Bringing freelancers in from the cold

Freelancers can naturally feel excluded within an in-house culture. But companies can do more to integrate and engage these staff to ensure workplace happiness and productivity is improved, says Saurav Chopra, CEO and co-founder of Perkbox

491819206_0085d6f484_oTalented freelancers are a valuable resource for any company reliant on plugging a skills gap in their organisation, be it to deliver on a project, provide impartial and creative counsel, or to extend the team during a period where additional skilled resourcing is an issue.

According to a recent survey of HR directors by Robert Half UK, the increasing need for flexible resourcing solutions, more cost-effective budgeting and specialist skills will see interim professionals play a much greater role in the workplace alongside permanent employees over the next five years. Undeniably, freelancers will continue to be a valuable on-demand resource for businesses of all sizes.

Yet freelancers can often feel like outsiders within an in-house environment. Assigned at the earliest opportunity to give a return on investment, they are widely treated as a fleeting expense. In turn, the relationship between company and freelancer can be transactional, robotic and very impersonal.

Beyond the practicalities of solving a temporary resourcing or skills gap issue, enlisting freelance help presents a different set of challenges to organisations. It can affect productivity and disrupt the delicate dynamics of a close knit and established team.

Staff engagement among permanent employees also continues to pose a complicated challenge to businesses and has in some part played a role in the UK’s overall productivity slump. On the other side of the spectrum, a lack of integration and a sense of exclusion and disconnect seem to define the engagement between freelancer and company. The temporariness of the arrangement serves only to highlight the cold, transactional nature of the contractor-company relationship; a kind of perfunctory marriage of convenience devoid of real passion, vision and vested interested.

As part of our general study into the subject of employee happiness, we looked at some of the world’s top companies – those organisations that were genuinely seen as inspirational businesses in which to work – and one thing stood out: the best performing teams consisted of staff who had drive, vision and a strong sense of purpose. Employees cared about the work they did, were made to feel that their contribution mattered and, moreover, they clearly understood how their role advanced the business.

As freelancers serve to play a bigger role in helping businesses grow, investing in their engagement becomes as important as achieving engagement among permanent staff. But herein lies the challenge: freelancers, by the very nature of how they work, are largely non-committal in their long-term loyalties to the businesses they’re contracted to work for. How then can businesses facilitate meaningful engagement with freelancers that bridges this disconnect and complements the dynamics of the in-house team?

The answer lies in creating a work culture of inclusivity and collaboration that brings unity to piecemeal teams.  Embracing freelancers into the fold as you would permanent staff creates cohesion that reaps dividends in terms of workplace happiness and optimal productivity, for all involved.

There doesn’t need to be any complicated mechanisms in place to make this work; simply, companies must work on driving engagement in their contractors right from the onset and freelancers must also do their part in integrating with the in-house team and adopting a ‘permanent employee’ mentality. Here are some core things to consider when endeavouring to strike a harmonious and fruitful business contractor-company relationship built on loyalty, mutual respect and trust.

If the glove fits

Temporary as the arrangement might be, it’s important that the freelancer you hire has the right personality and skills to not only represent your company and fulfil what’s expected of them, but that their attitude and outlook complements the skill sets and personalities of the in-house team throughout the duration of their commission. This can make all the difference in creating a positive, harmonious team dynamic and encourages respectful, productive interaction between both temporary and permanent staff.

Once that’s established, be mindful of how you delegate tasks, exercising emotional intelligence on any issues that might arise within the in-house team because of it (insecurity, disgruntlement and resentment are just a few things to be wary of).

Instil an inclusive mindset

It costs nothing to create a friendly, open work environment. A culture of inclusivity drives engagement, collaboration and a sense of value and worth in employees. Extending this practice to involve freelancers ensures staff engagement is seamless across the board.

As part of a short induction process, invite contractors out for a team lunch so that they get to know their colleagues and that friendly acquaintances are established. Make them feel like an asset to the team but also use this as an opportunity to help freelancers understand and respect the vital role they play in the bigger picture. Welcome them, wherever possible, in wider company meetings and team socials, and create a culture that encourages open dialogue, allowing everyone – whether contracted or permanent – to contribute ideas and brainstorm creative solutions to wider project problems.

A simple exercise like this not only catalyses collaboration and engagement but resounds a clear and important message: everyone’s opinion and ideas matter.

The reward of recognition

Be constructive in criticism and plentiful in praise. If you already make a habit of holding weekly company meetings with all employees to reflect on the week’s successes, then use this as an opportunity to show recognition and appreciation for staffs’ work, including individuals and freelancers who have made important contributions to the successes of the week. Capture this also in a weekly internal email or company newsletter so that the positive reflection, gratitude and praise is documented and shared. This instils a sense of collective pride among employees and gives recognition to both permanent and freelance staff where credit is due.

Share the perks and benefits of the job

Extending company perks and benefits to freelancers, like early finishes on Fridays, team lunches and other recreational relationship-building activities encourages integration with in-house staff and fosters an inclusive and positive work environment.

“Freelancers should be valued like any member of permanent staff,” commented Andrea Morgan, founder of content creation company Citrus Content and Perkbox client. As part of her company’s policy she has implemented an employee engagement programme that benefits contractors too.

“If you’ve commissioned freelancers to engage as a representative of your company, it makes sense to adapt your infrastructure and approach to employee engagement to include freelancers too. Fostering a workplace that has a strong sense of team ensures that passion and enthusiasm runs through. You create natural ambassadors for your company and the benefits are manifold. It doesn’t cost much to have an inclusive mindset. It’s all about perception and being positive; something that we practice every day, even in our Monday morning meetings.”

Morgan attributes this positive culture to a simple employee engagement programme that makes work life enjoyable. Typical Monday morning conference calls are only ever framed to be friendly, positive and inspiring (“We all talk about our weekend and have a really reflective and open discussion about how we have benefited out clients the previous week, with a positive outlook for the week ahead,” says Morgan); staff work flexibly in the office and from home to suit their family commitments; the company encourages personal development courses and is even looking into a course for staff in the US for 2016; employees can also partake in yoga classes in the office and the team enjoys quarterly ‘away days’ together as part of research to fuel creativity.

Freelancers are also included in the company’s Perkbox benefits, such as retail and travel discounts. “We try to be as flexible and generous in our staff engagement programme for freelancers as we do with our permanent staff, and our contractors are indeed entitled to the same perks if it’s relevant and compatible to how they work,” says Morgan.

“As an employer, treating your team well shouldn’t be a hard thing to do. It’s a simple investment in the very people who are driving your company to be a success, so it makes complete business sense to reward them whether they’re permanent or otherwise.”

These are, of course, just a few but fundamental ways in which you can drive employee engagement to not only ensure that the contractor-company marriage is a happy one, but that this in turn creates a halo effect over your in-house team. At the same time, understand the limitations that come with this relationship. A certain level of disconnect is expected, and you cannot expect to achieve the same kind of relationship you enjoy with your permanent staff; those will naturally be stronger. Nonetheless, by extending employee engagement to freelancers, you will lay down the foundations for a fruitful, sustainable, professional partnership built on mutual respect and trust – the very ingredients needed for creating a happy, satisfied and ultimately productive workplace.

PERKBOX HUDDLEBUY FOUNDER - Saurav Chopra cropped

Saurav Chopra is CEO and co-founder of Perkbox (www.perkbox.co.uk), an employee benefits scheme designed specifically for SMEs.

Main image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/missnita/

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