Use different strokes for different folks
Winslow Wong 

More and more businesses are turning to freelancers, independent contractors and consultants to get work done. The reason is simple: talent is the most precious corporate resource, and this diverse and dynamic fraternity allows organisations to scale an on-demand workforce, access new talent pools and pursue new market opportunities.

The freelance or gig economy – an environment in which temporary positions are common and organisations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements – is booming globally, and Malaysia is very much part of it.

According to Khazanah Research Institute’s researcher Allen Ng, some 1.7 million Malaysians are classified as urban self-employed. In the past six years, the proportion of self-employed workers to the total labour force in urban areas has climbed from about 11% in 2010 to 16% last year.

In the United States, the numbers are even more staggering – 55 million people last year, or 35% of the total workforce, freelanced in some form or fashion. The Freelancing in America: 2016 Survey revealed that the freelance workforce is the fastest-growing component of the US economy.

When the 6,000 freelancers surveyed were asked whether they started freelancing more by choice or necessity, 63% of them said by choice – up 10 points (from 53%) since 2014. Most of them said having a diversified portfolio of clients is more secure than having one employer. Technology is enabling freelancing – 73% of freelancers said technology has made it easier to find freelance work – up four points (from 69%) since 2014. Additionally, 66% of freelancers said the amount of work they obtained online increased in the past year.

It looks like there’s no stopping the freelancing tide now. This means businesses have to get it right when incorporating freelancers into their growth strategies, budgets and bottom lines. While working with freelancers can offer several advantages for businesses, managing freelancers can be a daunting challenge.


Less control over freelancers

Technically, freelancers aren’t employees as they’re hired to carry out specific tasks. This means your organisation has less control over them and how they accomplish those tasks compared with your regular employees.

The rules and expectations are different when it comes to managing freelancers. You simply can’t manage them just like full-time workers. As they say, you need different strokes for different folks.

How do you best motivate someone whom you don’t have formal authority over? How do you keep them interested and excited about the work when they don’t get perks like bonuses or benefits? Should you give them performance reviews so they know where they stand?

While you generally need not tend to freelancers as much as you do with regular employees as the relationship is often less hierarchical and doesn’t come with the same expectations, that doesn’t mean you can be completely hands off. You still need to actively and thoughtfully manage them if you want their best output to ensure your projects run as smoothly as possible. Build good rapport with them and make them feel like they’re part of your team. Avoid doing anything that might make them feel like they’re second class, such as excluding them from important team meetings or special office events. Freelancers are often just as valuable as full-time employees, if not more, so treat them well and they’ll want to continue working with you.

Having a good relationship with your freelancers begins with hiring the right people from the start. It’s not that difficult to find just what you’re looking for at a price your organisation can afford. There are some great marketplaces to look for talented workers.

As part of this growing fraternity, I can safely say freelancers, independent contractors and consultants have different needs and expectations. Some are solely interested in making money, whereas others may want to learn new skills or work with great people or organisations. Before hiring, make sure you know the specifics of the projects you want to hire them for, and what you expect them to deliver, such as a new corporate website or a set of standard operating procedures. Communicate clearly to them what you want. Another key factor to consider is whether the freelancers will be available at short notice. Meeting such pre-hiring criteria will help avoid misunderstandings down the road.


Be an employer of choice

If you want to be an employer of choice, not just for regular employees, but also for freelancers, you need to pay fair and equitable remuneration based on market rates, if not better. If you pay bottom-dollar rates, word of that will spread like wildfire, and you might have trouble finding quality freelancers in future. Certain freelancers, such as creative talents, social media specialists and event planners, are in regular contact with one another and often compare notes, so don’t be penny wise, pound foolish on your rates. And please pay them promptly too!

How do you determine typical rates for freelancers and independent contractors? Look up freelance marketplaces and advertisements and see what other businesses are offering to pay freelancers for projects similar to yours.

Alternatively, talk to your industry peers. Comparing these numbers will give you a realistic idea of how much you should pay. The rates will, of course, depend on the scope of your project, as well as time and effort required. For projects that require a high level of expertise or tight deadlines, be prepared to pay higher rates. Also consider other factors such as the freelancers’ experience and reputation. If the person you’re looking to hire is highly sought after, you need to offer a competitive rate so you don’t lose out on the opportunity to get the best talent. And don’t forget to put the deal in writing.


How to avoid last-minute disasters

While the benefits of working with freelancers are hard to beat, there’s some downside too. For instance, freelancers generally handle multiple projects at the same time and you may not get the freelancer of your choice when you need him or her. However, with some negotiation and planning on both sides, you can often find a solution, but if you desperately need somebody immediately, don’t count on their availability.

Also, if you’re unlucky enough to find freelancers who are unethical or professional, they may even leave in the middle of projects to follow more lucrative offers. Another downside is you’ll have less control over freelancers than in-house employees. This can also be a real problem if they suddenly abandon ship while you’re rushing tight deadlines. However, if you plan well, establish milestones and set clear progress reporting rules, you’re less likely to experience such last-minute disasters. You also need to consider confidentiality issues. Of course, you can ask freelancers to sign non-disclosure agreements, but you’ll still have to weigh the risks against the benefits.

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 258.