Making Freelancers Feel Like Family

Chances are, the contingent workforce will work for you in the future. Here's how to make sure they assimilate.
June 14, 2012

Whether you’re a large or small business, the contingent workforce is coming to you.

According to technology firm Mavenlink’s 2012 infographic, The New Independent Workforce, the contingent workforce–comprised of self-employed individuals, independent service firms, solopreneurs and temporary workers—has grown by an estimated 4.3 million workers since 1995. By 2020, 40 percent of American workers, or nearly 65 million people, will be contingent, and shortly thereafter that percentage is expected to rise to 50 percent.

Why this explosive growth? The biggest reason is that companies in all industries–especially in technology, management consulting, marketing, education and journalism–are on board. Mavenlink reports that 90 percent of firms have used contracted talent, and a recent Economist Intelligence Unit study found that 61 percent of senior executives anticipate a growing proportion of functions to be outsourced to contingent workers.

Here at Culture Beat, of course, the key question is: What do contingent workers have to do with your organizational culture, and how can you as an owner or manager help them assimilate so that they're positive additions to your team?

Recognize their value. The first thing to keep in mind is that using contract workers is good for business. Sure you’ll save on benefits and other full-timer expenses, but contingent workers also provide a fresh perspective that can help you hone your offering. Furthermore, because they’re removed from office politics, they have the ability to focus on the work without a lot of fanfare, which means that every minute counts as double.

Remember that contract workers want to make a contribution quickly–they know their livelihood depends on it. So read their status reports and results summaries and illustrate the big picture so they can see how their work is fueling a greater mission.

Treat them like employees. When a contingent worker needs training to complete a new type of responsibility or keep current in her field, facilitate it. Give regular performance evaluations and gather survey feedback just as you would for any full-time employee. If you’re happy with his work, reward him by providing access to other people and opportunities within the organization. Don’t make your contract workers feel like a vendor who should be lucky to be working with your company and can replaced at any minute.

Engage in team building. As we talked about in April with respect to virtual teams, remote workers are more effective when they have solid relationships with their co-workers. If it’s feasible, introduce your virtual contract workers to each other and to their full-time team members in person, as this will build rapport and engender greater trust and cooperation. You should also invite remote contingent workers to visit your office, or pop into their locations from time to time. This shows that you actually care enough about the relationship to behave like a manager.

Don’t create a subculture. In their text Essentials of Organizational Behavior, Timothy Judge and Stephen Robbins suggest that subcultures often develop in organizations to reflect common problems, situations or experiences. What you don’t want is for a negative contingent worker culture to develop in the absence of guidance from management.

If your contingent workforce is to be effective, your company’s leadership must go out of its way to ensure that members feel welcome and are effectively integrated into the larger organizational culture. Fortunately, innovative services like those offered by MBO Partners help with things like providing personal communication, engagement and support to contract workers within a particular company.

Do you work with contingent staff? What steps have you taken to make sure they fit in?

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian