The Big Factors That Attract the Best Freelancers

For the past couple of years the website Working Not Working has published the results of a survey asking creative freelancers where they would most want to work full-time. The list of top companies includes the usual disrupters and well-known start-ups (Tesla, AirBnB), but also a few unexpected entries, such as “old economy” firms like The New York Times and Disney. But implicit in this question is another, more interesting, polling topic: Freelancers, where do you most enjoy working now?

In our new book Agile Talent, Norm Smallwood and I focus directly on this latter question: What must organizations do to be attractive to top creatives or other external experts? It is a particularly relevant question these days, given the increasing dependence on what pundits call the contingent workforce. Accenture estimates that 20 to 30% of FTE’s are what we term agile talent (contractors, gigsters consultants, and other externals sought for their particular expertise);Deloitte estimates 30 to 40%. Our data suggests an even higher percentage in the future — over 50% of global companies surveyed plan to increase their use of agile talent.

First things first. Why are organizations making greater use of agile talent? Our survey of executives provides a helpful perspective. As the list below points out, cost and staffing levels are not the driving factors, although they are certainly key elements. Expertise, innovation, and speed are also of great importance.

The Top 5 Reasons Why Organizations Are Increasing Their Use of Contingent Talent

  1. Leverage the increased availability of expertise
  2. Reduce cost
  3. Avoid adding permanent headcount
  4. Increase the speed of getting things done
  5. Challenge our thinking and assumptions with outside ideas

But while organizations depend more on external talent and more freelancers to assist, it’s not an easy marriage. Our research below points to some of the challenges and frustrations. Here are the top five complaints on both sides:

The Top 5 Complaints of Executives Regarding External Talent

  1. It’s difficult to find experts who match our culture
  2. Externals don’t know our business well enough to contribute
  3. Externals are often too abstract in their approach
  4. Externals lack commitment to our organization
  5. Externals seem to be reading from a script rather than trying to understand our unique problems

The Top 5 Complaints of External Talent Regarding Client Organizations

  1. Organizations are too slow in making decisions
  2. Organizations are too complex
  3. Internal staff don’t work hard enough
  4. It’s difficult to assess senior leaders
  5. Sponsorship is insufficient, buy-in is weak and inconsistent

So, what can organizations do to become more attractive to agile talent — to be the kind of organization that agile talent loves to work for? Through our survey research and interviews with hundreds of external experts and internal organizational leaders, we’ve found four key factors to building mutually satisfying relationships:

Strategic alignment. Is the organization disciplined and rigorous in identifying areas where agile talent is required or potentially beneficial? Are external experts used well? Are they doing work that matters and is important to the organization; moreover, do they feel the work is meaningful? Is the organization effective at defining the role, relationship, and scope of initiatives addressed by agile talent so that both goals and roles are clear? Does the work have the right level of sponsorship? Are timing, budget, and resourcing consistent with what is required for a successful outcome? And, when scope changes occur, is the work plan and budget revised appropriately so that externals don’t feel taken advantage of or exploited?

Performance alignment. How well does the organization convert a plan or initiative into well-defined, S.M.A.R.T. objectives and timelines? Are performance expectations clearly defined, established, and communicated so that the accountabilities are clear to both agile talent and the internal colleagues they depend on? How often is performance assessed and feedback provided? Is the feedback balanced or focused primarily on problems and mistakes? Does the organization take responsibility for its part, or tend to “dump” on the external? What metrics are used, and are they reasonable? When performance problems arise, how promptly and effectively does the organization take the required action?

Relationship alignment. Does the organization consider cultural fit as well as technical expertise in the choice of external talent? Are agile talent thrown into the task or given a solid orientation to the organization and the people with whom they will work? How promptly and effectively are conflicts resolved? Are externals engaged and involved, kept informed appropriately, and treated with the consideration and respect that any professional would expect? Or, as the expression goes, are they treated like mushrooms, and kept in the dark?

Administrative alignment. Is the organization set up to work well with agile talent, or are they treated with suspicion, as a necessary evil? Does the organization respond bureaucratically in dealing with externals’ concerns, for example is the contractual process benign or difficult and excessively time consuming? Are pertinent rules and policies communicated appropriately and early? Are externals paid promptly? Is the orientation of the organization one that views external talent as interlopers or as welcome colleagues?

Unsurprisingly, these factors are not much different than those that build good relationships with your internal, full-time employees. Line of sight, good performance management, effective working relationships, and reasonable and transparent administrative procedures are logical antecedents of satisfaction — whether for full-time staff or for the agile talent brought in to work a particular project.

Based on these findings, we recommend a four step process for becoming a top external talent magnet:

 Clarify strategic direction. Leadership needs to take a hard look at the expertise requirements of their strategy and clearly define their approach to agile talent. We find three different approaches in use, based on the company’s strategic objectives: traditional, surgical, or transformational:
  • Traditional. With this approach, leaders of traditionally structured and managed organizations choose to take greater advantage of freelancers and other external talent on an exception basis where their skills are strategically important. A significant majority of work will continue to be performed by full-time permanent employees.
  • Transformational. The most aggressive approach to agile talent, a large segment of the workforce is contingent, coming together on a project basis and disbanding when the project is completed. Organizations that depend on virtual organization structures are uncommon but there are a few. Industries such as entertainment and motion pictures offer a glimpse of the possibilities of how companies will work with the agile talent in the future.
  • Surgical. This third category describes organizations that choose to take a more selective approach. Agile talent is applied in this case as a methodology to accelerate capability development or change. To remain competitive, firms rely on agile talent and other resourcing arrangements to quickly grow capability.

The philosophy and strategy you choose needs to be clear to managers throughout your organization.

Assess the current state of alignment. Using the Agile Talent EQ survey, establish how well the organization is organized and performing against the four alignment factors. We recommend not only internal leadership points of view; where possible, key external relationships should also be invited to provide a perspective on strengths and needs for change or improvement. For example, early findings from the Agile Talent EQ survey indicate that leaders are far more confident about the quality of their performance alignment than are external experts.

Identify needs, prioritize, and implement the plan. Having identified areas of strength and misalignment, leaders need to establish the game plan for improvement: what, who, how and by when. Communication is a critical part of the plan: internal employees need to understand the role and importance of agile talent, and the quality of collaboration between internals and externals that the organization needs. Poor communication, and inadequate leadership modeling, will lead to obvious problems down the road.

Build reputation through communication. Organizations who adopt a surgical or transformational approach to agile talent must do more than ensure the alignment changes needed to ensure success; they must send the message to the agile talent communities that they depend on. An excellent example is Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comment, “Facebook is also great for entrepreneurs/hackers. If people want to come for a few years and move on and build something great, that’s something we’re proud of.” Combining organizational change with encouraging leader communication is a logical recipe for attracting and retaining top external talent.

Alignment is the driver. When top external experts, or gigsters, or advisers, or consultants choose from among the opportunities available to them, they want to make a difference (strategic alignment), make a significant and measurable contribution for which they are recognized and appreciated (performance alignment), be treated as a valued colleague (relationship alignment), and work with an organization that is easy to work with (administrative alignment). Not surprisingly, agile talent wants to be treated as important talent — a contributor rather than a “necessary evil.” Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

This article was originally published on Harvard Business Review.

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