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August 18, 2017

How to build a flexible workforce without killing your company culture

Hired's Kelli Dragovich looks at how boomerang and flexble workers are impacting company culture.

By Ellie Burns

Once the go-to option for UK workers, the comfortable security of a permanent job is increasingly being passed up for something more flexible.

Last year there were around two million freelancers in the UK, according to a report by The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE). That’s a 43% increase since 2008. And when you split it by industry, tech is one of the largest contributors, with 123,000 freelancers listed under ‘IT and telecommunications’ professions.

This could be driven by a number of factors. The rise of the gig economy for example, which allows people – mainly on somewhat controversial zero-hours contracts – to work as and when they want to rather than being bound to specific hours.

But it’s also being driven by companies themselves. We know from our own research that many organisations are struggling to find the right digital skills. Turning to freelancers gives them a greater number of options for bringing in those skills when a specific need arises.

Clearly this new way of working provides flexibility to workers and employers, but it also raises a question I keep hearing at conferences or in articles like this: when a significant number of your workers aren’t on permanent contracts, how do you build and maintain a strong company culture? And my response is always the same: why does it have to be different?

There are some simple and inexpensive steps you can take to ensure your culture holds its shape as you take on more interim staff.


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Be just as selective in your interview process

In my experience, hiring managers have a habit of viewing contractors or freelancers as people who are simply there to complete a specific task. And so they don’t worry too much about personal attributes.

But if you want to maintain a strong culture you have to hire against your company values for every role, regardless of how long that person is going to be around.

You have to be just as thorough in your interview process as you would for a permanent member of staff. I’ve been at companies where there was almost no interview at all for freelancers. That’s a flawed process, and it’s eventually going to have a negative impact on the culture you’ve worked so hard to build.

Don’t treat non-permanent staff differently

There’s a good reason for treating contract workers the same as you would any other employee: they might come back – again and again if you build a great relationship.

If they have a good enough experience they might even become advocates of your employer brand. And as the economy moves towards a greater number of freelancers, word of mouth is going to become hugely important.

In past companies I’ve heard people questioning whether to invite ‘the freelancer’ to a team day out. The answer should always be yes. If they’re doing great work, why exclude them from the social side of the job?

When I talk about this stuff, one thing people often bring up is the legal issue around treating permanent and contract staff the same. Again, my answers usually follow the same vein: there is no legal issue around sharing pizza, or saying good morning, or including someone in a meeting or night out.

Making someone feel included can have a profound impact on that individual and therefore your wider culture.


Make the relationship reciprocal

Freelancers are usually there to complete a specific task and then leave again. But my question to employers is this: while those people are working for your company, what are you doing for them?

I’m not naïve enough to believe every Hired employee will work here for the rest of their life, but while they are here I want them to have as many opportunities as possible to learn, grow and build tools for their future career.

This might sound unusual, but why not ask a freelancer what motivates them? What are they good at? What do they want to be better at? Then help them improve where necessary.

At Hired we had a freelancer say they wanted to get better at using Excel, because they felt they were behind the rest of their team in that area. So we put them on a course and gave them a skill they can carry for the rest of their career.

You’d be amazed at the difference a relatively small gesture like this can make.

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