Three freelancers work on a project - Hays Viewpoint, careers advice blog

Freelancing is fast becoming the new normal. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, the number of self-employed people in the country rose from 2.7 million in 1984 to 4.8 million in May 2016, representing about 15.2 percent of the UK workforce.

Likewise, a 2015 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union in the US showed that freelancers now make up 34 percent of the nation’s workforce, with this figure predicted to rise to 40 percent in 2020. But how can companies get the best from this segment of the workforce?

1. Remember they can deliver quickly

Many organisations are attracted by both the speed of hire, and the speed at which work can be completed when the right skills are employed. Helena Santos is Senior HR Manager Asia Pacific and Global HRBP for the IT and Finance Division of the International Baccalaureate in Singapore. She says IT contractors are being hired in large numbers where assignments have to be completed to tight deadlines. So, essentially, the best time to hire freelancers is when you need a specific skillset for a time-sensitive project.

2. Deploy them to control costs and win business

In some circumstances, it makes more financial sense to hire a freelancer instead of a permanent employee. Santos explains, “Using contractors enables any organisation to budget on a project-by-project basis and only bring in the skills they need for as long as they need them, which is very important when you are looking to control IT costs,” says Santos. She adds that, although companies are under pressure to control their permanent headcount, they still need people with the skills to complete projects and support new business wins.

3. But don’t think of them as a long-term solution

Professor Andrew Burke, Dean of Trinity Business School in Dublin and Chairman of think tank the Centre for Research on Self-Employment, notes that freelancers’ daily rates will likely be higher on a day-to-day basis than permanent staff. “This is not about getting people on the cheap, but saving money by not having people on the wage bill when they are not needed.”

4. Use technology to your advantage

Costs can be cut further by allowing off-site working, and technology’s role in the rise of freelancers cannot be underestimated. Anyone can work from anywhere these days, while social media has become an important tool for finding new clients and for employers needing freelancers at short notice.

5. Trial potential employees before hiring

Employment on a freelance basis can be a good opportunity to test fit within a business for both the employer and employee. Home Group is a UK social enterprise and a charity with an annual turnover of more than £325 million. Some 10 percent of its national workforce is made up of freelancers and the organisation has to balance social and commercial pressures. Many people who start as freelancers end up in permanent posts. “It creates a talent pipeline for HR and is a kind of ‘try before you buy’. We get to see someone’s capabilities and the value they bring,” says Director of HR and Development Susan Coulson.

6. Don’t underestimate the drawbacks

Hiring freelancers is not without risk. It can be harder to guarantee the standard of work you will get, which can mean an element of micro-management is necessary. Freelancers are unlikely to be as engaged with your company brand and culture as a permanent member of staff. There are administration issues too. For smaller businesses, setting up back office processes such as an accounts payable system can be a headache.

7. Treat them as equals

You will get the most out of your freelancers if they feel they are treated fairly and equally. “I deal with everyone in the office in the same way, whether they are permanent or freelance because everyone is representing our brand, so you need to try and engage contractors in what you are trying to achieve,” says Santos. “There should not be any differentiation in HR policy, although we are aware of how tax and employment legislation varies in different countries when hiring freelancers.”

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Based in London, Sandra is the Group Head and UK/I Director of People and Culture for Hays.  Prior to this Sandra held a similar role for Hays in the Asia Pacific region, based in Sydney.  Sandra is passionate about organisational culture and its role in driving every aspect of business results.