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In the Gig Economy, How to Access, Attract, and Retain Great Freelance Talent

by Diane Mulcahy

In the Gig Economy, How to Access, Attract, and Retain Great Freelance Talent image
In the Gig Economy, How to Access, Attract, and Retain Great Freelance Talent

Independent workers are increasingly in demand at traditional companies because they help solve a significant pain point: persistently unfilled positions. Firms that hire independent workers can expand their talent pool nationally, or even globally, to locate skills or expertise that aren’t available in their local labor market. Adding independent workers can also help companies access skills and expertise needed for short-term initiatives or projects, as well as more efficiently scale their staffing up or down based on the needs and cycles of their business.

But companies that want to augment their full-time workforce with independent contractors, consultants, or freelancers are often stymied at the first step: how to find and attract the independent workers they need. That’s because scoping the work and shopping for independent workers is both different, and a different competency, than recruiting traditional employees.

Successfully attracting contingent workers means updating how to find, evaluate, onboard, and retain freelance talent to reflect their needs and desires. The companies that master these new skills will be more agile, flexible, and competitive in the war for talent.

Finding the right talent

The most significant change employers must make in recruiting independent workers happens internally, even before going out to the market: changing how work is structured. Companies have a long and strong tradition of organizing the work they need to get done into full-time jobs, then hiring full-time employees to fill those jobs. This approach needs to change to one where business leaders organize work into discrete projects and assignments, then hire independent workers to deliver specific results.

The next change is the job posting. The long, rambling, catch-all job description and the wish-list-filled profile of an ideal candidate that almost certainly doesn’t exist are no longer (if they ever were) the best tools for recruiting talent. Concise, specific, and concrete descriptions of the project, work deliverables, and results are the new job posting.

An independent worker I recently interviewed confirmed that she clicked right past postings that appeared long, vague, and general. She explained that she simply didn’t have the time or the patience to go back and forth with companies to help them figure out what they want, and then work with them to scope the project. She preferred engaging with companies that had already done the work to figure out what they wanted and then defined a clear project. She only responds to concise, specific postings that describe exactly what the company needs done, and the result they seek.

After you’ve defined and scoped a clear project and results, the next step is to decide how to distribute it for maximum visibility. Traditional job boards and recruiters that have a track record of success recruiting full-time employees are often the least well-positioned to find independent talent. The best and most efficient option remains the company’s own network of corporate alumni, existing employees, and vendors. Finding freelance talent that you already know or have worked with, or is known by someone you know and trust, remains the most efficient, low-cost, and easiest way to hire independent talent.

Another option is to engage temporary staffing companies like Aquent and Vitamin T (disclosure: the author is a consultant for Aquent), and platforms that target the skills and expertise you seek. High-touch intermediaries like Business Talent Group or Upwork Enterprise, or labor platforms like Toptal (for software engineers), Catalant (for consultants), or Upwork (for a range of skills and expertise) help companies identify and vet qualified independent workers.

Evaluating candidates

Companies have traditionally relied upon in-person interviews to evaluate and vet potential employees. This approach is less useful when assessing independent workers. First, studies indicate that traditional unstructured interviews aren’t useful in general, in that they do not predict job performance or success. Second, the subjective and qualitative attributes that many interviews are designed to gauge (e.g., “fit” or “attitude”) are much less relevant for workers that are remote, short-term, and hired to deliver specific results.

The better way to evaluate independent workers is to focus primarily on their proven ability to deliver the results you want. The easiest and most efficient approach is to review similar work products. Many independent workers will have their work – their writing, speaking, creative work, or portfolio – already online as part of their LinkedIn profile or website. If not, ask for a sample of sanitized work products – a draft report, a section of code, or a sample of marketing collateral from prior client work.

The second way is to conduct several client reference calls using one list of objective questions that probe whether the freelancer delivered quality work on spec, on time, and within budget, and determine the frequency and type of communication, interim deliverables, and specific contributions to the company’s knowledge management system.

A final option (and the most time consuming) involves asking the potential candidate to complete a small sample piece of work that demonstrates competence. An independent writer I interviewed said she will often edit a short piece of work – a 1- to 2-page memo or a press release – as part of the hiring process for a new client.

Employers must be mindful to structure the sample assignment so it doesn’t require significant uncompensated time or effort from the individual, or offer compensation. An independent consultant told me that when she was looking for a social media consultant to manage her Twitter account on an ongoing basis. She paid three of the most promising candidates for two hours of work each. She asked them to review her website and news on her area of expertise and write five tweets she could publish in the next week. She picked her consultant based on the tweets she had to edit the least. The short-term investment of paying for a few hours of work from several candidates was worth it to her to find the right long-term consultant.

Attracting the right talent

MBO Partners asked independent workers what makes  a company their  “client of choice.” A set of common characteristics clearly emerged. Almost all respondents said that their best clients value and appreciate the quality of their work, allow them to control their work and schedule, and provide the opportunity to work on projects they enjoy. Several other surveys of independent workers reveal that the top reasons employees leave full-time jobs to work independently are to control their schedule – when and where they work – and the work they do. These results suggest that companies need to accommodate flexible schedules and remote work if they want to attract independent workers.

Most large companies already have systems in place for “remote” work because their employees are already spread across multiple offices in several geographic locations. They are used to connecting and collaborating over video, and via shared documents and online project management tools. Managers are used to managing team members who aren’t in the office and might even be in a different time zone. These existing practices simply need to be extended to independent workers.

Smaller or start-up companies that are entirely office-based can have a greater challenge adapting to the cultural changes independent workers can instigate.  We will cover these cultural changes and management challenges in detail in our next blog post in this series.

Onboarding independent workers

The rubber hits the road when companies must onboard the independent talent they’ve worked hard to find and attract. MBO Partners asked independent workers what they value most about clients, and the operational issues that topped the list were clients that paid well, had an efficient onboarding process, and fast payment terms.

Freelance talent wants their clients to offer administrative ease, efficiency, and speed. There are two meaningful ways companies can deliver that. The first is to centralize the control and administrative management of independent workers within HR. This allows HR to work with managers to identify the need for independent talent, manage recruiting through both established and new channels, develop a central pool and pipeline of freelance talent, standardize contracts, and ensure compliance with independent contract classification regulations. HR can also leverage their experience to intervene in management issues, expedite invoicing and payments, and serve as a brand ambassador for the company in the freelance talent community.

Some companies have chosen to assign the procurement department the task of managing independent workers, and limit HR oversight to employees only. I recently interviewed a group of experienced independent workers in the pharmaceutical industry. They were lamenting the increasing role procurement plays in contracting. They described how the procurement process felt highly impersonal and was overly focused on low cost versus high quality bids. They also noted how difficult it was to write responsive proposals and pick the right projects when they couldn’t speak directly with the client to scope the project and clarify objectives. They much preferred working with companies where HR was the primary point of contact for independent workers.

The second way to offer freelancers a better overall experience is to implement a work intermediation platform (WIP). These platforms go by a variety of names (Contingent Workforce Management, Freelance Management systems, etc.) but their primary function is to automate the onboarding process for independent workers by collecting profile data, verifying background, licenses, and certifications, and gathering client references. They can also collect quotes, manage assignments, and track invoices and payments.

There is a third way to streamline internal operations around freelancers - outsource the entire onboarding process by working with a third-party staffing firm or labor platform. In those cases, the third party assumes responsibility for attracting talent, gathering data on each worker, managing payments and invoices, and (for higher touch options) conducting reference calls, and they often maintain their own WIP. This solution can be particularly attractive for companies just starting or experimenting with hiring independent workers, or firms that lack capacity to manage freelance talent in-house.

Becoming the best place to work

It’s no longer sufficient to focus on attracting and retaining full-time employees. Independent workers are the key to solving the persistent problems of unfilled positions, scarcity of specific skills and expertise in local labor markets, and the need to scale up and down in response to business cycles. The companies that make the changes and the effort needed find, attract and onboard the top independent workers will have better access to the skills, experience, and expertise they need.

The war for talent is only intensifying, and the new battleground is the independent workforce. Skilled workers can choose which companies and managers they want to work for, and that choice is most often based on their desire for interesting, challenging work that is valued, and their need for control over their work schedule. Companies that want to stay competitive must respond. Winning the war for talent means being the best place to work for the entire workforce –both employees and independent workers.

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.

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