Today, as much as 40% of the US workforce consists of contingent or “gig” workers. Freelancers have become key players in the labor market — and for growing companies, an attractive alternative to traditional hires. The side hustle has gone mainstream.
But the relationship between freelancers and their clients hasn’t always been cordial. Last year, protests at Uber and Google made headlines and forced both to reassess how they treated contractors. Low unemployment, coupled with a hyper-competitive labor market, has made retaining these specialized workers a priority.
Worried about getting “fired” by your freelancers? Here are some tips to help ensure they feel welcome and valued.
First impressions count. From engagement to productivity, there isn’t an HR metric that isn’t influenced by onboarding. Nearly 90% of new hires decide whether to stay or leave in their first few months. Onboarding clearly makes a difference for full-time staff, so why wouldn’t it for contractors?
That disparity always troubled Keshet Bachan, Head of People Ops at Netomi. From her point of view, onboarding and engagement are important regardless of whether someone has “FT” listed by their name.
“We provide our contractors with the same onboarding experience that full-time employees receive, including a dedicated presentation and company overview, policies, practices, and induction meetings with key staff,” Bachan said. The company also gives its contractors a care package with company swag like T-shirts and mugs. It’s a small gesture that makes them feel welcome and like stakeholders in the company’s growth.
To Bachan, the policy wasn't just the “right” thing to do; it was a business imperative. “It's important to point out that contractors are also highly skilled professionals that are key to driving innovation and allowing startups to compete with tech giants,” Bachan said. For her business, engaging contractors from day one serves as a competitive advantage in a tight labor market.
Research shows that employees who develop friendships at work are happier, more engaged, and produce better work. Another study found that those with a “work best friend” are over 90% more likely to be engaged. Casual coffees, after-work happy hours, and company-sponsored events are likely avenues for fostering those relationships.
Naturally, some get-togethers are spontaneous. But for companies that don’t have freelancers onsite, holidays offer a convenient opening. Adam Smith, General Manager at SimplrFlex, invites his team’s contractors to participate in holiday potlucks and even costume parties. “We run swaps and costume contests. For example, last year we ran our first annual Halloween costume contest. It was actually a ton of fun and really helped us all to get to know each other better,” he said.
For businesses that depend on contractors for their success, inviting them to company retreats is one way to show gratitude. It also helps instill a sense of ownership.
Sean Pour, a co-founder of SellMax, goes further than just extending an invite. “We help freelancers feel like part of the team by holding team retreats typically twice a year. So, we pick a destination and fly out the in-house team and the freelancers. We book accommodations and hang out as a team for a week,” he said. Though it might seem lavish, Pour thinks the policy is worth the expense. “This has worked tremendously well, and everyone walks away wanting to grow the company even further,” he said.
Benefits are a touchy subject in freelancing, and for good reason. For employers, benefits like health insurance represent a major expense, ranking just behind employee salaries and office space. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average cost of offering benefits is $11.38 per hour, per employee. That’s why so many businesses opt to leverage freelancers in the first place. Federal law requires employers with 50 or more employees to offer health insurance for full-time staff.
But there are ways to show you care beyond a health insurance card. Last year, Postmates made headlines after launching a new suite of benefits for its contractors. The offering included accident coverage, learning and development resources, and advisory services for enrolling in insurance through Healthcare.gov. While these offerings stop short of employer-sponsored healthcare, they can still make a difference.
Bonuses and gifts are another way to show your appreciation — and not just when the business crosses an important milestone. You wouldn’t think twice about giving kudos to an employee for getting married or having a child. SimplrFlex makes it a habit to regularly send gifts to its contractors, who it calls “Experts.”
“One of our Experts bought their first house this year, so we sent a housewarming gift. Because many of our Experts are stay-at-home mothers, we also like to send them baby gifts,” Smith said. It might not seem like much, but even small things can turn an impersonal relationship into a familial one. “These little, surprising things help show that we're building personal connections with them and that we truly value them”, he said.
John Paul Engel heads Knowledge Capital, a management consulting firm. Having spent time as a contractor and hiring them, he’s been on both sides of the equation. Some of his engagements lasted as long as a decade — enough time for the contractor-client relationship to transcend business. He believes those success stories had one thing in common.
“I think communication is the key. I've been invited to conferences and board meetings with clients. They’ve introduced me to their spouses. I even have photos of some of them hanging in my home,” Engel says. That warmth and transparency is something he employs when managing freelancers, whom he jokingly calls his “mafia.”
Technology helps facilitate those relationships. Messaging tools like Slack are especially useful when gig workers are distributed or seldom onsite. Slack serves as a shared space where coworkers can talk shop, recognize each other, or just shoot the breeze. In other words, it becomes the company’s town square.
Andrew Taylor, Director at Net Lawman, made it a policy to invite contractors to the company’s Slack workspace. Doing so gave them visibility into broader business discussions, as well as upcoming events and get-togethers. Just because a contractor might be specialized doesn’t mean they don’t take interest in these conversations.
“Making sure that everyone is aware of major changes is important, even if it isn't directly critical for the freelancer to know these things. When you work in a business, information comes across your desk that isn't always relevant,” he said. Companies wouldn’t think to leave full-time employees in the dark about other departments’ successes. As long as they’ve signed nondisclosure forms, contractors stand to benefit from that same visibility.
Freelancers are in high demand, meaning most have other companies in their books of business. Don’t let your company take the prize for “least favorite client.” Engaging contractors starts with treating them with the same respect you have for your full-time employees. It also means getting a read on how they really feel about your organization.
So how are you measuring engagement? In our ebook, How to Use Real-Time Engagement to Build a Winning Culture, we highlight the tried-and-true strategies for getting an accurate snapshot of workplace sentiment. You’ll learn how to create an engagement survey, what to do with the feedback, and more. Download the free ebook by clicking here.