The growing gig economy can be a boon to startups and other businesses that need an agile workforce and want to minimize fixed labor costs. Freelance websites and marketplaces make it easier than ever to find that talent, and many apps are appearing that make it easier to manage the operational side.

But don’t forget to think strategically when it comes to the freelance share of your workforce. The gig economy only does a company any good if it plans for effective talent development with these workers in mind.

Many of the same principles and best practices of talent development that you use with employees apply to freelancers too. It may sound counterintuitive, but the number one change you can make to your talent strategy is to extend your “employee engagement” efforts to contingent workers.

My colleagues and I at Nation1099 recently conducted a literature review of all the gig economy data we could find — over 12 major studies about freelancing, workforce development, and employment trends. Digging deep into the tables in these studies, a few data points jump out to anyone who is concerned about getting more value out of their workforce:

  • Consulting firm EY finds that one-third of professionals globally say that work-life balance is becoming more difficult. Excessive overtime and a lack of flexibility are among the top reasons people leave jobs. Another major reason is not feeling part of a team.

  • Gallup reports that only 30 percent of U.S. employees describe themselves as engaged at work.

  • The 2016 Field Nation Freelancer study showed that a growing number of contingent workers see themselves as entrepreneurs, and the vast majority choose to freelance.

  • The Upwork/Freelancers Union Freelancing In America 2016 survey showed that people choose independence because it allows them to pursue work they are passionate about or find meaningful.

Complicating the war for talent

The big takeaway from this data is that in a talent war, you are not just competing against other employers. You are also competing against self-employment.

These are not people you can lure away from other companies. According to the Upwork/Freelancers Union survey, 50 percent say no amount of money would get them back to a traditional job.

The same gig economy that gives you more choice about where to find talent is giving your prospective employees another enormous choice in how to manage their careers. Eleven percent of us have already taken ourselves off the job market for full-time freelancing, and MBO Partners’ most recent annual State of Independence survey projects a 3.1 percent annual growth rate.

The gig economy lets workers create the flexibility they want if your company doesn’t provide it. When they do go freelance, they quickly learn what real engagement feels like because they are now trying to grow their own businesses.

Many freelancers also find out they can be selective. MBO Partners found that one in five professional freelancers makes more than $100,000 per year. When freelancers are earning more, they can be picky about clients.

Which means you want to make your projects attractive to freelancers just as you make roles attractive to prospective employees. Naturally, you also want to get the full benefit of their experience and talent. You don’t want freelancers who are “clockwatchers” any more than you want employees who are.

That’s where the “employee engagement” approach to managing freelancers is so important.

How do you engage freelancers?

Very simply, include them. Don’t treat freelancers as perpetual outsiders. Don’t box them out or hold them at arm’s length.

Instead, start with the assumption that freelancers are a critical part of the team. Then, whatever you do to engage employees through onboarding, ongoing communications and recognition, find the appropriate parallel for independent contractors.

1. Introduce them to their new colleagues and other stakeholders on the project.

2. Make sure they know your company’s vision, the value proposition, and the business goals. Maximize the impact that your freelancers can have by getting them excited about the summit you’re trying to reach.

3. Make sure they know the context. Share work product, drafts, slide decks, etc. that can inform their work. Personally, I’m amazed at how often I have to remind clients repeatedly to give me access to a demo of the product they’ve hired me to help market.

4. Include them in meetings. If your contractor bills by the hour, you might be reluctant to include them on conference call invites, but consider how having them in the loop might help you get more value out of their other working hours. And if your contractors are working on a deliverables basis, inviting them to meetings doesn’t cost you anything.

5. Include them in communications. Are you starting an email thread with the team about progress on a project? Consider if your freelancers will have insight to contribute or if their work will be impacted by the outcome of the discussion.

Make freelancer engagement a priority and then execute

A lot of this just comes down to doing the little things right that everyone already knows are important — just like with employee engagement. You need to document the onboarding process, create the checklists, organize the shared folders, remember to send the right paperwork to H.R. . . . all the usual stuff.

When the stuff doesn’t get done, it’s because people don’t actually believe it’s important. They are being measured and managed by some other metric, incentivized to put their limited attention elsewhere and getting mixed messages about what the priority is.

Make engaging freelancers a priority, and the rest will be obvious. Then your company will be on the path to a modern talent management strategy that leverages the opportunities in the growing gig economy.


Robert McGuire owns McGuire Editorial content marketing agency and is the publisher of Nation1099, a forum for professional freelancers working to grow their gig economy businesses.