Using freelancers in a tight labor market

Freelancers is the topic of the final installment in our Tight Labor Market series. We’ve already touched on employee engagementemployee retentiongrowing your business and continuous recruiting in previous posts.

We are starting to see the labor market shift from a buyer’s market to a seller’s market. There are fewer, and fewer talented, qualified applicants for jobs that require a college degree. [If you are growing your business, you need to add talented people to your team to service new clients, and to expand your firm’s capabilities and capacity.]

If those talented people are harder and harder to find, you have two choices: Cry in your coffee about how you have to turn away new business, or search and seek out alternatives.

One way to expand your labor pool is to be open to part-time, telecommuting and freelance talent. Some firms have embraced this idea while others resist. As I listen to the resisters, I hear things like:

  1. I’m going to lose control. I can’t supervise people who aren’t physically in the office. If you are working with professionals, your job is to clearly describe the outcome that you are looking for. It also helps if you have a process, or procedure that can be used to reliably produce this outcome. You may not feel like it, but I’m guessing you do have a process like that. If your process relies on you stopping by every hour or two to give people the next step, or redirect their efforts, then it’s not a very effective process (and you will go mad trying to grow your business). Documented, repeatable processes are essential to growing your business. Having freelance, telecommuting or part-time talent means that you have to make those processes that much better (since you can’t look over their shoulder) but it turns out those processes will help your traditional, in office workers just as much.
  2. It’s inconvenient and hard to collaborate. It’s true that you can’t just walk over to their desk and see what your freelancers are up to. But let’s think about this process in general. When we do that, we are usually trying to do two things: monitor quality (answering questions, reviewing their work, redirecting as needed) and monitor progress (Is this going to be done on time?). The “interruption” approach to monitoring the work of professionals is usually very easy and productive for the boss, but not as effective for the professional doing the work (See Maker’s time vs. Manager’s time for a more detailed discussion of this). Having freelancers or part-timers forces you to develop regular check-ins that are driven by the professional’s schedule and that interrupt the manager’s schedule. If you can get those synced up, it makes it possible to work with freelancers, part-timers and telecommuters – but it also makes life better for your traditional in-office professional.
  3. How do I make sure I have them when I need them? Another challenge with freelancers and part-timers is that you are competing for their time. What happens if a hot project comes in and they are booked onto something else? How do you manage supply and demand? This is a tough issue – the more people on your team the more difficult a challenge it is to traffic all the client requests to the right people and meet the deadlines. That said, you don’t have to be at every client’s beck-and-call all the time. You can set expectations with your clients that you try to keep your team booked pretty solid, your lead-time from a request to completion is typically 7 days (or whatever it is) and requests within that timeframe will require special handling (and cost) and sometimes we won’t be able to accommodate them. That said, no one wants to disappoint a client, or turn away work. But, you have to respect your team’s time. By setting expectations with clients, and working with them to understand their time frames and project plans, you can create a capacity forecast that helps you to plan better, and communicate to your team (both freelance and in office) what the work load is going to be for the next couple of weeks. Most people don’t shy away from extra work if they can plan for it. When overtime comes up at the last minute and you’re intruding on their plans, employees (of all types) can get cranky!
  4. I can’t pay $65/hour for that! Some hiring managers get all bent out of shape about a freelancer’s rate. I understand that at some level, there is a rate that is just too high. But when you are talking to a freelancer about rate you don’t know how quickly they accomplish the work they are doing. I prefer to think about it in terms of project cost. “I think this is about a $500 project, how does that sound to you?” If they charge me $100/hr and get it done in 5 hours, or $50/hr and it takes them 10 hours isn’t that important to me (unless I have a short deadline). If they do a quality job and get it done within budget, that’s great.

If what you sell is strategy, ideas, good thinking, you can easily outsource the execution (and you can likely use part-timers for some of the thinking too.) If what you sell is execution, the client gives you the idea and you make it happen, then you don’t need a freelancer, you are one.


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