It’s easier than ever to take on freelance work thanks to apps and sites dedicated to connecting temp workers with hiring companies. On the employer side, hiring freelancers can help fill gaps in skills and expertise without hiring a full-time employee. However, while finding qualified freelance talent is one step, retaining your best workers and establishing a reliable base of gig-workers takes time and effort.
In the case of Darren Kall, managing director of Specific Clairity, a UX design consulting company, his business relies entirely on freelance UX designers, engineers and experts. The company builds and runs customized teams of UX workers for clients and using freelancers lets them cherry-pick specific skills to suit each project.
“If we had a staff of full-time employees, we would be limited by their skills, disciplines and experience. We would have to only take client work that they were expertly capable of doing, because we refuse to put people on a project that they are not qualified to deliver. Instead, with a pool of expert freelancers, we’re able to put together just the right team of the specifically skilled people to get an exact project done for our clients,” he says.
Freelancers not only help businesses fill these types of skill gaps, but they can also help alleviate workloads for smaller or understaffed teams. But retaining a stable of reliable freelancers takes work, time and energy — you have to create an environment that keeps the best talent coming back.
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Get to know your freelancers
One of the first things you want to do when hiring freelancers is to determine what skills and experience you need on a regular basis that can’t be found in-house. And the best way to do that, according to Kall, is to get to know your freelancers.
“To be efficient we must really know our talent pool’s skills, disciplines and areas of expertise, relevant experience, and what type of work they are interested in doing. We think we’re pretty good at it, but even after working with people for years they [still] surprise us. So, we don’t count on our memory,” he says.
Instead, they keep track of every freelancer and their relevant skills on a spreadsheet, making it easy to quickly search for a specific match. As they get to know freelancers better, they update the spreadsheet with new information, creating a rich database to pull from.
“Once we meet a potential person to add to our talent pool we have a multi-step evaluation process. This takes repeated contact to get to know their work and assess their fit, but finding the right people is worth taking it slow,” he says.
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This might seem obvious, but despite their non-traditional work style, freelancers want a regular paycheck just like any full-time worker. Since freelancers lack a centralized HR to handle their payments, they often have to juggle multiple payment systems and processes for each client they work with. The easier you can make the process, the better.
Focus first and foremost on keeping work and pay consistent, says Brandy Benefield, a senior content developer at Postali, a PR marketing firm for attorneys that relies heavily on freelance workers. “We provide steady work so that our freelancers aren’t worried about where their next check is coming from. Some of our freelance writers are able to take enough assignments from us to be more or less a full-time equivalent job. That stability can result in better quality and productivity,” she says.
Consider it an investment in your freelancers, she says — offer competitive pay and interesting, consistent work, and you’ll get better results.
One way to keep your freelancers around is to set clear expectations about what you want. This not only helps reduce the amount of back and forth between you and the freelancer, but it makes their job easier too. It’s likely they work for multiple clients who all want different things, so knowing what you want, and being able to communicate that clearly can go a long way, says Benefield.
But avoid creating too much structure around your expectations of freelancers — most of them are freelancing in order to avoid that traditional corporate structure in the first place. “For us it is providing freelancers interesting things to work on, unblocking obstacles to them doing great work, ensuring that reasonable time is scheduled for the project work, and making sure they know what they are doing will make a difference. All practical things we’d all like from our jobs,” says Kall.
You might be hesitant to provide feedback to a freelancer, since they aren’t a traditional employee, but Benefield recommends opening the lines of communication. She always provides constructive feedback to freelancers — it not only it helps establish expectations but it helps freelancers hone their skills for future projects and other clients.
“We treat our freelancers with respect and professionalism. If we have an issue with work, we communicate that clearly along with our expectations. Our freelancers appreciate the guidance and want to improve,” she says.
She also recommends remaining available to the freelancers just as you would an in-house employee, whether it’s over a messenger platform, email or by phone. Whether they have questions or concerns, Benefield says you should remain responsive and treat it as you would any request from a full-time worker.
Although freelancers appreciate steady, regular work, their schedules can be unpredictable — and unlike your full-time employees, the chance is higher that they will have to turn down a project. Therefore, Kall says that anytime you have a project, especially if it’s last minute, you need to consider a freelancer’s changing workload.
“Freelancers are always busy filling their pipeline with project work, so their availability is constantly shifting. Freelancers often switch back to full time employment and stop freelance work altogether. Those shifting resources make it difficult to know the moment to moment availability of our talent pool. Adding someone with the right talent and interest to the pool isn’t enough, we’ve got to maintain awareness of their shifting availability,” says Kall.
They often request three-month availability updates from freelancers and also allow freelancers to update their own availability as needed. It’s not perfect, but he says it gives a better picture of who is likely to take on a project at that moment. And as backup, Kall ensures that they have more than one freelancer on tap with similar skills, so that if someone is unavailable, someone else with the right skills can jump in.
Don’t get comfortable
Once you’ve established a solid base of freelancers, try not to get too comfortable. “Since people’s circumstances change, we must continually evaluate people to add them to our talent pool,” says Kall. It’s not uncommon for freelancers’ work status to change, or there’s a chance they signed on for a short-term contract with another client, preventing them from working with you.
Whatever the case, unlike filling an open position for a full-time employee, you shouldn’t stop your search for more freelance talent — you want to overstaff your freelance base. And you might have to get creative in your search — for example, Kall’s company continually attracts new talent by hosting meet ups for local UX designers to get together. It’s a great way to provide networking opportunities for freelancers, while also getting a chance to meet future talent.
“In the corporate world, we would hire employees after a tiered but quick process of resume and portfolio review, phone interview, then an all-day interview with a lot of team members. But when building freelancers into the pool it is doing some of those same things, and but also getting to know the freelancer better over time, testing them on small jobs, and then knowing much deeper the value they can deliver before adding them to the pool,” he says.