The Future Is Freelance: How to Optimize Independent Worker Output

By treating freelancers like human beings, companies can ensure they'll never be at a loss for top talent, even on the most challenging projects.

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By Michael Burdick

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Employees at massive companies often toil away without seeing a financial benefit -- and they have no control over when or how they work. With all that considered, it's no surprise that freelancing has taken the workplace by storm: As evidenced by freelancer-friendly changes in the tax season that just ended, the workforce is becoming increasingly independent.

A recent Upwork study found that about 47 percent of millennials, compared to 36 percent of the total U.S. workforce, already engage in freelance work, and more than half of all U.S. workers are expected to freelance by 2027. Many of these freelancers are eager to work with startups that can work flexibly, giving entrepreneurs a valuable pipeline for cost-effective expertise.

Unfortunately, many companies treat freelancers as a replaceable and inexpensive labor tool -- separate from their company culture. Even if companies can motivate staff employees, they still undermine productivity if they leave freelancers out of the equation. A 2014 study from the University of Georgia found that when employees feel excluded, they engage in behavior that has a toxic effect on workplace morale.

Related: If You Forgot to Thank Your Freelancers at the New Year, Do It Now

The unique needs and motivations of freelancers -- autonomy, independence and consistent income -- are only going to become more important. To optimize freelancer output, companies must begin to harness the power of these motivations.

Why workers choose a freelance lifestyle

The majority of freelancers want autonomy and independence -- that's why they're freelancing. In their 2016 "Freedom Economy Report," Spera asked why respondents decided to choose freelance work. 100 percent of the respondents said because of the independence or flexibility that their work allowed.

As much as freelancers value a break from the traditional corporate structure, they also want consistent income. Upwork's "Freelancing in America" study found that full-time freelancers withdraw money from their savings almost three times more than full-time staff workers. That should be a signal to entrepreneurs that providing a consistent workload can go a long way toward building a positive relationship with a freelancer.

Freelancers who feel respected and valued will be ready to give their best work. Companies can make themselves more attractive to top workers by empowering freelancers to manage their workload, collaborate with teammates and continuously improve their craft.

1. Mind the clock.

When adding freelance workers to the team, companies want to know that they are the best fit for the job. Startups won't be able to attract talented workers unless they take steps to show them that the company values their contributions. As the relationship grows, offer them bigger opportunities to prove themselves in new ways.

This begins with allowing them to set their own schedules and workloads. Accomplish this by having a frank conversation about how many hours they're looking for and when they would like to work. Compare their preferences with the company's needs to find a middle ground.

Related: Stop Looking for the Perfect Candidate. Look for One Who's Failed

A recent survey by PayPal indicates that the top concern for freelancers -- 38 percent of respondents, in fact -- is maintaining a steady stream of work by reaching and retaining customers. If a freelancer is providing tremendous value, retain them by integrating their work into long-term team projects.

2. Build relationships between freelancers and staff.

If colleagues or other departments could use similar help (perhaps they need a qualified writer or financial analyst), recommend a freelancer who you find particularly valuable -- it will help you build a productive, mutually beneficial relationship.

According to a 2016 SHRM report, employees feel most satisfied in their jobs when their employer respects their co-workers at all levels. Offer projects to freelancers that are aligned with their individual skills and interests. Be open to freelancer suggestions about your company and priorities -- they often have a unique perspective and can see things in a different light than full-time employees. Invite them to team meetings, even if it's over the phone or through a web conference service, like Google Hangouts or Zoom. Technology can be a helpful tool to make freelancers feel like part of a larger team.

3. Don't skip the Monday morning recap.

At the close of a project (as well as throughout), be sure to provide constructive feedback and talk with freelancers and staff about what went well and what didn't. Regular feedback helps clarify the company's expectations while encouraging freelancers about future opportunities.

Related: 4 Ways to Turn Your Freelancers Into Brand Ambassadors

A study by the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute found that independent contractors are actually more engaged than regular employees, which means they expect their company to engage with them as well.

4. Make sure nobody feels like a second-string team member.

I recently read the book "Leadership and Self-Deception," which addresses how problematic it is when leaders treat their team members as objects instead of people. Unfortunately, this is a common attitude in corporate America, but the situation is typically even worse for freelancers.

Considering that 90 percent of companies, including big names like Samsung and Procter & Gamble, use external hires to strengthen their existing teams, it's increasingly important to find ways for both parties to work together. Instead of making them feel like a part of the team, many entrepreneurs expect freelancers to work in a silo. They don't recognize the benefit of providing freelancers with the context of their work or the information they need to succeed, which basically ensures failure from the get-go.

Others bring in freelancers but don't find ways to integrate these temporary additions into their existing workforce. They don't tell their employees why they've hired freelancers, how long they will be around or which projects they're tackling. This causes full-time employees to feel threatened and treat freelancers like second-class citizens. For instance, I recently spoke with a freelance marketer who told me about the two years she spent working in an office at a company. The company promised to hire her full time, but it never followed through. People in the office never embraced her as part of the team because they knew she could be gone at any minute. In short, it was a miserable experience for her.

Business leaders -- especially entrepreneurs, who often manage small, tight-knit teams -- must instead create an environment in which employees recognize what they stand to gain from having a freelancer join the team.

The freelance economy is starting to just be the economy. One report found that 44 percent of business leaders say the changing nature of work is the top driver of change in their industries. To develop a healthy pipeline of talented freelancers -- marketplaces exist for everything from finance to graphic design -- show these new team members respect as individuals and workers. By treating freelancers like human beings, companies can ensure they'll never be at a loss for top talent, even on the most challenging projects.

Michael Burdick

CEO of Paro

Michael Burdick is the CEO of Paro, the outsourced finance and accounting department for growing businesses. Paro's purpose is to empower people to do what they love.

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