The Future Workplace Embraces Freelancers

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UCLA’s annual HR Roundtable Retreat featured an interesting discussion of future workforce trends. Led by Marina Gorbis of the Institute of the Future, part of the discussion focused on the growth of “microworkers,” individuals who freelance a variety of projects or jobs for different employers. Although freelancers are nothing new to the workplace, numerous online platforms such as oDesk, Elance, and Freelancer.com are making it easier for these individuals to find work, so that the freelance movement appears to be growing. According to Forbes, an estimated one in three Americans (roughly 42 million workers) are freelancers. That number is expected to grow to 50 percent of the workforce by 2020.

Many individuals turn to freelancing due to challenges in finding full-time employment in a tough job market. But for a growing number of workers, freelancing is a lifestyle choice. These individuals prefer the benefits of freelancing – being their own boss, flexible work schedules, and the comfort of working from home – over the structure of a full-time office job.

From the organization’s perspective, freelancers provide a ready source of talent to supplement the existing workforce. Go to any of the popular freelancing sites and you can find a great many individuals with wide-ranging skills. Some of the top freelancing roles include:

  • Writing
  • Editing
  • PowerPoint creation
  • Graphics
  • Data analysis

The last item on this list, data analysis or analytics, is a prime area for freelancers. The lack of analytical skills is one of the key challenges in HR organizations today, yet most of these organizations have yet to create a clear roadmap for developing these capabilities. These organizations can turn to freelancers, who have the skills to help organizations analyze, interpret, and visualize their data.

Kaggle, for example, provides a competition platform for top analytics talent. Organizations post their data, and statisticians and data scientists from all over the world compete to create the best solutions. If you are nervous about turning over your organization’s sensitive data, you can require individuals to sign confidentiality agreements through a Masters Competition. Many organizations have used Kaggle to find the expertise they need, including my own organization, Deloitte.

HR leaders need to help their organizations understand how to best incorporate this talent into their workforces. If your organization has yet to utilize freelancers on a wide scale, this may initially require a bit of legwork. You may need to involve your procurement department to specify how to hire freelancers. You will likely also need to involve your compliance and legal groups to make sure you don’t run afoul of employment laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act. You may need to modify your contracts, confidentiality and intellectual property agreements, insurance requirements, work schedules (for different time zones), and payment terms to accommodate freelancers. Furthermore, your HR systems and tools may need to be modified to track this new category of workers.

For managers, hiring freelancers will require a shift in how to onboard and incorporate this new talent into work streams. The organizational culture will need to build an acceptance of freelancers as part of the workplace ecosystem. These are areas where HR can help.

Many organizations are already leveraging the talents of the freelance community. According to Gorbis, one of her large tech clients staffs many of its projects with a ratio of 10 freelancers or microworkers for every one employee. Even on a less grand scale, freelancing promises to change the dynamics of the workplace. HR leaders should look at how they can help to build this larger talent ecosystem.

Madhura Chakrabarti

Employee Engagement & People Analytics Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Madhura leads the people analytics and employee engagement research practices at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Highly regarded for her work in analytics, employee engagement, organizational development, and preemployment hiring assessments, Madhura helps corporations make data driven talent and business decisions. Her work has been published in the Journal of Business and Psychology and the Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. Madhura has a doctorate in industrial / organizational psychology and a master of arts degree from Wayne State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Delhi, India.

4 thoughts on “The Future Workplace Embraces Freelancers

  1. Freelancer sounds more like a new name or label that an actual new category of worker. Is an outside attorney a freelancer? How about a forklift driver who is an employee of a temporary staffing agency?

    A typical large company has four groups of workers delivering their product or service:
    1.) Employees
    2.) Contract temporary workers
    3.) Service and supply vendors’ workers
    4.) Outsourced departments workers

    The increased usage of non-employee workers, especially in large companies is growing for all skill sets – both white collar and blue.

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