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In the Gig Economy, a Four-Step Approach to Reaping the Benefits of a Flexible Workforce

by Diane Mulcahy

In the Gig Economy, a Four-Step Approach to Reaping the Benefits of a Flexible Workforce image
In the Gig Economy, a Four-Step Approach to Reaping the Benefits of a Flexible Workforce

Finding great talent to fill open positions is one of the biggest pain points Human Resources executives and senior managers face. Many companies are unable to attract the talent they need when they need it because traditional approaches to recruiting and hiring employees have failed.

The Gig Economy – made up of consultants, independent contractors, freelancers, and on-demand workers – represents a potential solution to winning the war for talent. The Gig Economy offers a number of potential advantages over the traditional recruiting of full-time employees.

The Potential Advantages of Hiring Freelance Talent

  • Hiring independent workers can be faster, easier, and less risky: Full-time employees are time-consuming to hire and difficult (and risky) to let go, which causes companies to move slowly to add people. Most companies have long, multi-step processes of interviews and evaluations that candidates must navigate before receiving an offer.

    Hiring independent workers can be much faster because business needs and candidate criteria are more specific for project-based work, and therefore easier to target than the wide range of skills embedded in the typical job description. Corporate alumni networks, specialized labor platforms, and third-party staffing services make freelance talent easy to source, and there is also less risk, and risk aversion, to hiring someone for a short-term project than a permanent position.

  • It can be more efficient: Anticipating labor needs and skills can be challenging in a high-velocity and constantly changing environment. Incorporating independent workers into the workforce makes it easier to hire the right skills at the right time for the current initiatives, products, and markets the company is pursuing. Companies can scale up and down as needed, and staff in tandem with changes in business and market cycles.

  • The process can be lower cost: The time and expense of recruiting and onboarding, the fixed nature of their skills and expertise, as well as the costs and risks of letting staff go make full-time employees one of the most expensive staffing options. In contrast, independent workers can be brought on faster, with less onboarding, targeted for the specific skills and expertise the company needs, and they are let go quickly, easily, and contractually at the end of an assignment or project.

  • It can be higher quality: Full-time labor is sticky. If an employee is underperforming, it can take time to identify, document, and then take action to correct or terminate the employee. There needn’t be such lags or acceptance of underperformance in the Gig Economy. If an independent worker is not completing interim deliverables on time and to the appropriate quality level, their contract can be terminated, or not renewed.

  • It’s strategic: It’s a virtuous cycle: the more a company works with independent talent, the better connected to the ecosystem and network they are, and the easier it is to find new talent, or re-engage with workers that have proven themselves on prior projects. The high-performing workers can be brought in multiple times, or hired on retainer, to provide ongoing services and help to the company. 

Even when companies understand the potential benefits of incorporating freelance talent, it can be hard to take the leap into a full-scale embrace of the Gig Economy. Those firms looking for a moderate and low-risk approach to incorporating independent workers can start slow with a pilot test, evaluate the outcomes, and decide how to move forward based on results. Below are the four steps to take to implement a low-risk and low-cost pilot test:

Step 1: Start with persistently unfilled positions

Every company has jobs that are already challenging to recruit for and fill. If the choice is continuing to have nobody in the position or trying an independent worker, all the potential upside lies in trying something new.

The challenge for corporate HR and managers is to start thinking of these unfilled positions in terms of work, not a job. Instead of posting for a VP of Marketing job, companies can instead think about hiring for the discrete projects and tasks that make up the position. For example, consider hiring an independent former VP of Marketing for helping with your marketing strategy, contracting with a PR firm for crisis communication if needed, and bringing on a freelance social media manager to oversee daily communication.

Hiring independent workers means structuring work differently – not as a full-time job, but rather as discrete projects, tasks, and assignments with clear deliverables and results. This can be a challenging mindset shift for traditional companies, but one that is well worth making.

Step 2: Identify non-critical hires

Don’t start by putting everything on the line. It’s too risky and too stressful. Begin looking for opportunities to bring independent workers onto projects that are important, but don’t drive the company’s success that quarter. To continue the prior example, the company’s key new product launch might not be the right project to start experimenting with adding independent workers to the team. Longer-term strategic projects, or ones that will benefit from creative outside perspectives or innovation, can be good bets for integrating freelance talent.

Step 3: Look for mid-career independent workers

I recently interviewed a manager who lamented her ‘bad experience’ with a junior remote freelancer who didn’t complete an assignment on time - or to the quality standard the manager expected.

This is a common situation because the common mistake companies make when hiring independent workers is to bring on junior talent for entry level or low-level work.

At first glance, this strategy might appear lower-risk, since lower-level work by its nature is less critical and includes oversight of higher-level managers. But, many independent contractors work remotely and flexibly. Junior talent has relatively little work experience and potentially less well-developed work habits and strategies. The resulting risk is that lower- and entry-level workers can end up floundering in an unstructured environment that relies on established work habits and discipline to meet and exceed objectives.

On the other hand, mid-career and experienced workers are more likely to have successful and efficient work strategies in place, as well as established skills and expertise, to help them deliver great results while working remotely and flexibly.

Step 4: Consider cultural fit

Independent workers often bring a different cultural approach to work than traditional full-time employees and managers. They are used to working when and where they choose, in ways that maximize their own productivity and efficiency. They are evaluated based on the results and value they deliver, not how many or which hours they spend in an office cube.

I recently spoke to a senior manager who told me about her experiences with an independent worker she hired for an office-based assignment. It drove her crazy that the person left each day at 5:30, and that she wore a headset and streamed a movie while working on the financial model she was hired to do. The manager admitted that the person was a “rock star” and “brilliant” and delivered high quality work, on time. But she had a difficult time getting past the cultural norms around facetime, and her own view of what focused concentration looked like.

These challenges are common. Hiring independent workers can help companies create or amplify a culture based on high performance but can also threaten existing cultural norms that reward facetime, office politics, seniority, or even toxic behaviors.

Taking the (Calculated) Leap

When conducting a pilot program like this, adequate planning can mean the difference between success and failure. To identify the places in your company where independent workers will have the greatest chance of success, seek out managers who have created a high-performance culture based on results, and have some experience and skills managing remote workers.

The Gig Economy offers companies many potential benefits - and a competitive advantage - in the war for talent. Conducting a pilot test offers a low-cost and low-risk way to experiment with adding independent freelance workers to your workforce.

Even companies that don’t want to commit fully to the Gig Economy can at least commit to trying it.

About Author

Diane Mulcahy is an Advisor to Aquent, the author of The Gig Economy (AMACOM, an imprint of Harper Collins) and a frequent consultant to Fortune 500 companies and startups on the Gig Economy and the future of work.

Author's Website

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