The on-demand economy has changed everything from the way we shop to the way we work. In her annual Code Conference “State of the Web” presentation, venture capitalist Mary Meeker discussed how mobile technology and changing worker preferences have contributed to the rise of freelance and contingent workers in America.
With one in three U.S. workers now identifying as a freelancer, the pool has broadened to include a large number of white-collar professionals. Teachers are growing tutoring businesses with platforms like TakeLessons. Lawyers are providing on-demand legal help via UpCounsel and Lawdingo. Even doctors are joining the freelance economy with services like Teladoc and Doctor On Demand.
As more professionals join the on-demand workforce, leaders gain unprecedented access to highly skilled workers ready to lend their expertise as needed. Unfortunately, misconceptions about freelancers persist, isolating companies from utilizing nearly a third of the workforce.
Professional Freelancers Still Have to Fight to Be Labeled ‘Professionals’
According to a CareerBuilder survey, 46 percent of employers plan to hire temporary or contract workers in 2015 — up 4 percent from 2014. It makes sense: Hiring freelancers saves companies from paying full-time salaries and benefits. They can assemble teams with deep expertise and dismantle them when projects come to a close.
However, many still believe that people only freelance on the side, work for practically nothing, or freelance because they can’t find a full-time job. Rather than separate freelancers and full-timers into completely different camps, it makes more sense to think of these groups as workers who prefer 9-to-5 stints in a typical office environment and those who do not.
Yes, hiring freelancers can be cheaper than hiring full-time employees, but that doesn’t mean they’re “cheap.” You can find freelancers for low rates, but you often get what you pay for.
Freelancers aren’t necessarily young, inexperienced workers trying to eke out a living, either. Many are seasoned experts with impressive backgrounds — and they’ll charge for that experience. For example, my company recently worked with Au Bon Pain to find a consultant to grow its catering division. The fast-casual chain selected a Harvard Business School graduate who had worked for Boston Consulting Group and founded her own catering company.
Using her analytical skills and industry-specific experience, the consultant developed a comprehensive strategy for several segments within Au Bon Pain’s catering division. After presenting her findings and strategy, the chain rehired her to implement the strategy over a six-month period.
How to Make Your Company Freelancer-Friendly
By 2020, more than 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will be comprised of contingent workers. And if you abandon your preconceived notions about freelancers’ capabilities, your company can start benefiting from on-demand expertise today.
Here are four ways to improve outcomes when hiring contract workers:
- Create freelancer-friendly workflows. Freelancers can lend their expertise across different business functions, but you must revamp your workflows so your company can easily hire, plug in, and manage multiple freelancers simultaneously.
- Define projects clearly. The best way to ensure you receive quality work is to clearly define the project’s objective and scope. Instead of giving vague instructions like “look into this sector,” eliminate guesswork by telling freelancers exactly what you expect.
In a case study our company performed for American Apparel, the brand tasked a freelancer with helping the company track marketing initiative performance. To consider her work a success, American Apparel asked her to cover three areas:
- Perform an audit to assess the brand’s current marketing performance reporting.
- Suggest a new process to make collecting, analyzing, and visualizing data easier when applied to decision-making.
- Create new tools to empower American Apparel to monitor the ROI of its marketing spend.
- Provide context. Freelancers are experts, but they’re not experts on your company. Explain how projects contribute to larger goals so they understand what their work should help you achieve.
General Electric’s Global Research Center and Market Development Group approached our company in its efforts to determine the commercial viability of B2B and B2C categories in advanced robotics and to identify services or products that could be developed. GE needed someone who could not only evaluate the market but also offer strategy for taking advantage of the opportunity — context that was essential to meeting GE’s objectives.
- Set realistic timelines. Leaders often set unrealistic deadlines for freelancers or increase a project’s scope beyond what’s possible. Dial down your ambition about 20 percent to prevent scope creep and ensure your freelancers can complete projects on time.
In that same GE project, the team held a kickoff call to formulate a plan. Its freelancer had three hour-long conversations each week with the project manager after that to assess progress.
In the coming years, we’re going to see an explosion of freelancers at every level of business. The line between full-time and freelance employees will blur even further, and flexibility will replace job security. For workers who want to make a living in 2020, their expertise will have to speak for itself.
Written by Rob Biederman.