An exploration of the innovative practices and challenges of freelancers in the UK construction sector

Samuel Osei-Nimo, Cindy Millman, Emmanuel Aboagye-Nimo

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNConference contribution with ISSN or ISBNpeer-review


There is broad consensus on the value of entrepreneurship as a driver of enhancing productivity, social equality and mobility in society. Likewise, there is growing importance placed upon measuring and communicating social value in the United Kingdom (UK) construction industry (Raiden et al., 2019). Burke (2015) stated that in this industry, freelance workers increasingly using entrepreneurial and innovative practices to circumvent Government policies that would eliminate their crucial economic contribution. In light of the current skills shortage burdening the construction industry, this research engages with the concept of enhancing social and public value by promoting effective, innovative entrepreneurial practices that can help improve the employment horizon by offering valuable skills to aspects of society that would have otherwise remained under-utilised. This also supports the current Social Mobility Commission’s agenda of promoting nationwide equity through meaningful employment and encompasses the ‘levelling up’ agenda presented in the 2021 Queen’s Speech.
The construction industry has received constant criticism regarding innovation and productivity for decades; for example, The Famer Report (2016) ‘Modernise or Die’ criticised the industry for its lack of innovative practices in improving productivity and the sector as a whole. Moreover, inefficiencies of this sector were also highlighted in both Latham Report (1994) and the Egan (1998) report, indicating poor communication, lack of collaboration amongst project teams, and an absence of safe and decent working conditions. However, such reports have yet spurned the intended improvements for the industry. With an increased level of complexity, the industry has become more fragmented. For tax purposes, the industry evolved to create self-employment techniques whereby small and micro construction firms were presented as independent contractors while working for the same principal contractors from project to project. This was labelled as bogus or false self-employment. Thus, the responsibility of a small or micro firm surviving lies on the owner-managers as they try to survive in the gig economy, i.e., every project, as a result, becomes a ‘solo gig’ they must execute while looking for their next project. Specifically, Burke (2012) considers freelancers remain under-studied and under-appreciated economic actors in the current British economy despite their critical economic roles, due to their pivotal role has just emerged in the past three decades in the knowledge and innovation-driven economy.
Although freelancers share certain characteristics with project managers and site managers, their entire economic function is not adequately represented when examined as subsets of either group. Burke (2011) argued that freelancers are distinct economic actors who perform economic tasks which neither project managers nor site managers perform. Hence, this paper aims to explore innovation and innovative practices adopted by freelancers (small and micro firms) in the UK construction sector. It also uncovers challenges faced by the industry and the freelancers in the ‘gig economy’.
As self-employed teams, the small and micro firms operate hypothetically as freelancers, but most seek to establish long-term working relationships with main contractors who can offer the sustainable work needed to stay afloat and thrive as a business. We explore the complex relationships that exist in the industry between small working teams and, more importantly, the relationships among the actors in this ecosystem (e.g. professionals, architects, project managers, quantity surveyors and skilled trades: bricklayers, joiners, electricians). Some of the subtle nuances in such relationships are the recruitment strategies implemented, performance review processes, trust and support amongst teams and ensuring longevity. While previous research have overlooked the innovative approaches adopted by a small or micro firm to thrive in such a competitive industry, this research endeavours to theorise such strategies. Furthermore, practices of small and micro construction firms are often classified as informal and, as such, tend to be discounted as innovative and effective.
Using a qualitative research approach, multiple ethnographic case studies were conducted on seven different construction projects. Data collection instruments included semi-structured interviews, non-participant observations and focus group discussions. Thematic analysis was conducted using QSR NVivo in generating codes for the in-depth data analysis, including themes reviewed from the literature and emerging themes identified through the data collection process and initial data analysis.
Initial findings on innovative practices adopted by small and micro firms include experienced workers utilising tacit knowledge in delivering experiential learning to newer workers on less complex tasks. Hence, circumve...
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInstitute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship
PublisherInstitute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship
ISBN (Print)9781900862332
Publication statusPublished - 5 Nov 2021


  • Freelancers
  • Shared Economy
  • Skills and Employment
  • UK Construction Industry
  • innovation


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