Today’s corporate ethos may harp on the importance of building a talent-focused business, where talented individuals are coveted as full-time employees and treated to lavish perks shaped around organizational unity. But amid the current attitude that talent should be fully retained remains a persistent and perhaps growing truth: not all talent should be fully employed. Sometimes executives are better off complementing their workforces with a steady stable of freelance talent. Sometimes freelancers should make up the lion’s share of a firm’s talent pool.
“If you’re a smart business executive, freelancing solves a lot of your problems,” said Paul Anderson, vice president of partnership and U.S. country manager for Expert 360, a San Francisco-based online marketplace for businesses to hire freelancers.
About 53 million Americans — or one-third of the U.S. workforce — earn income from work that is outside of a traditional full-time job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And as technology continues to free up workers’ time and as more digital platforms brokering the freelance talent market flourish, those numbers are likely to rise.
Indeed, agility in respect to both scale and skills are two of the major perks that come with maintaining a steady freelance workforce, Anderson said. Consider companies whose businesses fluctuate seasonally, like retailers during the holidays or financial firms during tax season. Moreover, certain skill sets might not require full-time status; some companies are better off tapping certain skills on-demand.
Culturally, freelancers are easier to manage, thanks to their added flexibility and independent nature. A contract worker isn’t necessarily concerned about a company’s culture or work environment. They’re entirely focused on the work. “As a freelancer, if that project doesn’t interest you, you don’t have to take it on,” said Nathan Reimnitz, a certified expert WordPress developer and freelancer with Codeable, an outsourcing service for WordPress. “Nobody’s forcing you to work on that project, so you’re able to work with people who you’re excited to work with, and that will make it feel a lot less like work.”
A happier worker only taking on work of high interest to them is of great benefit to the company. It ensures that the quality they receive is high; if it isn’t, the company is free to move on and find another freelancer.
Then there’s the cost savings. Companies using freelance talent save money on insurance, taxes and benefits. “You really are just paying an hourly, daily or weekly rate for that consultant,” Anderson said. “They come in, they do what you need them to do, and then they leave.”
Still, there are downsides of using freelancers that bolster the need to maintain a strong core of full-time employees. Executives have less control over freelance talent, which makes it more difficult for them to plan for and predict proper allocation of work. Also, freelance workers may not always integrate culturally as well as full-time employees. This sacrifices the stream of spontaneous interaction that likely drives innovation.
However, Anderson said good freelancers are able to adopt company practices and norms. “If you’re a good consultant when it comes to your level of engagement with the organization, adopting their culture and norms, these things are part of the consultant skill set,” Anderson said. “It’s not all hard skills; it’s also the soft skills. That’s the difference between a good consultant and a bad consultant.”
If a company will need a worker permanently working in a certain role, the organization “might as well just bring them on as a full-time employee,” as opposed to maintaining them as a long-term freelancer, said Alexander Concas, director of talent at 80Twenty, a temp agency in San Francisco.
Having a permanent role filled by a full-time employee brings better cultural benefit to the organization. Still, Concas warned to be sure that person is the absolute right person for the job. “Otherwise, contract is the best way to go, generally,” he said.