The U.S. economy is home to 73 million freelance workers. Nearly all workplaces incorporate these people from time-to-time to get things done on a contract basis—bringing in web designers, writers, photographers, graphic designers, developers, translators, and marketing specialists. Most often seen in art, design, and project labor, these people are a critical part of getting things done in a 21st Century company. This got us thinking, how can we make our workplaces better for these workers?
Let's start with what worries and stresses freelancers have. When surveyed on their top concerns, freelance workers reported that they worried most about the possibility of an economic downturn (72%), followed closely by concerns about savings and retirement (about 70%), and having unpredictable income (68%). Another notable issue was not being able to purchase things they need (60%), which is driven in part by the substantial costs many freelancers incur for equipment, materials, and incidental expenses.
The most powerful thing you can do is communicate well from the start of a new freelance contract. Define the expected scope and duration of the work with the most accurate and precise information you are able to provide. Because freelancers are depending on their contracts to provide a steady, living source of income, they need to know what they'll earn and how much time they'll be spending on your assignments. They are going to be juggling your contract with others, and they're going to be trying to figure out when they can add on additional jobs. Help them make that easy by showing up and knowing exactly how much time and effort you are asking for, and what you are planning to pay in return. Even if you already have a detailed scope of work and contract, provide a corresponding, simpler project overview that includes the project start date, critical goals, deadlines for key products, budget and/or rates for their work, and expected end date.
Dan Pink, an author and expert in freelance workers, has also weighed in on how to help freelancers get up to speed on new work. It starts with helping them learn about the context and goals that your organization has for the project. Because freelancers aren’t around all the time, "They’re not getting the purpose of the exercise through osmosis the way your employees are. You have to spend extra time talking about what the goal is, how it connects to the big picture, and why it matters.”
Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research points out that freelancers need room to thrive. “To be a successful freelancer, you need to be self-motivated and able to work without someone looking over your shoulder. You shouldn’t have to manage the work product of a contractor." Keep in mind, you likely are not their only client, and they need space to do their work.
That said, feedback is important for freelancers so they get you the right work product and you build their confidence. Keep an open channel of communication: the team leaders closest to the project should have regular check-ins with its freelance contributors. Bring along the statement of work and discuss how things are going. This is an opportunity for the leader to ask "how are you doing? Is there anything we can do to support your work?"
If you have long-term freelancers, you can also include them in your regular employee sentiment surveys. Just make sure the survey data flags them as freelancers so you can distinguish their feedback from regular employees'.
King has conducted research showing that freelancers work best when they feel like they are part of your team. This does not mean they need to feel like employees, but they will benefit from getting the social and cultural treatment that your employees do. Make sure they are in the loop on team email lists, group lunches, and casual chats and hangouts. Give them recognition alongside your people. For longer-term, in-person freelancers, see if you can get them access to office any office perks like a gym, lunch room, or game room.
To combat the stress of having to pay for specialized equipment, materials, or software, consider providing or paying for some of these things. While many freelancers have core equipment, they may not have the specialized things necessary for the project. During your kickoff with them, find out what they need and see if you can help. Consider having extra seats or licenses for key software and providing equipment to freelancers on longer-term engagements.
Uncertainty about their income is the main source of stress for freelance workers. Make sure that your project managers and accounts payable people have reliable, complete process for paying freelancers. Their payments should never be delayed because of a technicality or a misunderstanding. In addition, make a habit of reviewing the rates you pay to freelancers the same way you would review the salaries of regular employees. Ensure that you are hitting at or above market rates for their work. Freelancers who are getting paid well and on-time will be treating you as their best clients, and they'll be less prone to distractions caused by financial problems.