Dear Employed Manager,
There’s a long list of reasons why you might be managing a team of freelancers right now instead of fellow staff members: Uber-like working habits, risk-free & cost-saving strategies, access to a reservoir of skilled and flexible experts… This article is not about that. I’m not here to judge whether working with hired employees is better or not than working with freelancers. Both have very different benefits for both parties. But let’s save that debate for a future article and focus here on practical tips when it comes to managing freelancers.
I thought I could help, having gone through the whole spectrum of roles. A common situation now is one where the project manager is an FTE and the person performing the end job is an independent contractor. Here are a few pieces of advice about how to best manage this partnership.
1/ YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS
The freelancer has no boss. The freelancer is his own boss. That’s probably why most people choose to go freelance in the first place. But they still need clients. Would that then make you, the client, somehow the boss? That’s up for discussion, but still, put yourself in his shoes, don’t be bossy.
You should not address a freelancer like you might address a fellow employee. In a perfect world, you would treat fellow employees like freelancers. You do not impose a task on a freelancer, you ask.
An employee is hired to do a certain job and receives a fixed income each month to perform various previously defined tasks, so it’s expected that you pile work on his desk. The Company pays the wage; the employee does the work.
The freelancer is not at your service in the same way. Just because you had him sign some vague contractor agreement or know him from previous work, it does not mean you should take anything for granted. You should ask nicely if the freelancer is happy to perform a task, giving enough details (volume, deadline, rate, specific constraints…) to facilitate a quick response. Only clear requests can lead to reliable commitments.
Be prepared to answer any questions. Even better, anticipate them. And don’t sweep any potential difficulties under the rug because you’re afraid the freelancer might decline. You risk encountering problems further on down the road, at a point in your project where you can’t reassign the job, and that pressure on the partnership can only do harm.
Even for repeated requests and repetitive assignments, you still ask every time. Do not assume it’s ok and that the job will be done just because you pressed “send”.
2/ AVAILABILITY IS NOT GUARANTEED
Just as a constant flow of work from you is not guaranteed either. Plus, everybody needs time off or gets sick once in a while.
Look how much you pay your freelancer over a year. Considering they have a lot of taxes and social charges that employees do not have to pay, do you consider that to be a comfortable revenue? Depending on your industry, I bet not. That’s why the freelancer has other clients, other commitments, and cannot necessarily dedicate all his time to your demands.
How to get around that? Give specific heads-up about work coming their way so they can pencil it in. For long-term, continuous projects, set a pace that enables the freelancer to still dedicate time to other clients. You can’t take someone away from all other business relationships for a 10-month project and then just drop them out of the blue, leaving them hanging and having to start things all over again from scratch. (As mentioned before, it depends on the industry in question as rates and conditions vary greatly from one to the other.).
If you work year-round with freelancers, time off is often a touchy subject. While you can require hired employees to take turns covering for one another, there is no way you can dictate dates to a freelancer. They have no paid-leave, so it’s only fair that they at least get to organize their working schedule as they please. They are their own boss, remember.
Again, anticipate by diplomatically explaining how grateful you’d be if they could share their vacation plans in advance so that you can organize a back-up plan or delay deadlines to make room for their well-deserved time off.
3/ RATES AND WILLINGNESS CAN EVOLVE
Employees ask their boss for a raise. But, because clients rarely offer to pay more out of the goodness of their own hearts, freelancers raise their rates and then wait to see who sticks around.
So, don’t take it as a personal attack if a freelancer questions the agreement you had established at some point. Maybe your projects take him more time than initially planned because the delivery reviewer has changed to someone pickier. And while your company charges the end client the same rate as usual, and you get paid the same wage as usual, the freelancer is spending twice the time on the job and losing money. Or perhaps it’s simply a question of global inflation. Freelancers can’t afford to keep the same rates for decades in a row.
When building your project budget or discussing the quality assurance terms with your end client, always factor in additional compensation for extra rounds of work, in case a task goes beyond what’s planned. Because more often than not, issues arise due to weak links in the chain of communication rather than a lack of serious work on the ground. If it’s a one-time favor and the budget is tight, arrangements can often be made. What’s important is that you remain transparent and understanding. Showing you are aware the deal was not particularly fair and that you are considerate for someone’s efforts is essential. At the very least, you can offer a smallish extra for now and balance it next time with a bumped-up rate on a project that can afford it.
You and the freelancer are not operating with the same constraints. Be respectful of these differences, fair when compensating and considerate of the person’s efforts.
4/ TRANSPARENCY IS KEY
This partnership can only work with trust. And trust requires a certain amount of transparency and mutual understanding.
Paying invoices on time is high on the trust list for a freelancer. Imagine your boss telling you, “Oops, I forgot to wire your wage again this month!” Any issue with an upcoming payment should be dealt with as soon as possible. Being asked to cut one invoice into two or to delay payment terms by a fortnight is never a good surprise, but it’s better than waiting for a payment that’s not coming any time soon and having to chase it down.
Do not keep useful client information away from the freelancer just because you want to make sure you remain in charge. Most independent contractor agreements protect you from direct client handling anyway, and your freelancer is interested in building long-term work relationships with you, so the goal is not to disappoint. In any case, the freelancer might not even be interested in direct handling, lacking both the notoriety needed to catch big fish and the finances needed to launch big projects.
5/ THINK LONG TERM
How long did it take you to find a reliable freelancer who gets the job done properly? How much client knowledge has he taken in since then? What is the value of all that time you’ll save if you manage to keep that person on board?
Integrate them into your work as much as you can. Don’t keep laudatory feedback from clients to yourself; share it with the concerned freelancers. Give them news about how the project went. Offer free access to an online training session your company offers that could benefit the work they do for you. Find ways to make them part of your team.
Don’t treat freelancers like disposable items. Building solid partnerships and getting to really know people is as helpful with freelancers you only talk to via email as it is in a regular office situation.
You may be doing alright, but pay attention to little details
Of course, I’m making it look worse than it is between FTE managers and freelancers in order to illustrate my point. Freelancers don’t bite, they will generally welcome any requests, make some room for work even if they have other things going on, and do all they can to meet your expectations, with the brightest smile. And managers are on the whole very respectful.
However, keeping these 5 tips in the back of your head will help you to build a loyal, grateful and reliable team of freelancers around you. Home offices and remote work are now pretty popular with the current health crisis, making online communications the norm across all sectors. The way you treat your contacts from afar, showing them how much you value them, can make all the difference.
Because the way you phrase things and how you address freelancers says a lot about your respect for their work and overall team spirit. Small details demonstrate how deeply you have integrated different ways of approaching work. So, be sure to take good care of any and all freelancers working
for with you.