In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” Larry discusses three tips for building a freelance talent strategy to boost your on-demand talent.
The remote work revolution is already over—hybrid has won—but another major shift could be coming.
The number of platforms for highly skilled freelancers increased over 300 percent since 2009, giving rise to new theories on how organizations of the future will use and manage talent.
The latest theories posit that organizations will have a completely different talent mindset, shifting from headcount to on-demand talent, from talent acquisition to talent access.
What does this look like? According to a recent Harvard Business School study, many leaders believe their organizations will be operating with a smaller team of full-time employees, supported by a growing ecosystem of highly integrated on-demand talent made up of freelancers and outsourced partner/vendor firms.
Benefits of an On-Demand Talent Strategy
Businesses that adopt an on-demand approach to talent will become more agile, innovative and productive while simultaneously unlocking a larger universe of minds working in their unique problems. They’ll also be less prone to chronic problems such as headcount creep, the global shortage of talent and what the World Economic Forum refers to as a “reskilling emergency” as jobs are rapidly transformed by technology.
An on-demand approach to talent is also key for businesses wanting to transform into Exponential Organizations, defined by Salim Ismail, Yahoo’s former head of innovation, as disruptive companies with huge impacts. Exponential Organizations (ExOs) scale at the same exponential rate of technology because they harness the power of new organizational techniques and new technology.
In Ismail’s book, Exponential Organizations, he says, “For any ExO, having Staff on Demand is a necessary characteristic for speed, functionality and flexibility in a fast-changing world … For any company today, having a permanent, full-time workforce is fraught with growing peril as employees fail to keep their skills up to date.
Workers Choose Freelancing for Freedom, Project Diversity
This growing reliance on freelance talent won’t just come about because it benefits businesses. It’s also increasingly what workers want, too.
Data from MBO Partners says that nontraditional employment reached 51 million this year, a 34 percent increase from 2020. Another study from Upwork revealed that 20 percent of U.S. workers are considering freelancing as their future career. By one estimate, the number of U.S. freelancers will reach 86.5 million — just over half of the U.S. workforce — by 2027.
“Our research shows there are a couple of reasons freelancing is an attractive option,” says Tim Sanders, vice president of customer insights at Upwork. “Younger employees like the diversity of work and the idea of writing their own paycheck. Older workers like the income portfolio diversity as a hedge against recessions, layoffs, a company going out of business or being acquired by a poor employer.”
Some leaders may be hesitant to engage freelance talent, worried about the impact to organizational knowledge or culture. But that argument doesn’t hold water in an environment where so many employees are considering a job change. Plus, it’s a mistake to equate freelance work with one-and-done small gig assignments.
“Many freelancers are highly skilled professionals looking for long-term relationships,” Sanders says. “We have hundreds if not thousands of documented examples of client-freelancer relationships on our platform that have been going on for more than 10 years. The knowledge doesn’t leave — it’s just on-demand.”
Building a Freelance Talent Strategy
The first step to smartly engaging freelance talent is to make it a strategic growth priority, dedicating budget toward finding and hiring independent workers, Sanders says. Below, he shares additional strategies leveraging real value from freelancers.
Engage freelancers early.
To get real value from freelancers, don’t wait to engage them when a project is in trouble or your team is barely treading water.
“Don’t think of freelancers as a downstream band-aid,” Sanders says. “When you involve freelancers early in the life of a project, the freelancer relationships are better with your internal team members and the freelancers are more likely to share knowledge from other projects. By integrating freelancers into the whole project journey, they become a collaborative partner and will feel a sense of ownership over the project’s success.”
As an example of the real impact freelancers can achieve, the book The Human Cloud shares how a large motorcycle manufacturer worked with a team of highly skilled freelance designers, engineers, and developers to accomplish a multi-year digital transformation of their rider experience, resulting in a 5-star rated mobile app with over 150,000 downloads.
Educate freelancers on your culture.
For freelancers to truly integrate into your teams and make a real impact, they need to know what your culture is and how to succeed within it. Educate them on communication norms, your mission and values and how you approach problem-solving. Give them the context they’ll need to dive in and work their magic.
“Every company should be able to onboard anybody that works with them around the key cornerstones of their culture,” Sanders says. “Culture is a conversation about how we do things here. The question is how well have you codified the conversation into something that’s portable and easily consumed.”
Think of talent access versus talent acquisition.
Using highly skilled freelancers means your default doesn’t have to be adding full-time employees every time you hit a growth period. Instead, you can rely on fractional talent to test out how much work there actually is and, if the need is there, then create a full-time role. You’re accessing the talent you need when you need it versus acquiring talent for an unspecified length of time.
“When companies have a smaller full-time core and talent is approached on demand, that’s actually a much more scientifically resourced talent pool,” Sanders says. “Agility is not a mindset. Agility is an organizational design issue. Until you change how you think about talent, you cannot truly be agile.”
Most of us have gotten on board with remote work. Now, it’s time to reimagine how we engage talent. As Harvard Business School wrote in a recent report on the on-demand workforce: “Business leaders cannot risk missing a critical opportunity to build a more flexible, resilient organization.”