Engaging Freelancers To Benefit from the Gig Economy

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In a recent study it was found that an estimated 11 percent of the working adult population was composed of full-time freelancers in 2016, and more than one-third of the entire population had freelanced at some point. What’s more, 86 percent of contract workers chose to freelance—making flexible workers a deep resource for talent.

What this translates to is the fact that we will continue to see significant number of freelancers in our work environment. The question then to be considered is the following:

How will the increasing number of freelancers in the business impact its  culture? Should it? If yes, how?

If we are not deliberate about this, we might end up with something that neither works for the business nor for the freelancers and will result in significant drain on the overall productivity and in some cases even making it difficult to hire the best talent that we could find.

Not just a matter of cost:

Freelancers were at first thought of as an option to save cost (healthcare, retirement, etc). During the past few years, the entire freelancing movement has moved beyond businesses saving some cost while hiring freelancers instead of hiring full time employees.

Today, we are at a stage where there are significant portion of our work that will get done by freelancers. We are also at a stage where some of the best talents out there are available only as freelancers and not available as employees. They like the flexibility that this provides them both from a time perspective as well as the variety of work that they are able to access as a freelancer. They also are choosing very carefully which businesses they want to engage with.

So, as a business, we first need to understand that hiring freelancers is not just a matter of saving cost and treat it such.

What does this mean?

It means that businesses need to think through their entire “Hire to Retire” process for freelancers, just like they do for their full time employees.

Hiring and on-boarding:

We need to consider the following questions and have clear answers and processes in place to handle them:

#1) How do we go about identifying and hiring a freelancer. Is it from  a global pool of freelancers or is it from an agency?

#2) What is the criteria for hiring? Is it based on cost? Is it based on expertise? How do we compare different freelancers and the abilities that they bring to the table? Is it based on ratings and references? How do we validate these references and ratings?

#3) How do we on-board these freelancers? What processes need to be in-place to quickly on-board them? What all do they need to access (systems, tools, information, physical locations)? Who will ensure that they get all of these on the day they are hired?

#4) Do they understand the culture of the business? Do they understand what kinds of behaviours are expected and what are not to be tolerated?

#5) Have we clearly identified if the freelancer needs to sign an NDA? Is that really necessary? If yes, who from the business is responsible to ensure that it is enforced?

Productive Engagement:

Once the freelancers are on-board, we need to think of ways to help them be extremely productive and engaged with their work. This is specially more important because they are not employees and are only in the business to perform a very specific function. It is very likely that they will also be engaged in providing services to other businesses as well. So, if we don’t find ways to keep them productive and engaged, as a business we lose productivity and might not be able to hire the talent again, if needed.

So, some of the questions to ponder on this set of activities are:

#1) Is there a clear understanding of the expectations of the business from the freelancer? Do they clearly know their deliverables, timelines for these deliverables? Do they also know what kind of support they will get from the business in order for them to complete their deliverables? Is there a clearly defined performance evaluation process in place to evaluate the quality of their work or deliverables?

#2) Is there a clear review process in place to track progress and course correct if need be? Are they clear on how to handle unexpected situations or exceptions?

#3) Is there a clear process to pay them on time? Do they know whom do they need to speak to regarding their payout? What is the escalation matrix in case there is an issue with the payout? Are they aware of this escalation matrix?

#4) Are they eligible for some of the benefits that employees have access to (free lunch, team outings, access to gym, play area and any such benefits)? If yes, do they know? If not, do they know when they join?

#5) Do they have a say in how their projects unfold? Are they just expected to just do their work and not interfere in how the project or the business is run? Are they  allowed or even expected to provide feedback on topics outside of their deliverable areas? If so, when and? If not, why not?

#6) Will the freelancers be offered training and development opportunities as part of their engagement? If so, will it be paid for by the business or has to be paid for by the freelancer? What kinds of training will the business offer the freelancer?

#7) Will the freelancers be included in the workplace surveys? If yes, what kind of feedback will they be requested to provide? If not, how will the business learn or seek feedback about their engagement with the business and opportunities for improvement?

Handling their Exit:

Here are the questions that we need to ponder about once the project is completed and the freelancer needs to move out of the team:

#1) Is there a clear process to retire these freelancers from these projects? Who owns the process? Is there a process to ensure that all access to tools, systems and information gets terminated as soon as the project ends? Who owns this?

#2) Does the business wish to create a freelancers alumni, so that it becomes easier to recruit one of them, when needed? If yes, how will this happen?

#3) As part of the exit process, what feedback does the business want to capture from the freelancer on their experience of having worked for the business? Will there be a Net Promoter Score survey to capture their experience in recommending this business to other freelancers?

#4) What will the business provide the freelancer as part of the exit process? Will it be an experience certificate? Will it be a rating on a platform? Will it be a letter of recommendation? Who will create and own this? How does the business ensure that this happens without fail in every case?

In Conclusion:

With growing number of consultants and freelancers in the work environment, engaging them and taking good care of them will become increasingly important for businesses who want to benefit from this increasing trend. This requires as much thought as is needed for building an engaged workforce.

It is also important to understand the impact the organisational culture will have on these freelancers and the impact that they will have on the culture also needs to be thought through.

I believe that irrespective of whether someone is a freelancer or a full time employee, they should get the same kind of attention and engagement as long as they are employed and work together, side-by-side as a single team.

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