6 Best Practices for Managing Remote Freelancers

As online platforms for freelancing become more prevalent, here are some best practices for companies that rely on these workers to complete projects.
Online gig work

Online freelancing platforms are increasing in popularity. According to MBO Partners Inc., a Herndon, Virginia-based technology company for self-employed workers, a growing number of independent workers or freelancers are using online platforms to find clients. As stated in the firm’s “Looking Forward: What Will the Independent Workforce Look Like in 2027?” survey, just 3 percent of freelancers reported in 2012 using one of these platforms in the past year; as of 2017, 20 percent said they had used one of these online services in the past year.

With this trend comes challenges. Here are six best practices to keep in mind.

1. Experiment and share advice within the company.

In a study from the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, two companies were able to experiment in their use of online platforms and freelancers and identify what worked well and what didn’t. Then, managers leading this process could compile advice and disseminate to other portions of the organization, according to Vili Lehdonvirta, an associate professor and senior research fellow at the OII who co-authored the study.

The study spells out that companies should consider having a process for experimenting and have advocates to lead the process of adopting this method of engaging with freelancers. Executive support is integral, as is funding.

This process is not one-size-fits-all, however. Lehdonvirta said It’s useful to read about the experience of other business leaders but that in the end this new way of working and managing will require an attitude of testing and adjusting.

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2. Vet the candidates ahead of project time.

Traditional employees require interviewing and reference checking, along with other tests to see if they’re a good fit for the position long-term. However, part of the allure of using freelancers is speed. To start working with them quickly, a one-off assignment could be most efficient. If the result doesn’t match what the manager needs, then they can simply work with someone else, Lehdonvirta said.

Regarding who should lead this, Lehdonvirta said that it varies between companies. At some, individual managers take on the task of working directly with platforms and freelancers. At others, compliance practices are part of a more centralized function, such as within human resources.

3. Structure management strategically.

Lehdonvirta said one finding of the platform sourcing study was that companies advanced in the adoption process found it was important to involve internal stakeholders such as human resources and finance early on. For companies waiting to involve them until later in the process, roadblocks involving things like compliance and procurement could arise. “But if you involve those functions early on, then you’re more likely, obviously, to avoid those roadblocks,” he said.

“Just like you have an HR department for your full-time people, you really need a process and a set of rules around the best way to work with this new segment of the workforce,” said Gene Zaino, president and CEO of MBO Partners Inc.

At large companies, having a department to manage compliance of practices with freelancers can help mitigate regulations with the group. Laws around working with freelancers differ by country and state, so there are risks to keep in mind when engaging in this work.

However, this is a critical mass issue, Zaino said. If the organization is occasionally working with freelancers, then the payment and compliance practices could be outsourced. Still, to complete work efficiently, it’s the direct managers who should communicate about projects with freelancers.

4. Communicate with online freelancers effectively.

Zaino said that much of communicating and engaging with online freelancers is no different than working with remote, full-time workers. This arrangement requires clear communication and frequent check-ins. However, online freelancers might require additional considerations.

Managers should provide online freelancers direction for their projects. This should be done in manageable tasks; providing small bites is better than assigning large projects when remote, Zaino said.

Nevertheless, if freelancers are particularly talented or in demand, they can be selective about the companies they work with. “At the end of the day, it’s a competitive market,” said Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork, a freelancing website based in Mountain View, California. The more attractive a company makes itself, the more likely it can attract and keep the best people.

“If you treat people like vendors, then they’re going to behave like vendors,” Kasriel said. “And if you treat them like they’re a core part of your team, and they get to contribute with the rest of your more traditional, full-time organization, then they’re going to be much more committed to you.”

5. Build a network of freelancers.

Having a pool of go-to freelancers can ensure a speedy process that has better working relationships and greater efficiency in timing and costs. This takes time, and it starts with first understanding the skills that are missing within the organization, Kasriel said.

Then, as the company works with certain freelancers successfully, managers know who to keep on call. These workers are already vetted and understand how the company operates. By maintaining relationships over time, managers can re-engage with them easily.

However, MBO Partners’ Zaino advised to be careful when it comes to compliance. Online platforms could have a terms of service statement that could require a payment as commission for finding these freelancers, especially when companies continue work with the same person. Still, Zaino emphasized that building a community of freelancers is a great competitive advantage, especially when it comes to agility in getting work done.

6. Make freelancing sustainable.

When companies rely on freelancers and online platforms to get work done, the well-being of the freelancers become a business imperative. This includes making sure freelancers get enough work to live on, as well as receive benefits such as health care, Oxford University’s Lehdonvirta said.

“It’s worth considering how can companies support sustainable ecosystems so that the freelance experts that you deal with, that they remain available,” Lehdonvirta said. This sustainability could come through the platform used, or companies could partner to lead initiatives toward aiding these workers.

Lehdonvirta emphasized that efforts such as these aren’t only for social responsibility reasons, but for the future success of the company relying on freelancers to complete important projects. “It becomes a strategic issue, as well,” he said. “To work in the long term, it has to work for everyone.”

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.