How to create a freelance culture

Freelancers have more choice than ever, and the war for talent is heating up. We’re already seeing a shift in power from the employer to the freelancer; certain skill sets are so in demand that a freelancer can easily turn down projects that look as if they won’t provide the rewarding professional experience they increasingly expect. After all, most freelancers chose this career path to have greater flexibility and control over how they work, as well as being able to select the kinds of projects they find most rewarding. In exchange, they have surrendered many of the conveniences and benefits of full time employment – regular pay, superannuation, annual leave, sick leave, and more – so it’s not unreasonable for freelancers to expect certain other conditions when taking on an organisation as a new client.

While the culture within an organisation may be only one of the factors a freelancer may consider, it can have a huge impact on which projects a freelancer chooses to work on. Yet many companies and HR departments still try to shoehorn freelancers into an existing employee framework built on the same legacy systems, legacy practices and legacy attitudes they’ve relied on for decades. This may have been forgivable when freelancers and contingent workers made up only a small proportion of a company’s workforce, but that is no longer the case. Companies now have to compete for talent in a world where 30-40% of the workforce is freelance – and growing. And the success or failure of future business strategies increasingly hinges on a company’s ability to procure often quite specialised and rare talent. Current demand is such that, if the experience of working with an organisation is even a little more frustrating than it needs to be, a freelancer may just decide to go elsewhere. And they may tell other freelancers in their network not to bother too. Companies need to think strategically about how they can build a culture that is inclusive of and attractive to freelance workers. HR departments need to develop a much stronger freelancer value proposition (FVP) so that freelancers choose to work with their organisation – and keep coming back – instead of going to their competitors instead.

Creating a tailored freelancer-friendly experience

Freelancers are looking for an experience that is tailored to them; from onboarding through to offboarding, and everything in between. Unfortunately, freelancers often have to contend with organisational processes and HR practices that weren’t created with them in mind at all. Even worse is when freelancers are expected to follow processes, accept policies and work within systems that are entirely driven by whatever is most convenient for the business with no willingness to compromise; “It’s how our payment systems are set up”, or “All workers are required to work from our premises”. These are all signs to a freelancer that an organisation isn’t genuinely serious about working with a more flexible, contingent workforce. It sounds crazy to require a freelancer to complete a two-week onboarding process for a four-week project, but it happens! And that means onboarding has to be handled completely differently for freelancers to take into account the nature of the work and duration of the engagement.

HR managers need to remove as much friction as possible from the freelancer experience; including onboarding, timesheets, payment cycles and access to tools and resources. How quickly can your organisation plug someone into a team with access to all the necessary productivity tools and documents to start being productive? And when a project or contract ends, you also need an effective offboarding process. It’s a difficult balance to prevent IP leakage, retain knowledge and close off redundant permissions and access requirements, while maintaining a positive relationship for future projects. When addressing these shortcomings, a lot of companies make the mistake of starting at the wrong end. They start with the existing employee HR framework and work forward – adapting as little as possible in the hope that freelancers will meet them half-way. Instead, companies should consider the practices and expectations of their freelancers and work back, even if this means developing a completely new HR framework.

Collaborating with freelancers

A freelance culture relies on far more than just the HR procedures, IT policies and technical infrastructure necessary to procure, onboard, manage and offboard freelance talent. Just as important can be the social interactions, interpersonal relationships, communications, responsibilities and decision-making processes as well. Still today, we find that a majority of organisations are moulding their workforce culture off the traditional pyramid structure; ensuring employees are carrying out the functional instructions of their immediate managers in the confines of legacy processes & programs. However, working with freelancers can mean flattening or softening some of these hierarchical relationships and authorising the underlying freelancers to access members who sit near the top.

Presumably, an organisation chooses to procure a freelancer’s services because of the huge value their specialised expertise can bring to a project. The project may even be impossible without them. Putting this vital resource into a top down, autocratic environment that places more faith in the decisions of a less-qualified hierarchy purely by default, can reduce the impact your freelancer can have on your business. When this happens, the very expertise your business wants to access can become straitjacketed – even undermined – by decision-making and approval processes that constantly defer to the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). Of course, giving a freelancer more autonomy does require a little more trust on behalf of the organisation, but it also places more responsibility and accountability on the freelancer’s shoulders as well. However, if you’re confident your hiring processes have identified the right freelancer with proven skills and experience, it makes little sense to paralyse their productivity by challenging every recommendation or micromanaging every decision to satisfy the subjective whims of various other stakeholders. Focus on outputs, not inputs, and get out of their way! It’s certainly true that a freelancer is less likely to value a working relationship that prevents them from doing the work they enjoy by constantly questioning their ability to do it. While some stakeholder input is essential to guide the project or inform the brief, a freelance culture thrives on collaboration, not managerial decree.

Communicating with freelancers

Creating a freelance culture means breaking down the notion of face time and building up what I would call asynchronous communications – where two people don’t have to be in the same room or even on the same call to pass information and comments back and forth. Today, we have the cloud tools and collaboration technologies that allow people to share and comment on documentation from wherever they have internet access. The most obvious form of asynchronous communication has been with us for decades: email. Unfortunately, email is also a good example of how asynchronous communications can be abused or lead to poorer communications by not recognising (or respecting) the different ways in which freelancers work. For example, always expecting a rapid response to an email doesn’t recognise that freelancers – particularly remote workers – may be dividing their time and attention between multiple clients and projects. You can’t expect freelancers to give 100% attention to emails and communications when you’re only paying for 30% of their time. Depending on the nature of the project and the time allotted, expectations need to be negotiated and set around when and how quickly freelance workers will respond.

A freelance culture benefits everyone

Ultimately, the success of organisations in the future will not simply be about how good the ten-year strategy is. Instead, it will increasingly rely on how quickly they can they assemble and disband the necessary skills and expertise around customer and business challenges and opportunities as they arise. At the heart of this more agile way of working is a strong freelancer community and culture. But embracing the freelancer community shouldn’t come at the expense of an organisation’s employee culture. In fact, the opposite should be true. For example, a culture that allows freelancers to work remotely can also lead to greater workplace flexibility for employees too, as the necessary policies and infrastructure would be in place. A freelance culture can be hard to get right and can require a lot of change – particularly in a long-established and bureaucratic organisation. But, once implemented, the eventual benefits should also flow through to all employees, improving the overall culture of the organisation.

Key Takeaways:

  • Organisations need to develop a strong freelancer value proposition (FVP), a workplace culture that will attract and retain the best freelance talent.

  • A freelance culture can’t be layered on top of an existing employee HR framework but should take into account the nature of the work and duration of the engagement.

  • Asynchronous communication and collaboration tools make it easier to work with freelancers but are careful not to take advantage.

 

Transforming a large organisation into a freelancer-friendly environment takes time and careful planning. Find out more by downloading our free e-book: 4 essentials when building a freelancer culture.

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Bridget Loudon
Bridget is an accomplished entrepreneur, strategy consultant and private equity professional with a track record for success and a passion for change. Bridget has lived, worked and/or studied in Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Hong Kong and the United States.

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