Embracing the Freelance Talent Model

A Q&A with Upwork HR leader Zoe Harte

By Roy Maurer Jul 20, 2017
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Zoe Harte, vice president and head of HR for Upwork.

Employers are including a wider array of contingent workers in their organizations, including project-based freelancers, so they can be more agile in a tight talent market, recent studies have shown.

The freelance workforce grew from 53 million in 2014 to 55 million in 2016, and those employees now represent 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to research from Upwork and Freelancer's Union.

Nearly two-thirds of human capital leaders are likely to start using more contingent workers, according to Randstad Sourceright's 2017 Talent Trends Report, which canvassed respondents from 15 countries. About one-third of respondents said they are preparing for temporary, contract, consultant or freelance workers to account for as much as 30 percent of their workforce.

Upwork, the world's largest online marketplace for freelancers, based in Mountain View, Calif., is itself largely made up of freelance workers, with roughly 70 percent of its workforce, or 800 freelancers, working in various parts of the business.

Zoe Harte, Upwork's vice president and head of HR, discussed with SHRM Online how companies can identify a need for freelancers, how to attract these workers and what challenges HR may encounter.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Recruiting Internally and Externally]

SHRM Online: Why are companies using freelancers?

Harte: We tend to see employers using freelancers for two main reasons: They need to fill jobs for a skill they don't have in the organization, and they need to scale up staff dramatically. To use HR as an example, if a company is hiring a lot of salespeople, they may decide to bring on sales recruiters as freelancers to meet the need that the current staff can't.

Alternatively, when I do presentations, I need someone to design a PowerPoint deck for me because I don't have the ability to make [such PowerPoints] look fantastic. HR doesn't need a full-time designer. But occasionally we can benefit from hiring someone with that skill on a freelance basis. We also find that freelancers do work that otherwise may not get done, or gets dumped on someone [who] isn't appropriate.

SHRM Online: How can organizations determine if there is a need for freelancers?

Harte: Each employer is going to be a little different with how they want to work with freelancers. HR can focus on the strategic business plan and its implications for the company's workforce. Leveraging people analytics is key. Analytics enables organizations to slice and dice their workforce data to uncover critical issues, conduct skills gap analyses, and customize their approach to working with different groups of the workforce such as freelancers, full-time, temp and agency workers. Just as finance tracks ROI [return on investment] and operations measures productivity, HR can measure and influence human-related value such as turnover and engagement.

SHRM Online: What's the difference between attracting freelancers and the traditional recruitment process?

Harte: Most freelancers may not benefit from the onsite perks that attract typical job seekers. Freelancers are more motivated by freedom, flexibility and autonomy than corporate benefits and job security.

To attract the best freelancers, be explicit about the work they'll be doing and the impact their contribution will make to the organization. Top freelancers have a lot of people asking for their time. So discuss everything they'd want to know to help them make a decision about joining your team. Important things to consider include:

  • Writing a clear and detailed work description. Freelancers decide whether they want to work for you based on job postings. If your job description lacks detail and doesn't clearly outline the scope of work, you run the risk of losing top talent. The clearer the work description, the higher quality talent you'll attract and the faster you'll get your project up and running.
  • Developing a stellar reputation. In today's competitive market, your company's reputation is more important than ever. Freelancers are busy and in demand. To attract top freelancers, it's critical to instill trust. Stay in frequent communication, provide clarity about the scope of the project and set clear expectations.
  • Paying a fair price. It's essential to pay fair rates based on the work involved and the experience needed. Do your research. Take a look at the market and the average going rate to help inform your asking rate. Proposing unreasonable rates will exclude top talent.

In addition, great freelancers know other great freelancers. That network can be powerful. Once you find freelancers who really jibe with how you approach work, use their network.

SHRM Online: How do you deal with some of the challenges you've encountered with freelancers?

Harte: Some HR colleagues have said they are still nervous to give some of their work to freelancers. But … we're already doing it in a lot of cases. Most companies use some kind of freelance or contract talent in some capacity. I think it's going to take more of a pivot in the way we think about it. As companies increasingly embrace a more flexible workforce, the one-size-fits-all approach is no longer sufficient. Companies will need to tailor the worker experience to meet the needs of a more diverse workforce.

Communication is key to managing a flexible team. It's not just the initial communication of a task, but ongoing updates throughout a project. We find that asking [freelancers] for their initial thoughts during a project discussion helps ensure all ideas and voices are heard. Additionally, if you don't have the proper channels in place, communication can be a challenge. Internally, we rely heavily on instant messaging and videoconferencing to communicate throughout the day. Try to level the playing field for [freelancers] by making it a priority to respond to e-mails or calls, to try to afford them the same level of access that people who work onsite have walking into your office. I will set up dedicated communication times and best ways for them to reach me.

And don't forget to recognize their work and let them know how what they are doing impacts the broader mission of the organization. If you provide more context to freelancers, they will probably do a better job and feel more connected to the work.

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