Recently, a frazzled freelancer approached me at an event and asked my advice. An agency still owed him $15,000 for work he’d completed, and he wasn’t sure how to proceed. The problem, unfortunately, was that the agency had been acquired by an entity that didn’t accept liability for outstanding vendor invoices. Without mincing words, I told him to forget about the money — he would never see a dime.
This example is a microcosm of an enormous problem that all freelancers face: They lack the same protections that full-timers enjoy. Even remote full-time employees and part-time gig workers are higher on the pecking order than traditional freelancers.
Typically, the food chain has executives at the top, managers in the middle, and interns below them. Contractors have the penultimate spot, and freelancers — even the experienced, high-performing ones — rest at the bottom. If that sounds like a classist structure that values title over output, that’s because it is.
A freelancer’s contributions can have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line. Consequently, it’s time to rethink how businesses manage and treat their freelancers.
The Freelancing Phenomenon
In many ways, it’s an opportune time to reimagine freelancers’ social status in the workplace. Gallup’s recent report on the gig economy and alternative work arrangements shows how ubiquitous freelancing has become: More than one-third of American workers — about 57 million individuals — consider themselves part of the gig economy. Twenty-four percent of all full-time workers and 49 percent of part-timers have an alternative work arrangement as their primary source of income, according to Gallup.
Of course, not all gig workers are freelancers. Some are contractors, which is something else entirely. Contractors — as the term indicates — tend to have more formal arrangements and access to companies. Freelancers, on the other hand, often work in the shadows. They complete tasks without the benefit of building relationships, which often means they’re the last to know about important corporate decisions.
It’s the age-old “out of sight, out of mind” problem. When the majority of people are in the same office, it’s easy to overlook consultants and freelancers who aren’t physically present. They aren’t brought into the loop or asked their opinions because people at the top rarely — if ever — see them. The C-suite ignores them thanks to an archaic business mindset that believes a “butt in the seat” is more integral to corporate success than a high-level freelance contributor.
Rather than continuing this path of lumping freelancers with every gig worker on the planet, leaders need to rethink the way they view their freelancing teams. The sooner they do this, the better off they’ll be.
Learn to Celebrate Differences
Maybe you have one or two freelancers tackling the occasional project for your organization. Perhaps you consistently skim the freelancing pool for high-quality candidates to complete tasks. Regardless of your specific situation, it’s important to ensure you’re properly distinguishing between gig workers and freelancers — and putting value in the right places. If you’re not sure you are, consider these three questions:
- Are we intentional?
Companies cannot say they truly value talent until they change their policies regarding freelancers. Like most shifts in thinking, this needs to be a top-down initiative that starts with your leadership team.
Be intentional about the design of your workforce. If you aren’t sure how your teams are using freelancers, find out. Ask your chief human resources officer whether she knows how many freelancers work with your business today — the numbers might dumbfound you. What you don’t know could lead to compliance, reputation, and security issues. Refine your approach and put the right processes and solutions in place to accurately and legally classify, integrate, and pay freelancers.
- Where is our outside perspective?
Consider recruiting a workforce strategic consultant who has experience onboarding freelancers. Doing so will help freelancers get integrated into the workflows they need to succeed, allowing your departments to move as fast as possible while ensuring your organization remains compliant.
No company wants to discover it has miscategorized a group of gig workers. In anticipation of becoming a leading borderless company, build a task force and ask it to identify any gaps in your system. You can then recruit a third-party, whether that’s technology or a managed service provider, to help you close those gaps.
- Do we focus on strategy before technical solutions?
All the technical wizardry in the world won’t do your organization any good if you don’t have a clear understanding of your workforce ecosystem.
After you understand the scope of your freelancer contribution, you can build technologies to capture information and give you visibility into exactly what’s happening. Once in place, those solutions will allow you to set and meet objectives related to freelancer output.
Just as all corporate leaders are not CEOs, all gig workers are not freelancers. Freelancers are unique contributors who can play pivotal roles in any organization. As such, they deserve to be treated not as afterthoughts but as essential players.
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