will be returning to an office at least some of the time and another 20% are still unsure about their ability to work remotely.

Great Resignation 1

While some workers are happy with these choices, more are not. Over one third (34%) of workers who were remote are not excited about returning to the office, compared to 24% who are. The remainder are neutral.

Great Resignation 2

In some ways, the self-selection of workers into firms whose remote plans match their desires is already happening. Those who are back in the office already are the ones most likely to be excited about the decision. In contrast, among those who are unsure about their employer’s long term plans for remote work, almost half say they are not excited compared to just 14% who are excited.

It is also worth noting that even 31% of those who are heading back to the office only part-time are unhappy about it. For them, the mixed model of some days in the office and some remote is apparently less satisfactory than a fully remote model.

Great Resignation 3

In short, it is clear that many workers who are heading back to the office are unhappy about it. But does the dissatisfaction rise to high enough levels to affect career and work choices?

Remote Work, A New Necessity

To understand how strongly employees felt about remote work, we asked how many workers would be willing to take a pay cut in order to work fully remote. Overall, 15% were willing to take a pay cut to go remote and another 26% would maybe take a pay cut.

Great Resignation 4

Among those who are not excited about returning to the office, the share willing to take a pay cut rises to 24%, and the share who would consider it rises to 35%. That is, among those unhappy with returning to the office, nearly two thirds would potentially consider a pay cut to work remotely.

Great Resignation 5

The willingness to take pay cuts suggests that some professionals would be willing to make major career changes in order to have the ability to work remotely. Indeed, the survey results show this is true; in total, 17% of pandemic remote professionals would consider looking for another job if they have to go back to the office. Another 20% are unsure, which suggests some willingness to consider leaving their job.

Great Resignation 6

This survey data shows that considering another job is clearly related to unhappiness with going back to the office. This is further supported when we look at those who are not excited about returning to the office. Of those, 15% are definitely considering finding another job if they have to go back to the office, and another 20% probably would.

Great Resignation 7

With so many professionals looking to leave their jobs and join The Great Resignation movement for more remote-friendly opportunities, where will they all go?

Turn to Freelancing

With this rising interest in a more flexible work arrangement outside the office, professionals are not only considering other full-time jobs to stay remote, but freelancing as well. This is not surprising given that freelancing has always been more remote than traditional employment. For example, Upwork has been helping freelancers find remote work for over two decades. Given this greater desire to be remote, 18% said they would consider freelancing or self-employment to continue to work remotely, and another 26% said they might consider it.  

Great Resignation 8

One question raised by this result is if those who say they “would consider” freelancing are serious about it, or whether it is simply a hypothetical consideration. To test this, in a follow-up survey of another 1,000 workers made remote as a result of the pandemic, we asked whether they “are considering” becoming a freelancer or self-employed and only allowed a more definitive yes or no answer, with no option for maybe. The results suggest it is a serious consideration; 20% are considering freelancing. For those considering freelancing, 73% cite the ability to work remote or flexibly as a reason why. Among those who are definitely planning on quitting, 52% are considering freelancing.

Great Resignation 9

These numbers are significant. According to Gallup, from October 2020 through April 2021, 40% of full-time workers were working remotely 60% of the time or more. Using these numbers, we conservatively estimate our sample of individuals who were remote more than half the time during the pandemic represents 35% of the workforce. This means the 17% of those workers who are probably or definitely considering quitting if they have to go back to the office is 6% of the workforce. This represents 9 million workers, and around 25% of the normal number of quits in a given year.

Over the past year, the number of independent workers has already surged, and these results suggest this is likely to continue as employers force workers back to the office who value flexibility and working remotely. Using the assumptions based on Gallup, 7% of the workforce are considering becoming a freelancer or self-employed to work remotely. This would represent 10 million people, and a significant increase from the 57 million who freelanced at all and 16 million who freelanced full-time in 2019. Among them, 73% say the ability to work remotely or more flexibly is one of the reasons why.

Freedom and Flexibility of Freelancing

In addition to the value of being remote, freelancing offers other benefits that workers are now finding increasingly valuable. While a lack of a commute has been externally cited as the key benefit, that is just one of the reasons people find value in remote freelancing. Among those who would consider freelancing to work remotely, 38% indicate what they value most about remote work is a more flexible schedule. The next most valued thing was more personal time, followed by 15% who say the lack of commute.

Great Resignation 10

Conclusions

As professionals continue to recognize the value of remote work, it is not surprising that many are considering and becoming freelancers. This growing desire for remote work, flexibility, lack of commutes, and greater control suggest a growing demand for remote freelancing careers. As The Great Resignation leaves businesses struggling to retain talent, business leaders should reevaluate how they think about their workforce. With more professionals valuing remote work and flexibility, the competition for top talent has changed. In addition, for many the overall greater flexibility of freelancing will be a better career match for them. As a result, employers that do not leverage freelance talent will be missing out on a growing chunk of the labor force, and this will be even worse for those who also insist that work must be done in person.

Methodology

The representative study was conducted using Google Consumer Surveys. 4,000 adults over the age of 18 were surveyed online between June 14, 2021 – July 16, 2021. Results were weighted using a two-step process to ensure each survey’s representativeness. In addition, we conducted an additional 1,000 person survey as follow-up using the same methodology.

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