How to Manage Teams in the Gig Economy

Whatever sector you work in, there's a fair chance that short-term contract or "gig" work is a key feature of your current and future workforce. More and more people are choosing to work independently in order to gain better control over their lives and there are advantages for employers too, in terms of managing workforce capacity without long-term commitment. Today, around a third of workers use contract or freelance gigs as their primary source of income, and this number is expected to grow to 43 percent by the year 2020.

For such a large percentage of the workforce, the information on how to manage short-term and temporary teams of workers is frustratingly shallow. There are no real insights into the stresses these workers face, and crucially, how their personalities might influence the way they work or what motivates them. For example, do gig workers have different reasons for being at work than conventional employees? Do they find different aspects of the job more stressful, meaning that managers have to come up with different strategies to help them?

This article attempts to plug some of those knowledge gaps. Here are some tips for managing your agile, external workforce - onsite or off - to ensure that your organization is equipped to reap full benefits.

Motivate through respect

Not so long ago, the term "freelancer" or "contract worker" was synonymous with cheap labor, describing someone who was desperate for work and would do anything for a paycheck. With such a low status, managers often got away with undervaluing these workers and treating them poorly. Today, that attitude will cost you.

Of the 55 million Americans who freelance, almost two thirds (63 percent) are in it by choice not necessity, according to the 2016 Freelancing in America report. These workers choose to freelance because it gives them an opportunity to showcase their wealth of knowledge and expertise, and enjoy the respect they deserve. This means they are significantly more likely than non-freelancers to be motivated by trust, appreciation, and empowerment.

You can demonstrate respect with a few simple actions:

  • Treat them as people rather than as resources. This is the most powerful thing you can do. No matter how impermanent the relationship, you shouldn't just think of gig workers as transient resources. Take care to give the same consideration for their time and professionalism as regular employees. If you can, take time to communicate with them on a human level and get to know them.
  • Be timely. Time is valuable to everyone, but especially to gig workers who may be juggling multiple contracts for multiple employers at any one time. Don't be that manager who believes that her time is more important than anyone else's. It shows a lack of professional courtesy and may turn the freelancer off from working with you again.
  • Use their experience: Research suggests that your gig workers are more innovative than other employees and full of ideas on how to change or improve your work processes. Learn from them and use their collaboration!
  • Give praise and recognition: A freelancer's reputation is what, quite literally, feeds her. She is hugely incentivized to turn in quality work on time, as long as you trust and respect her. Remember to give praise when it's due, and offer to provide a testimonial, reference or other public feedback.

Focus on accountability, not micromanaging

In every study ever undertaken about the gig economy, one theme keeps cropping up - flexibility. Workers choose to work independently because it gives them the freedom to do things their way. If you run a team or even an entire company of gig workers, and you want to keep them, you will need to address the desire your team has for this level of freedom and flexibility.

For contractors working off-site, it's okay to expect them to adapt to your hours and incorporate your preferred communication tools into their business style. What's not okay, is to expect them to be on-call at unhealthy hours, or to constantly be looking over their shoulder outside of agreed-upon touchpoints. On the legal end, you could be crossing a line between a contractor and an employee if you try to exercise too much control.

Create an onboarding process

Whether your team is located on site or off, you should think twice before siloing your gig workers as temporary solutions. Most contractors benefit from a grace period of onboarding and training as much as full-time employees do. It helps them to slot right into your business mission.

Now, contract staff are a temporary solution. They exist to meet spikes in work in a cost-efficient way, and the last thing you want is to spend longer onboarding a gig workers than they are going to spend at your company. But even a pruned-down onboarding process can help the gig worker to understand your culture, purpose and goals. The key is to get streamlined process documents in place so the worker is clear about your expectations and can hit the ground running for you. Use the following questions to guide the effectiveness of your processes:

  • Does the gig worker understand the mission of the organization and her role in supporting it?
  • Does the gig worker have the knowledge she needs to be successful in doing whatever she's being asked to do?
  • Does the gig worker know who to report to, how to give feedback, and who to escalate problems to?

Get creative with engagement

Perhaps the biggest challenge for managers is how to engage and encourage people who contribute to the bottom line but aren't actually employed. Ideally, you want to think long-term and build relationships with freelancers that offer repeat working opportunities. That way, you keep risk and overhead down.

Obviously, traditional methods of engagement such as promotions, perks and bonuses don't work for freelancers. They're not going to care about an important-sounding job title or an end-of-year party. So, you need to be open to alternative methods to maximize your relationship with freelancers.

Here are some ideas:

  • If location allows, consider bringing your off-site freelancers in for brainstorming/strategy meetings, team casuals, celebrations or charity events. This demonstrates to both gig workers and regular employees how much their contributions matter.
  • Offer opportunities for career development. If you're using a lot of gig workers, your learning and development strategy should support the needs of gig workers alongside the benefits you will gain from developing their skills.
  • Include freelancers in company communications. You'll need to think about different levels of confidentiality, but sharing newsletters and emails will help gig workers feel part of the team. 

Summing it up

Tapping into the benefits of the gig economy requires new strategies from managers and techniques will need to adjust as the freelancing and contracted industry continues to grow. Motivating through respect, incorporating greater flexibility into your processes, offering a targeted onboarding, and tweaking your engagement processes are all smart strategies in the freelance age, and can help create more productive, more cooperative, and more beneficial relationships with your temporary workers.

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a freelance copywriter, business writing blogger and the blog editor here at Truity. One part word nerd, two parts skeptic, she helps writing-challenged clients discover the amazing power of words on a page. Jayne is an INTJ and lives in Yorkshire, UK with her ENTJ husband and two baffling children. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

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