Love your contractors as yourselves

Contractors and freelancers are hot property, but are often largely ignored by the companies that pay them. That’s dumb. Here’s why. PLUS: Six tips for loving your non-permanent staff

Every day thousands of contractors and freelancers wander through the doors of New Zealand organisations to complete specialist assignments and projects.

One financial institution with its head office in Auckland has at least 250 contractors swelling its ranks daily. These individuals carry out a multitude of projects ranging from IT related activities, to product-related projects, change management, human resources, business analysis, customer experience mapping, design work… the list goes on.

In they walk, day after day, many holding vital customer relationships in their hands as part of their assignments. Yet by the organisation’s own admission, no employer relationship planning, contractor workforce management or organisational induction is in place, at all.

The take-up of flexible staffing as a workforce strategy globally has been significant. Propelled by the GFC, the rise of the ‘contingent worker’ (the collective name for contractors, freelancers and temporary staff) was first predicted by Charles Handy in 2008, when he outlined the notion of the ‘shamrock organisation’ in his book ‘Age of Unreason’. Back then it seemed far-fetched that a large percentage of organisational activity would be turned over to people who were not permanent employees. But as the years have rolled by, Handy’s predictions have turned out to be true.

US statistics show 1 in 3 Americans, or roughly 42 million people, are freelancers. This covers individuals who work in non-traditional, impermanent jobs, including part-time employees and independent contractors. Although these are US statistics, it’s safe to say the percentages wouldn’t be that different in New Zealand.

Hand in hand with this new dynamic are fresh challenges for organisations. Not least is the fact that top talent is hard to find – and this extends to the contractor/freelance workforce.

Contractors falling through the cracks, or failing to perform, can have serious consequences. These range from the practical – recently an Australian financial institution which was shifting offices discovered they were 800 workstations short because they hadn’t counted their contractors – to the more abstract – individuals who work for you, but are not inducted into your organisational vision or purpose may be playing havoc with your brand.

The problem is more widespread than you might think.

I recently had a conversation with the procurement manager of a national company, who described his company’s relationship with contractors and freelancers as “hands off”. All that mattered was that a worker was available to fill a role.

This ‘body-in-the-job’ approach meant there were no measures in place to assess the quality of outcomes, or to drive high-performers. There was no effort to build high-value relationships, to consider cultural alignment. No one was looking at value-for-money metrics.

When asked about results and quality work outcomes, the manager admitted they had no idea.

Given so many companies are so reliant on contingent staffing, this attitude is not only short-sighted, but jeopardises any opportunity to create competitive advantage with a unified high calibre team.

To highlight the benefits of contingent relationship management, Frog Recruitment undertook a two-year project over 2013/2014. The goal was to assess whether applying effective relationship management and quality ratings systems to projects being run by contractors improved the outcomes.

The results were positive:

  • 83% of assignments were completed ahead schedule, producing tens of thousands of dollars of cost savings.
  • 99.3% of assignments produced performance levels either above average or excellent
  • Contractors confirmed a keen interest (or preference) to work for these organisations again

It would have been useful to be able to benchmark this against a control group of “unloved contractors and freelancers” but this was not possible, largely because these measures for assignment efficiency and expenditure savings are not widely practised in New Zealand. 

In short, great people are hard to find no matter what their employment status. The savvy-minded organisation extends relationship management beyond their permanent employees and learns to love their contingent workforce.

Six top tips for loving your contractors

  • Choose your contractor wisely. Make sure the fit is right.
  • Plan ahead. Get the best.
  • Make sure contractors are included in any familiarisation/induction process. Include mission, values and “how we operate around here”.  If you use a recruitment company, make sure they are on board as well.
  • Be clear about responsibilities, goals, expectations, milestones and expected work outcomes.
  • Be available to answer questions, and provide direction. Have the working environment ready for action, and work to eliminate obstacles.
  • Praise good work, and quickly tell the contractor when output fails to meet expectations.

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Jane Kennelly, Director of Frog Recruitment, is a recruitment professional with over 25 years’ industry knowledge.