The European Union is built on four basic freedoms: the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. Of the four of these, perhaps none is being discussed more than the free movement of labour.
Many on the remain side say that this is essential to plug skills gaps and bolster growth for UK businesses. Brexiteers argue that an influx of migrant labour has suppressed wages.
But today, the free movement of labour, particularly in respect to knowledge workers, is becoming an increasingly irrelevant issue.
In today’s digital world, knowledge-based work such as design and development services and legal consultation can be done with a phone line or internet connection, meaning that work can be carried out from nearly any location in the world.
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The UK-based Trainline adopted this approach in an expansion effort to bring its service into Europe with the launch of Trainline International.
Creating a flexible, agile workforce has enabled the company to scale quickly, as it can engage with talented independent professionals with the specific skills needed for each stage of growth as its business needs evolve.
This approach is completely transforming the way global labour markets behave. Freelancing websites in particular have made it easier for skilled, independent professionals to find work across town or across the globe. In the UK, 4.5m people are already part of this independent workforce.
Benefits for the UK
This trend has significant advantages for Britons. Londoners spend on average half of their monthly income on rent alone, compared with around a quarter in the North East.
Allowing workers to move to other parts of the country, while retaining their work, has the ability to make lifestyles more affordable, and ease pressure on housing in areas of high demand.
By the same token, foreign workers – European or otherwise – can work with UK firms without the need to relocate. This could have a significantly positive impact on struggling southern European countries, which are suffering from a brain drain as the most talented young inhabitants move abroad to find work.
Bringing work to the workers
Benefits abound for businesses too. PwC estimates that a lack of access to qualified workers in the UK costs the domestic economy £10bn a year. But freelancing websites allow businesses to tap into top talent online and bring the work to the workers instead of the other way around.
UK companies have hired more than 50,000 freelancers on my firm Upwork alone in the past six months, a 59 per cent increase on the same time period last year, and one that speaks volumes to how widely this trend is being adopted.
A variety of tech tools like Slack and Google Hangouts is now at everyone’s fingertips, facilitating collaboration in a way which wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago, so that people on opposite sides of the world can work together efficiently, as if they were in the same room.
Beyond tech startups
To no surprise, tech startups have been the vanguard of the remote working trend but we are seeing it spread rapidly throughout the economy. On Upwork, there has been a 78 per cent year-on-year increase in demand for marketing services such as writing and design in the last six months.
If Brexit is a possibility on the horizon, this new way of working is a certainty. Businesses and knowledge workers must embrace it if they hope to stay competitive.
It’s time for Brits on both sides of the political debate to ask themselves exactly what the free movement of people means in 2016.