More Than Ever, Workers Are Freelancing
According to the annual “Freelancing in America” survey distributed by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, 57 million Americans—or 35% of the U.S. workforce—freelanced in 2019. This represents an increase of 4 million from 2014. Furthermore, the survey found that freelancers span all generations. It’s easy to see this. As Stephanie Kasriel, President and CEO of Upwork, indicated:
Freelancing is a respected, long-term career path. It’s remarkable to see this way of working empowering the youngest generation more than any prior generation and also to see the ways freelancing is opening up opportunities for inclusion in the workforce. Companies that want access to skilled professionals who are proactively training themselves and incredibly self-motivated should turn to independent professionals. The future of work is now, and they are leading the way.
Not only are Americans turning to freelancing as a temporary way to make money, they are also viewing freelancing as a long-term, full-time, career option. In fact, the percentage of freelancers who work full time has increased from 17% in 2014 to 28% in this most recent survey. This is a significant jump—one we can reasonably expect to continue to increase.
But freelancing is not without its challenges. Freelancers list several concerns with work of this nature, including fair and timely compensation and access to healthcare. Still, freelancing remains highly beneficial to both freelancers and those who contract with them. Freelancers appreciate the ability to earn money while working from anywhere, at whatever times of day fits their personal situation best. Companies enjoy both a higher level of expertise and cost savings, as they can hire to fulfill only the precise needs of each project, rather than bringing on a staff member who may either be idle at times or less than ideal for a given task.
Within the educational content space in which Lumina is focused, flexibility is key, as it allows us to hire the most experienced professionals to author and revise content. This ensures that end users, namely instructors and students, have access to content created by the experts most relevant to their field.
But hiring freelancers is only half the battle—we next need to turn our attention to performance and retention. With the percentage of Americans who freelance, whether full time or as a side gig, increasing, it is important now more than ever that we listen to how best to support our freelance workforce. How can we ensure that freelancers remain invested in their work, and thus continue to provide the high-quality content our users want and need? What are the key factors that help them feel not only supported but also appreciated during the course of a project? What do they consider when accepting, or rejecting, freelance work? And most importantly—what can a company do to make a freelancer feel less like hired hand and more like valued contributor?
To answer these questions, I conducted email interviews with several freelancers across a variety of roles.1 What follows are my key takeaways on how to best support a freelance workforce.
Focus on Communication and Transparency
Most freelancers I interviewed cited communication and transparency as essential factors in feeling supported throughout the course of a project. According to one freelancer, “The single most important factor is being able to have good communication with clear guidelines. It saves everyone time and makes the best possible impression on the client if projects are done correctly the first time.” Therefore, if you are engaging freelancers, it is critical to make your expectations known up front. Provide as much information as you can, including detailed instructions, guidelines, approved samples, and so on. Maybe even schedule a launch call with the freelancer to verbally review the expectations of the project.
Timely communication is equally important. Several freelancers expressed that it was incredibly valuable to them that their contacts responded to queries promptly. It made those freelancers feel that their time was being respected and therefore, they were being respected. Given the nature of freelance work, a freelancer needs to carefully plan his/her time in order to be successful (and profitable). When their queries are not responded to a timely manner, they cannot begin the work on time, which could snowball into schedule delays and an overall sense of not feeling valued
Establish a Realistic Schedule Upfront
It is important to establish a schedule at the onset of a project so that the expectations of both parties are solidified. However, it is critical that that schedule be realistic. The main factor cited by all freelancers for rejecting a freelance project was schedule. To start, a freelancer needs to determine if the schedule will fit into his/her current workload. One freelancer noted that he would refuse work if he already had an overloaded schedule because it would bring “into play the possibility of jeopardizing the schedule or not feeling confident that I can guarantee quality work.” The freelancer also needs to determine if the provided schedule is actually feasible. Several freelancers noted that they appreciated being consulted up front regarding the schedule in order to provide feedback on adequate turnaround times. One freelancer who handles several projects at any given time noted that she was often able to work with her contact to prioritize her projects in order to accept additional work. In general, freelancers felt most supported when provided with a realistic schedule at the start of a project. And if the overall schedule was tight, they appreciated being given the opportunity to renegotiate or reprioritize.
Give Feedback—Both Positive and (Constructively) Critical
In addition to open and clear communication, several freelancers I interviewed noted the importance of receiving feedback on their work. Freelancers aren’t working in a “traditional office setting” and asking for/receiving feedback from a supervisor in the next cubicle. Therefore, it is critical to let your freelancer know how he/she is doing. As one freelancer noted, “I appreciate being given both constructive and positive feedback so I can consistently work to improve the quality of my submissions. When I submit work repeatedly with no feedback, it is discouraging because I don’t know whether I am meeting necessary requirements.” So, even though constructive feedback is necessary to give a freelancer the opportunity to course correct, positive feedback is equally important so that the freelancer knows he/she is doing a good job. Further to this point, even a simple thank you can go a long way in fostering a supportive partnership.
Offer Fair Compensation
As noted in the “Freelancing in America” article at the start of this entry, fair and timely compensation is one of the main challenges a freelancer faces, particularly if that freelancer is freelancing full-time, meaning gig work is his/her sole source of income. Therefore, timely compensation is critical to any freelancer.
Fair compensation is also crucial. Several freelancers noted that prior to accepting a project, they review the requirements (hence why it is so important to lay out clear expectations of the project at the onset) against the proposed compensation to ensure it is in line. One freelancer observed “I think that compensation should match qualifications and hard work as well as the expectations of a job; it’s critical for me to know that there is balance between the work I am doing and the pay I’m receiving for that work. I am in a trusted partnership when I understand the expectations of the work and those expectations realistically match compensation and do not change unless the compensation also changes.”
It’s also important to keep in mind what that compensation will ultimately be in terms of take-home pay. As expressed by another freelancer, “We have to pay self-employment tax as well as income tax and cover our own expenses, and for those who aren’t covered by health insurance in some other manner, that has to be paid as well. Having said that, I suspect that a number of freelancers have a full-time gig, but that certainly isn’t true of all of us.”
In effect, freelancers just want to be compensated appropriately for the work they are being asked to handle; when the expectations and the compensation are not in line, it generates an overall sense of distrust.
Match Opportunities with Skill Sets
A common theme among the interviews I conducted was a deep appreciation for when a company offers an opportunity that matches the freelancer’s qualifications and skill set. Many freelancers noted that in addition to unrealistic schedules and unfair compensation, they would also reject a project due to a lack of comfort with the expectations. It is appreciated when a company knows enough about the skill set of the freelancer to determine if the project will be a good fit before reaching out. Further to this point, one freelancer pointed out that he valued being offered “something other than routine ‘monkey work,’” as it made him feel respected for his abilities.
Offer Opportunities for Training and Growth
While a steady stream of work is, of course, valued, several freelancers noted that they appreciated when a company was able to offer training opportunities that would help them grow professionally. One freelancer stated that an important factor in feeling like a valued contributor was the receipt of ongoing training relevant to the work at hand. That training, she felt, was important so that her qualifications could grow along with the work she was performing. She went on to say that this showed her “that the employer values the work that I do and wants to expand my capabilities so that I can be a better asset.” Another freelancer echoed this sentiment, noting “Not only does it keep things interesting, but I learn so much along the way, which helps me keep developing as a professional so that I can better contribute to my clients’ projects and longer-term goals.” It seems that when a company can go that “extra step”—providing training to promote professional growth—that is when the freelancer moves from just feeling adequately supported to feeling truly valued.
Maintain each Important Relationship
Earlier in this entry, I outlined the importance of realistic schedules and adequate compensation. However, several freelancers remarked about a key factor that outweighed those two factors—prior relationships. The relationships you foster with freelancers are vitally important to their willingness to take on future work. If a freelancer has a poor experience with a client for whatever reason, he/she is less willing to take on future work with that client. Unsurprisingly, if a freelancer has a positive experience with a client —say, she receives prompt communication from her contact or flexibility in terms of schedule—she would be more likely to take on new assignments. One freelancer noted that her very first consideration when deciding whether to accept an assignment was prior history with a client. She noted “If I have been treated well by a client…for an extended time, then I am often willing to help out with projects, even if the pay is lower than I might expect or if there is a stressful time frame.” Another freelancer mentioned that she would “leap tall buildings” for particular folks she has worked for in the past, simply because they made her experience a pleasant one. In effect, when a freelancer historically feels supported, appreciated, and valued by a particular company, he/she is more inclined to continue working for that company. So, maintaining those relationships with your freelancers—providing clear expectations, timely feedback, prompt communication, adequate compensation—is crucial in maintaining a successful freelance model.
Conclusion: When Freelancers Feel Valued, They’re More Likely to Succeed
All the freelancers I spoke with, no matter what role they served, noted that they were deeply passionate about the work they do. They strive to do a good job, but also want to ensure they are being set up for success at the onset of a project. When clear expectations are not provided, schedules are unrealistic from the start, feedback is absent, and/or communication with their contact is not timely—all these factors contribute to feeling unsupported and unappreciated. It is when all these factors are considered that a freelancer begins to feel like more than “just” a freelancer—but rather a valued member of a team. When a freelancer feels this way, she is far more likely to deliver her highest quality work. Which is when we all win.
Want to hear more about how Lumina’s network of freelancers or our freelancer management system ExpertSource Pro can benefit your team? Or, are you interested in becoming a valued freelancer, and want to learn more about where to start? We want to hear from you! Email our team to learn more about the role of Lumina freelancers, or visit our website to learn more about Lumina Datamatics.
- Because most freelancers I interviewed wished to remain anonymous, I have not included their names here. However, I am deeply appreciative of their contributions.