Maintaining Workplace Culture with Free-Range Employees

Did you know that one in three Americans currently engage in freelance work? That’s almost 54 million people, and that number is expected to rise significantly by 2020. Those freelancers, often called “free-range employees” are in many respects the future of work. And smart companies are focused on creating a workplace culture that can adapt to a workforce comprised of not only full time employees, but a cadre of freelance talent as well.

So what gives? Why is there such a large increase in freelancing? In part, the answer lies in a changing work culture. Technology aside, the desire for increased flexibility to achieve a good work-life balance is extremely important, not only to a younger Millennial cohort, but also to GenX’ers, GenY, and their Boomer counterparts.

“Freelancers are pioneering a new approach to work and life – one that prioritizes family, friends and life experiences over the 9-5 rat race. This study shows that the flexibility and opportunity associated with freelancing is increasingly appealing and that is why we’ve seen such dramatic growth in the number of people choosing to freelance.”

—Sara Horowitz, Freelancers Union Founder and Executive Director

While there are financial benefits relative to a freelance workforce for both individuals and the companies who hire them, the other side of the coin is that companies are finding it increasingly difficult to manage and maintain this unique new work culture, especially as freelancers interface with full-time employees.

Part of the challenge involves understanding the priorities that Horowitz mentioned, and also understanding how freelancers like to work. A recent study commissioned by Upwork and the  Freelancers Union contains some key insights on how HR professionals and managers can navigate and inspire this new workforce.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you build a blended workforce, comprised of both traditional employees and freelance (free-range) employees.

People Choose to Freelance Because of Flexibility

The freedom to choose when and where they work is a top priority for full-time freelancers. Some of this is connected to passion, but other responsibilities play a major role as well. Nearly half of the people that responded to the survey (46 percent) said they freelance so they can have a schedule that enables them to provide care for a family member. This could mean being home to greet children from the school bus or it might mean being available to care for an elderly parent, both of which are things that challenge workers today.

For companies, this means a change in focus—and while it can be uncomfortable at first, forward-thinking managers can actually use flexible schedules to their advantage. The nature and structure of freelance work prioritizes a “get it done” approach. A hard deadline and defined set of deliverables, as well as very clear expectations for quality, can actually cut down on inefficient meetings and de-prioritize activity that doesn’t contribute to the bottom line.

Embrace the Whole Human

In the past, companies wanted to maintain a separation between employees’ personal lives and their job. That’s simply not a realistic expectation anymore as employees expect that their lives outside of the workplace, and the responsibilities that go along with that, will be accepted and even embraced.

For freelancers, that expectation is even more pronounced. Fred Talmadge, a respondent to the Upwork and Freelancers Union study, described the 360-degree world he inhabits in his career.…

“Professionally, I learn more every day by working on different types of projects of my choosing as a freelancer, and it keeps things fresh. Personally, I like my independence and can set my own schedule. I take my daughter to school and take time off when I want. When I was still at my traditional job, I dreamt of working on my own, and freelancing online has provided me that opportunity. I do not have any intentions to go back to a traditional job.”

Optimize Technology for Free-Range Employees

For companies with free-range employees, the latest and greatest technology is critical since most freelancers depend heavily on it to obtain and complete work. Seventy-three percent of freelancers said technology makes it easier to find work, and more than half had acquired a project online in the last year, up from 42 percent the year before.

Remote workers expect technology to be quick, easy to learn, and painless. Keeping up-to-date with the latest in technology, such as cloud-based collaboration tools, videoconferencing, messaging tools and the like will help ensure productivity. The reality is that employees already expect and are using consumer-grade applications for tasks like messaging and file sharing. That seamless productivity means happy employees, who are more likely to contribute their best work and most creative thinking.

Instead of Building Big Culture, Build it Small and Regularly

The days of the annual review that determines an employee’s entire fate are long gone. Not only do free-range employees expect consistent feedback on their work, they also want to know how they can improve and further develop themselves and their skills, and they want to know it now.

For many corporate-minded managers, this shifts the model for apprenticeship and mentorship. Making time to connect regularly in 10, 15, or 30 minute increments is likely to be the cornerstone of the future workplace, whether your team is remote or on-site. It’s a trend that complements the fact that younger generations are accustomed to being constantly connected.

Set Aside Specific Creative Time

One of the fears that corporate leadership expresses about freelance and remote workers is that they will waste time and be less productive. Interestingly, there’s a fair amount of research that suggests remote workers are actually more productive. Companies experimenting with remote work sometimes even find that there are radical cost savings.

However, even experienced freelancers admit that creativity is sparked through interaction with other people and for many companies that’s built into an office environment.

“Bumping into co-workers, chatting in hallways, sitting down over lunch, a day at the office results in dozens of interactions every day. The result, shown both anecdotally and in statistics, is more creativity and greater effectiveness. For instance, in one study tracking the behaviors of a sales team of a pharmaceutical company, when a salesperson increased interactions with coworkers on other teams…by 10 percent, his or her sales also grew by 10 percent.”

For companies that include free-range employees, it’s particularly important to make time for creative sharing and not let that time get bogged down with administrative items.

Even something as simple as setting up a 30-minute weekly brainstorm meeting, whether that’s done in person or by videoconference—and sticking to it—can make a huge difference, generating ideas that will resonate the rest of the week.

It will be increasingly important, now and in the future, for businesses to fully embrace the new freelance work culture and make it work to the advantage of both the employees and the company.

photo credit: Invisible Desktop via photopin (license)

A version of this post was published on MillennialCEO on 12/10/2015