If you haven’t already noticed (but I certainly hope you have), freelancers are everywhere. The number of freelance workers – a term previously used for medieval warriors available for hire – has skyrocketed since the global recession. While you may not be swarmed by men on horses with carved wooden sticks, you or your team has mostly likely worked with a modern-day freelancer (or two) on some recent project.

Today’s freelancers are workers who are self-employed and non-committal. They are ‘free’ to float from one organization to another in sequence or in parallel (pending contract arrangements, of course).  This is a group of skilled laborers and knowledge workers who are experienced, savvy, and confident enough to sell their services to the highest bidders. And this segment of the workforce is growing quickly.

recent report identified 17 million full-employed freelancers in America. This number rapidly rises to 40 million, or nearly a third of the US workforce when one includes temps, part-timers, contractors, contingent workers, and those who are under-employed or work without employer-sponsored health insurance, 401Ks or FLEX accounts.

These ‘temporary’ workers have now become a permanent fixture in the North American labor market.  The rise of this independent labor market is so pervasive that some companies, such as ODeskElance and MBO Partners have created a business model based purely on the freelancer workforce.  These companies serve as the back offices for a powerful network of consultants and freelancers, allowing them to find jobs, collect payments, and secure health insurance without taking on permanent employee status.

Companies like these are on the extreme end of the consulting spectrum. The majority of freelance workers exist in what is known as a “blended workforce”: one that contains a mix of both full-time and freelance workers.

Going commando in the job market; but why go free?

It turns out; companies can realize some pretty large cost savings from kicking their workers out of the building. According to Fabio Rosati, CEO of Elance, the average cost of physical workspace provided to employees is $10,000 a year.  The vast majority of freelancers are mobile workers – working from home, the coffee shop, plane, train, the beach in Spain, you name it – offering corporations significant cost advantages. As “non-employees”, consultants and freelancers help companies avoid the many additional costs associated with employee status. According to Businessweek Magazine, companies can save up to 30 percent of human capital costs by avoiding payroll taxes, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation and disability, as well as benefits like pensions, sick days, health insurance, and vacation time.

If corporate America’s desire for cost savings was the spark for the freelance fire that is now burning strong, broad scale access of business technology and decreasing communications costs are the fuel in today’s freelance economy.  Freelancers are more empowered than ever thanks to virtual networks, ubiquitous WIFI access, and bring your own device policies allowing them to realize their dream to be self-employed, more mobile, and more independent.

The cost savings outlined above make the freelance economy sound attractive to any company. But before you go converting your entire organization to a bunch of free-for-all medieval warriors, consider that this approach is not totally free. You will have to incur additional team management and administrative effort trying to build a well-oiled team out of independent, and often disjointed ‘components’.

We see it. We acknowledge it. We like it. Now what?

So if we’ve convinced you that the freelance economy is here to stay, who is going to solve the puzzle of building effective, collaborative teams from these independent pieces? Can freelancers avoid having their personal and business lives collide? How does a freelancer manage working on multiple projects and serving in multiple roles for multiple organizations at the same time?

Like everything in business, learning how to make the most of the freelance economy is an ongoing process of discovering, planning, implementing, measuring and refining, with perhaps a little trial and error. Here at Organimi, we have some ideas. If you do too, share them with us in the comments. And for now, take this as part 1 of our hmm…maybe 5 part series on the freelance economy. It’s here to stay, so let’s make the most of it.