If you’ve worked in a creative field, you’ve probably run into a situation that can only be solved by adding additional talent to do the work. More and more in today’s world, that means hiring freelancers. In the past five years, the US freelance workforce has grown to 56.7 million. And yet, while this flexible and experienced workforce is critical to the creative and strategic success of so many companies, they are far too often an after-thought in terms of the organizational and cultural design of businesses. These experts are thought of (consciously or unconsciously) as disposable “others” who are not really a part of the team.
The attitude is: they’ll be gone in a few weeks anyway, so why bother.
This mentality is extremely short-sighted when you consider we’re currently in an escalating talent war, with winning companies seeing eight times more productivity. You could say success is largely dependent on each business’s ability to attract great talent. And yes, money is a strong talent attractor, but a bad company reputation earned by disrespecting freelancers and general inefficiency can be an even stronger repellent.
There is so much potential for companies when freelancers are embraced, encouraged and engaged in a relationship that transcends transaction. Here are a few places to start:
1: Include them in everything.
In many workforces, it’s common for social lives to revolve around the company: happy hours, friends, meals, roommates, dating and more. It makes sense. After all, you’re there all the time and modern offices are built to accommodate a full day of work, rest and play.
So, imagine the spot this puts freelancers in. They are transient, coming in and out or potentially not at all if they are remote freelancing. Their work-related social life is nonexistent. Recognizing this means that companies really need to make an effort to make freelancers feel fully integrated into office life.
This involves small things, like sending their picture with an introduction to the rest of the company to let everyone know this new person has joined. Taking a freelancer out to lunch on their first day, giving them a few symbolic business cards, inviting them to your internal knowledge sharing networks, or conducting performance reviews as you would with any other full-time employee. When you bring them on, make clear you have a policy of crediting everyone on awards and other forms of praise, including freelancers.
With time and effort, everyone will stop thinking of freelancers as resources and instead as real people who are typically working just as hard as everyone else on the team.
2: Design an employment experience.
Employers should spend as much time designing a working experience for their talent as they do designing their company. This means not only thinking about the user experience of a product or customer but the journey for each intern, employee and freelancer.
So many companies approach freelancers in a very reactive way. It’s always an “Oh my God! We need somebody to help on this for the next 48 hours” kind of thing. This immediately creates a hyper transactional relationship where both parties are disengaged. Employers think: freelancers work and I pay them for it. And at that point, the only real loyalty you’re building with freelancers is through how much they get paid.
But if you want to give them something that can often be worth more than money, give them a thoughtfully designed working journey that makes their life easier. Carefully craft the experience of how they’re contacted, negotiated, onboarded, assimilated, reviewed, paid, off-boarded and beyond. All of those are opportunities to differentiate your company and what you stand for, when it comes to that human being you’re asking to work with and represent (and care about) you. Handle them right, give them the tools to be successful, and they’ll be eager to work with you again and maybe even throw some clients your way in the process.
3: Confide in them.
Trust starts with honesty. Employees are all building a company together, whether they are freelance or full-time. And as such, all of them should have visibility into what it takes to grow a company and the highs and lows that go along with it.
For example, in the case of my company Green Stone, we transparently share agency financials and projections so that everyone knows where our money comes from, how it’s being spent and how profit is being allocated. It’s critical that when everyone benefits from the company doing well, that even freelancers understand what that success looks like.
I’m not saying every company can (and should) be that extreme, but a level of transparency helps freelancers feel a deeper connection to the company they’re working with. Because in my mind, whether or not they are on the payroll, it’s in both the freelancer and the company’s best interests for everyone to be on the same page.
Freelancers can be some of the most valuable parts of a company or organization. They can help break echo chambers with fresh perspectives derived from diverse experiences. They can help refer other freelancers for additional needs. They can spice up the cultural life. They can even help source new business, for those that they feel are deserving of their connections.
Rewarding them with a great paycheck is a start. But really proving that they’re not just a cog in some wheel means giving them an experience they can’t get anywhere else.