It may seem a strange question to ask.  But these days, with recent changes in work and in the workplace, perhaps it's not as strange a question as it may at first appear.

When work needs done and you are short staffed. The first thought that goes through most organisations minds, is that they need more staff.  And by staff, they generally mean employees.  Granted, there are some areas where using contractors is fairly well entrenched.  Defined project work, and IT projects in particular, come to mind.  Another alternative is outsourcing, an area gaining more and more traction.  But with outsourcing, you are generally passing over whole business processes and functions.  In many/most cases it too also effectively involves employing full time staff. Although they now work for the outsourcing company rather than you.

This post is about thinking another alternative to employees. Here, we are looking at the "Gig Economy", or "Freelancing".  You may very likely have heard of it, in one shape or form.  But, are you using it within your organisation? And, can it be a serious alternative to taking on more staff?
Some research;  Deloittes this year in one of their Insight reports, estimated that 77 million people within Europe, India and the USA  identified as being freelancers, or work within the 'gig economy'.  Research suggests this will only increase, with projections suggesting the number of people freelancing will over double by 2021.

Companies like Uber are pushing the boundaries and making freelancing both; a very visible and viable occupation in many countries round the world.  Perhaps you already use of contractors in some areasof your business currently.  Indeed self-employed contractors are in effect freelancers. But, could you significantly increase on this and go much further?  And, if you did, what are the challenges, opportunities?  Also, how do you organise to make best use of them?

Who are the Freelancers?

In determining whether this might be possible for your organisation, let's look who are the freelancers.  Do you think of freelancers as simply people who can't find full time work?  If you do, many other employers also still think this way.  But the reality for many freelancers is very different.  For them, freelancing is a choice they have actively made.  As an example, a USA study by Intuit found only 11% of those freelancers surveyed said they were unable to find full time work.  The main reasons stated for going freelance were more control over their careers and diversifying their sources of income.  

It may also surprise you to learn that freelancing is not mainly a young person's game.  In terms of numbers, its estimated 31% of Americans who work exclusively in the gig economy are baby boomers i.e. born between 1946 and 1965.  

So there are plenty of people freelancing with lots of experience. Indeed at can have some natural advantages.  An freelancer will typically have exposure to a much wider range of employers. They will very likely have done what you require of them, many times before.  Freelancers know they have to hit the ground running and make a difference.  It's also much easier from a management perspective to hold someone to deliver outcomes by specifying it in a contract, than it is by employee objectives.   The freelancer knows they need to deliver.  Satisfied clients help the freelancer get the next job and it provides them more work.  Employees are still with you even if you are not 100% satisfied and it's not so easy to manage them out.

So, how do you attract them and how do you make your work freelancer friendly?

Expect it to be different to managing permanent employees. Firstly, Freelancers don't come expecting: a paid canteen or lunch, lots of holidays, and many of the other staff benefits you probably provide your employees.  They may also not even need desk space, IT, phones or other headcount orientated costs.  This of course is all good potential cost savings for you.

They do however, have other needs that require some accommodation from you:

  1. Don't waste their time.  Get back to them quickly regarding the jobs you have for them.  Make sure you don't leave them in the dark.  Keep them updated or they will simply choose not to work with you.  You cannot afford to think of them as 'on-tap' or, you will find when you finally get back to them that they will have chosen to work elsewhere.

  2. Make sure you share information with them.  Like everyone else, they need information to do a quality job.  As they are not employees, they won't have the same level of background information or knowledge of your organisation and it's processes as your employees.  So give them a good brief and make sure you give them access to all relevant information and systems.

  3. Show them that they are valued and that you appreciate their work.  This may sound obvious.  But, some employers, simply don't treat freelancers with the same level of respect as employees.  So, thank them the same as you would with employees.  Show your appreciation when results come in.  Include them where appropriate in staff functions. It's just human nature - people like feedback.  Freelancers like being valued (just like anyone else).  We have seen ourselves that they will go out of their way; to work with, and support, organisations who value them.

  4. Another obvious one: pay them on-time.  You would pay your employees on time so why not do the same with your freelancers? It's just manners and respect.  But we still see employers who end up paying their freelancers invoices late, like they do with other suppliers.  Do this however, and word will soon get out that you are tardy or inefficient in this area.  You will then find they choose to work for others, or that they will be looking to offset your late paying by charging you more.

  5. Do have a written agreement with them.  It's as good for them as it is for you.  Your freelancers will want to know where they stand. So, don't be tempted to hire with no agreements in place.  Not only is this just basic commercial common sense, it makes sure they know where they stand.  We are not talking anything like an employment agreement (note we are planning a later post on specific HR and legislative aspects) - we are assuming they won't count as employees.  But just as you would have a specification with a supplier for delivery of goods or services - make sure you have one with your freelance staff.

Lastly, be aware that freelancers often have extensive networks of contacts. After-all, its important to their business to get around and to be respected. As such, when build up a good relationship with them you may find they can bring very useful contacts and market intelligence to your organisation.

So, why not look into freelancers and see how your organisation might use them to better advantage.  We are seeing more and more businesses that are finding that freelancers have added significant value to their organisations.  We are also seeing more employers using them in place of the traditional full or part-time employee.