The freelance economy has arrived and represents a significant and positive shift for workers and companies.
The statistics tell the story: the number of freelancers in the U.S. has grown by 10 million people in the last 10 years.
One in three Americans, 54 million people, or 34 percent of U.S. workers are now freelancing, and they wouldn’t have it any other way: half of U.S. freelancers wouldn’t take a full-time job no matter what.
Who Could Blame Them?
Freelance workers enjoy perks like remote working, flex time, flexibility in location, and interesting and unique projects. They get to use their specialized skills where and when they choose.
For example, a freelancer might assist an agency in advertising, then later that day help an aerospace company with its marketing efforts. Freelancers can take the summer off, or work and travel, or find their perfect balance between family and career commitments.
A recent study by UpWork and the Freelancers Union found that as of 2016:
- Two-thirds of freelancers agree that freelancing provides the opportunity to work from anywhere
- More than one-third have been able to move thanks to the flexibility that freelancing provides
- 73 percent agree that technology has made it easier to find freelance work
- 60 percent of freelancers said they started freelancing by choice
Freelancers aren’t going away, either. By 2020, more than 40 percent of the American workforce 60 million people are expected to be independent contractors. Juggling kids, aging parents, and just everyday life leads all types of workers to seek more flexibility and control. Freelancers can do the things they need and still, get unique and challenging work.
Businesses Benefit, Too
Freelancing is good for individuals, but makes sense for businesses, too. Businesses need labor that’s more flexible, cost-effective, and specialized. The right freelancer at the right time can provide a competitive advantage, from faster time-to-market to hard-to-find expertise. Freelancers cut out the middle man from traditional staffing firm models, reducing HR’s involvement including time spent to find talent. And it opens up a direct line to America’s most diverse talent pool.
Freelancers also solve other problems:
- Reduce reporting and compliance headaches (like the Affordable Care Act) as well as their associated costs
- Accommodate seasonality, such as staffing up to meet peak demands
- Minimize operating costs needed to pay for perks and benefits
- Reduce time needed to interview and onboard
- Reduce costs associated with facilities, software, and devices
- Provide targeted services, for a specific period of time, that may be difficult to hire for
Every size of business can benefit from freelancers. The upsides are relevant to pretty much any organization, from startups to an enterprise, in just about every industry.
Managing Freelancers Takes More Than Technology
To realize these benefits, of course, companies must evolve. Freelancers often fall into a weird gap, where they’re outside the purview of traditional HR, but not part of a temp agency.
Managing them can be a challenge although new technologies seem to pop up daily to meet and improve the freelance work cycle, from sourcing to hiring to onboarding and off-boarding talent. The right tools not only make these processes possible but increase engagement and improve productivity and the quality of the output.
The biggest shift in this freelance economy, however, isn’t in new technology, processes, or organizational structure: it’s the culture.
Freelance culture is different from what people typically think of as “Corporate America.” You know, the nine-to-five, sometimes bureaucratic, stuffy, and lucky-us-casual-Friday kind of culture. Despite the security that full-time work allegedly provides, freelancers make the move to self-employment because of autonomy, entrepreneurship, diversity, and drive.
But it’s ironic that many freelancers find themselves right back in that traditional corporate culture in their new contract gigs. And often, it’s a mismatch of values between the freelancer and the organization. That’s why in order to gain all the benefits of freelance workers, plus pass those benefits on to the entire organization, businesses have to change and evolve.
4 Ways to Implement Freelance Culture in Your Workplace
Instead of forcing the new workforce into old models of working, organizations must learn from, adapt to, and evolve toward the freelancer mentality. This requires actively implementing the values mentioned above into the corporate culture at every level, for every employee, to build an environment that full-timers and freelancers want to be a part of. Even your non-freelancers will thank you.
As independent contractors, autonomy is literally the name of the game for freelancers. They’re different from traditional temp workers because they work for themselves, not an agency. That means they have total control over how, when, and where they work. They even have control over what work they do. This is key to the Future of Work the ultimate in flexibility.
Whether freelance or full time, organizations have to trust employees to get work done in the way that works best for them, even outside the normal work hours. Within reason, organizations must embrace this flexibility, not fight against it. Most companies will find it creates positive goodwill in return: give people more trust and freedom, they’ll earn it and be more productive members of the team.
Freelancers are quintessential entrepreneurs, striking out on their own with all the risk and reward that running a business entails. It’s good to embrace that spirit of innovation and motivation by providing employees opportunities to create and grow.
What does that look like for your employees? Maybe it is a hackathon on the development team, or a designated percentage of time to work on something “not your job” a la Google. It may be as simple as getting feedback on a project from a different team or setting aside a few minutes weekly for brainstorming. Don’t forget to include the freelancers, too; they offer a unique perspective on your business, and will both lead by example and feel more connected to your organization for being included.
Ask a freelancer what the best part of his or her job is, and you will very likely hear “diversity.” Freelancers often work on multiple projects, for multiple clients, throughout the year and/or at any given time. This variation brings serious benefits to the worker and the work. It prevents boredom, stagnation, and burnout. It introduces new ideas, approaches, processes, and ways of thinking. It helps people continue to grow professionally, and to feel that growth in a tangible way.
In your business, introduce more diversity to full-time and contract workers by consciously creating cross-functional teams and projects. Ask your employees what they would like to work on, where they would like to improve, or where they can add value. Fostering a broad and deep environment will prevent freelancers from stalling out, and bring new energy to full-time team members.
Drive motivates freelancers to spend their days finding new clients while keeping existing clients happy. It’s one of the most challenging parts of self-employment retaining and acquiring customers but it’s also one of the most valuable. Freelancers don’t have the opportunity to rest on their laurels, so they don’t. They’re out there getting the next client and networking.
Stimulating drive is a delicate balance. Pushing people to the point of insecurity doesn’t help anyone, but motivating employees to perform at their peak can deliver exceptional results. Encourage, incentivize, and support stretch goals.
Find out what makes your employees excited. And let freelancers and FTEs know that their work is valued and that there are positive consequences for a job well done and, of course, follow up on it. Bonuses and other “carrots” are good, but trust and appreciation are even better. Decisions being made at the right level, for example, is a good start.
The freelance economy is growing, but they’re not the only ones who like flexibility. To attract and retain the best talent, you need to meet freelancers in the middle, folding them into your organization while incorporating critical aspects of freelance culture across the board. These practices will boost your appeal and your productivity. Your entire team will work more positively and effectively. You’ll reduce cost, too.
That’s enough to make everyone happy.