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When every organisation uses freelancers, who is responsible for them?

In modern work, the lines of responsibility and support are blurred — but there’s benefit in organisations taking increased responsibility, rather than less.

I often ask people I meet “how many freelancers are working in your business?”

You’d be surprised at just how many people couldn’t answer that question — or they thought they knew, and the real number was two or three times higher.

This is because, often, there is no single person responsible for making sure the experience for external talent is designed well; there is no person with a responsibility for others.

Despite more people than ever moving to self-employment, more organisations than ever relying upon these individuals as a core part of their business model, and more hybrid teams being built using “internal” plus “external” talent — there’s very little being done to consider how to build strong relationships with people you work with, but don’t employ.

In most organisations, we have an HR team who are accountable for ensuring people are onboarded and supported whilst they’re with the business. Managers share in responsibility for feedback, guidance and professional development, and the team take shared responsibility in support and pastoral care.

But, for ad-hoc talent [let’s define that as contractors, partners, freelancers, self-employed, gig-workers, anyone who isn’t under a traditional employment contract], there’s very rarely a single point of responsibility — rather it’s left down to individuals who are hiring talent in to a) find b) select c) brief d) onboard e) support f) guide g) feedback h) … etc. It’s a lot of extra responsibility, especially when often, you’re hiring people to lighten the heavy workload.

But does it matter? Isn’t one of the main benefits to hiring external talent that they’re self-contained, self-motivating, able to just ‘hit the ground running’?

Where are the gaps?

Let’s assume a lack of onboarding slows down the average freelancer by one hour.

One hour where they’re less productive than they could be.

One hour where they’re figuring things out that could be explained simply, or having to wait for something, that is holding them up from doing good work.

Doesn’t seem so bad?

But if you hire 8 freelancers in one year, that’s a day’s money gone. If you use external talent once a month, that’s almost two days of money spent for nothing.

nb. one hour is a very conservative estimate. We’ve had stories of freelancers waiting around in reception for hours before someone picked them up; of not being able to connect to the wifi; not knowing who they need to contact when they arrive; and that’s all before they’ve even started work… and I’ve worked with businesses where their freelance workforce is upwards of 40% — at which point, when it’s reaching the majority of your people, not being able to get good work done becomes a major issue.

If your organisation isn’t taking engaging with external talent seriously, how much is your business losing every time you hire specialists or work with new partners?

Research suggests that over £8000 is lost per employee every year due to poor internal communication — and those are the people you know how to contact. I recently spent time with an agency who didn’t know how many freelancers were in their building at that moment in time, nor how to contact them. There was no insight or route to reaching the people they were relying upon to deliver work.

With some reports saying that the majority of the workforce will be self-employed by 2030, can organisations afford not to be thinking about better on-boarding, engagement and support, not just for their own people, but for anyone they work with, regardless of employment contract?

The inefficiency/cost angle doesn’t even touch upon a) quality of work and b) wellbeing of workers.

Quality of work is unlocked by teams trusting each other; being well informed and supported; being able to make empowered decisions; understanding what success looks like, and working on tasks that are both meaningful and impactful. Mental health is adversely affected by the lack of these things, and can in many instances lead to individuals not being able to do good work (at best), and not being able to work at all (at worst).

If we don’t consider the wellbeing of external talent, over time, being able to access that talent is going to get harder (who wants to work for the business who burns their people out?), the quality of work drops, and your business struggles to succeed.

Modern work requires new design.

Many businesses are moving towards models of talent which combines internal, external and cross-functional individuals, coming together to work — either for short or extended periods of time. Many businesses are wholly staking their fortunes on external talent, making their ‘no-employees’ a virtue rather than what would have previously been seen as a lack of scale.

This move towards businesses without employees might benefit many — and the shift in the power dynamic between ‘employee’ and ‘employer’ is fascinating, but without active design around how to find, engage, onboard, support, feedback and build relationships with networks of talent, both sides of the equation will struggle to work sustainably in the long term.

It’s challenges like this that remind me that, whilst there’s no shortage of noise about entrepreneurship, self-employment, side-hustling, freelancing, etc, there’s a distinct lack of thinking about how to best engage with this new way of working — in a way that benefits both individual and organisation.

It’s part of what we’re doing at Leapers — to support the individuals who are working in different ways, and working with organisations to embrace and benefit from this huge shift to self-empowered work. It’s why I designed welcome [ a little tool to onboard freelancers ] and why our research into mental health asked questions about first-day-anxiety and communication issues when working with clients.

So, here’s my question for you — who is responsible for designing and delivering the on-boarding programme for external talent you work with? Who is helping you save lost time and money, and making sure the talent you engage with is ready and able to do their best work with you?

If you don’t know, or you don’t have an answer — that’s okay, many don’t — but find someone to work with who can help you design an answer — else, the so called “future of work” might just not include your business.

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