How to… become a portfolio worker

Portfolio workers come in a variety of guises, among them: independent
professionals, free agents, free-lancers, e-lancers (electronic home and mobile
workers), and knowledge or project workers.

What these self-employed individuals all have in common is they manage an
assortment of jobs on a contractual basis at various stages in their working
lives. The concept of the portfolio career is largely attributed to management
guru Charles Handy, who claimed individuals would have to develop portable
skillsets to meet the needs of a dynamic future workplace.

Why is it important?

Do you like your job? If not and you feel stuck in a rut, frustrated at your
lack of career progression, stressed out or simply have to contend with a
psychopathic boss, portfolio working could be the answer. The individual
choices and flexibility it allows is more likely to both keep you enthusiastic
about your discipline and happy.

The annual Aquent 1099 Index in the US, shows that 69 per cent of portfolio
workers are ‘very satisfied’ with their work situation and that only one in
five would abandon their independent career for a job that offered more money.

Although scorn has been poured on the concept of portfolio working since the
dotcom bust, the latest family-friendly legislation and its emphasis on
flexible working is likely to give it fresh impetus.

Sounds great, but how do organisations feel about it?

Organisations are gradually coming around to the benefits of hiring workers
as and when required. This flexible approach to staffing means costs can be
contained and concerns over increasing permanent headcount in times of economic
uncertainty are reduced.

Helen Wilkinson, founder of, a web-based community for
e-lancers, explains: "Portfolio workers can help organisations get around
this problem – as they are often project-based, they can be brought in for
specific pieces of work and yet they don’t need to carry their costs when the
work has finished.

"Organisations are also beginning to recognise that portfolio workers
can create and energise permanent employees – adding a spark of creativity
which can benefit everyone."

Are there others like me who want an alternative working lifestyle?

Increasingly. You only have to look at the number of TV programmes and magazine
articles exploring downshifting (‘holistic simplifiers’ is the latest label for
high-flying professionals who wish to opt out of the consumerist lifestyle) for
evidence that people wish to take stock and reappraise their working lives,
even if it means earning less money. Figures from research organisation Data
monitor indicate there are 12 million down shifters across Europe.

Technological advances have enabled work to be received and carried out from
virtually anywhere as long as there is an internet connection. As much of HR
work is knowledge-based, you are in an ideal position to work from home or
other remote locations. Video conferencing and the new generation of
videophones have also opened up new ways of working.

How do I win the assignment?

Before anything else, ensure your skills are saleable and that you will be
able to market yourself successfully. What differentiates the serious portfolio
careerist from a flighty temporary worker unable to hold down a regular job is
an overall vision and a will to succeed.

Formulate a basic idea of where you want your portfolio career to head and
the kind of assignments you wish to undertake. Draw up a hit list of contacts
who can ensure your name is heard in the right places and who’ll let you know
about appropriate opportunities. Work on your interview techniques – an
important element of winning assignments. Keep informed by scouring trade and
business publications relevant to your areas. Update your CV regularly and, if
you have the time and resources, post a simple web page detailing your skills
and experience.

As your new career evolves, it will become increasingly important to
demonstrate a good track record, so be picky: make sure any undertaking will
add to your experience.

Are there any pitfalls to watch for?

Several. One of the biggest is discovering you don’t have the necessary
personal characteristics to work in this way. Successful portfolio workers must
be highly motivated to strike out on their own, have self-discipline, be good time-managers
and able to work independently, as well as coping with uncertainty and
financial and personal insecurity. Ideally, you should have cash reserves to
tide you over for several months when starting out and flexible financial

Where can I get more info?


– Free Agency, Richard Templar,, £9.99, ISBN 1841123099

– Portfolio Working, Joanna Grigg, Kogan Page, £12.99, ISBN 074942169X


If you only do five things…

1 Research your market

2 Make sure your skills are viable

3 Formulate a business plan

4 Establish your portfolio career goals

5 Network like crazy

Expert’s view – Helen Wilkinson on becoming a portfolio worker

Helen Wilkinson is a portfolio worker who has written and published widely
on the changing patterns of work. She is founder of, a
web-based community fore-lancers, and is also director of Genderquake, a
consultancy exploring the gender impact of social, economic, and technological
change on society and our economy. A founding member of research organisation
Demos, she now sits on its advisory council.

Do HR professionals make ideal candidates for portfolio working?

Absolutely. HR work is knowledge-based and so a lot of work can be done from
home, or anywhere, as long as you have a PC, e-mail access and a telephone
line. However, a key element of HR work is people orientated and relationships
cannot be kept virtual – you will need to show your face in the office,
building the relationships and picking up the tacit knowledge – personal and
intuitive – that can best be gleaned in the work environment.

What are the biggest challenges when managing a portfolio career?

They include time management and self-discipline – you are your own boss and
motivator, which can be tiring and stressful. You also have to manage your
accounts, sort out your training needs and fix your PC, whereas employees in
large organisations have this support infrastructure readymade. The trick is
balancing the desire for freedom, flexibility and autonomy with these other
‘work things’ – and build time into your fee structure accordingly.

In addition, portfolio workers often experience either feast or famine and
to ride these emotional and financial uncertainties, you need to have flexible
financial arrangements.

Many choose this lifestyle for a better work-life balance, but it’s hard to
say no to opportunities when you are a contract worker because the fear is if
you don’t accept the offer, you may not get another chance.

What advice would you offer HR professionals who manage portfolio

The key is to recognise that they have two work identities – one to the
project or organisation they are contracted to and the other to their own work
portfolio. These can conflict and it is the HR manager’s role to make them
appear seamless.

If the HR manager can build a rapport with the portfolio worker and ease
some of the hassles associated with this lifestyle, they will benefit from more
sustained relationships. The managers need to spend time getting to know them
to ensure they get the best out of them.

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