Looking after a team of employees is something every manager should excel at, but the world of work is changing and managers need to learn how to deal with teams of freelancers if they want to survive in the gig economy.
Making the transition from an employee-driven workforce to one powered by freelancers is a smart change, and one that agencies around the world are making. That change comes with some interesting challenges, though, and managers who are used to rigidly-structured employee-employer relationships need to adjust to ensure they’re allowing their freelance teams to work at maximum productivity.
The most profound element of the shift to a freelance workforce is cultural. You’re not managing 9-to-5 desk jockeys any more – the relationship is more transient and fluid. Freelancers will come and go depending on the projects you have on the table. A large proportion of your team may be remote freelancers, scattered around the globe and working different hours. Expect fewer desks strewn with personal keepsakes and more ad-hoc workstations with laptops.
There’s also a shift in thinking needed from managers and project leads. Permanent staff are an investment – you hire them, train them and help them grow professionally over many months or years. A freelancer, on the other hand, is a pure and simple a service provider, and often needs little more than a push in the right direction. If an employee is a house that you invest in so it can improve over time then a freelancer is an AirBnB rental; everything you need at a high standard for a short period of time.
With freelancing booming around the world, learning how to manage teams of creative freelancers isn’t something agency higher-ups can put off any longer.
Freelancers are experts – treat them as such
A junior-level employee will expect guidance as to how a task should be completed. A freelancer just needs to know what the task is, and they should instinctively know the best way to get it done.
You’re not just hiring a freelancer to finish a job, you’re hiring them because they know how to get the job done in the best, most cost-effective way.
This can lead to problems when it comes to planning big projects. If several expert freelancers are brought in to collaborate on a job they could have differing opinions. One might want to build a website on WordPress, and another on Joomla – this is where your freelancer management skills come in. Make a judgement call based on the information provided, and move forward.
Micromanagement not required
A large part of managing a team of employees is making sure everybody stays on-task. Managing a team of freelancers is more about getting out of the way.
Once the direction of the project has been decided and tasks have been distributed, step back and let each freelancer do their thing.
A tip for spotting freelancers in bustling offices – they’re usually the ones with a laptop in front of them and headphones on. They go freelance in their chosen career because they enjoy the work, so once the way forward has been decided they want to get down to work. They’re not disengaged employees looking for the next distraction to take them away from work they hate; they’re effective and passionate specialists, and don’t expect their client to be looking over their shoulder.
The best freelancers have their pick of clients, and if they don’t feel like you respect them to get the job done they won’t work for you again, so it’s important they know their opinions are valued.
Give clear feedback
Every freelancer has their favourite “vague feedback” story. A client who didn’t quite know what they wanted, or refused to listen to guidance from the expert they’d hired to complete the job.
Feedback like “I don’t like this” or “Can we make this pop?” are the kind of emails that make freelancers hold their head in their hands – so try to avoid them. Feedback on completed work needs to be concise or, if you’re honestly not sure what changes you want, ask the freelancer for a few options for different ways forward.
The feedback and revision process can eat up hours or days of project time while the freelancers you’ve hired try to get to the bottom of what you need. This is especially problematic when working with freelance creative teams – you can’t leave the entire group waiting while you go back and forth with a single member. Make sure you’re clear, straightforward or, if you need to, ask them for help deciding which approach is best.
You’re not their only client
Just as it’s your job to manage freelancers you hire so they work best together, it’s a freelancer’s job to manage all their clients simultaneously.
If you hire a freelance designer for two days per week, don’t expect work to be completed outside of your allocated days. That’s not to say all communication should cease, but the freelancer will be working on other projects and most likely won’t have time for short-notice turnarounds.
An effective way to manage this problem is to use the breaks between allotted days to gather feedback from all the stakeholders in a project. Assemble all the feedback that needs addressing – remembering that it should be specific, of course – and your freelancer can get started with your changes as soon as they’re back on the clock.
Avoid legal hot water
Managing freelancer teams as if they are a department of permanent employees should be avoided not only to maintain productivity and a positive working relationship, but to avoid legal trouble too.
Classifying employees as independent contractors has historically been a tactic used by unscrupulous companies around the world to avoid taxes and the responsibilities that come with hiring staff, and as such the true “employment status” of freelancers is under constant scrutiny by tax authorities.
In the USA the IRS has a 20-factor test used to determine a worker’s status as either an employee or a freelancer. In the UK a more vague law – IR35 – is used to police misclassification of freelancers and contractors. Being found in breach of these rules could result in a hefty bill for owed taxes, so it’s important to steer clear of violating them.
One of the main determining factors is how much control a company exerts over their freelance workers. Without delving too deeply into the legislation, if a company is dictating how a freelancer completes their work they could be reclassified as an employee.
So while how you manage your freelance team will primarily affect your company’s productivity and the working relationship with your freelancers, there is also a legal necessity to treat them as expert independent resources.
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