There’s nothing like a seasonal break to get people thinking about quitting their company and joining the gig economy. This mode of work is growing vigorously, at a rate of roughly 27 percent more than payroll employees according to one U.S. study.
But the reality is people who become freelance often still end up working for big companies, and it can be even more frustrating as an ‘outsider’. Big companies enjoy the flexibility of temporary staff, but they come with hidden costs. How can both parties optimise their digital workplaces to smooth the way?
A quick fix can sometimes slow things down
For companies, hiring a freelancer lets you cover a temporary need, makes it easier to recruit and can bring in specialist knowledge. However, it can be much harder to realise these benefits than it first appears. In some companies, just getting them through the door can be challenging, causing risk and delay to what was meant to be a quick fix. Then you need to think about how to get them up to speed quickly: if a manager has taken them on to fill a resource shortfall, it can end up slowing them down if it generates constant interruptions by the new hire asking for help.
Ease the hiring process
Although the recruitment process may be easier from an HR point of view because the barriers are lower, the gig economy often means a contract between two companies. I often find the burden of coordinating this falls on the hiring manager to navigate the procurement processes and legal issues, generating more workload rather than less. The best companies have workflow systems within their digital workplace to smooth the way. They also scale down the processes to match, so that a lone consultant isn’t asked to fill in a 20-page supplier registration form that asks for an original copy of their first grade report card.
A faster route to being productive
Sometimes you turn to the gig economy just because you need an extra pair of hands. You need help and you need it fast. Getting the right person in will depend on their availability, and (insider tip), people in demand tend to be more available for places that are good to work with. So an attractive digital workplace isn’t just a way of improving employee experience, it also sells your employer brand to freelancers too.
Once the resource starts though, you need to get them productive, fast. Again this is where your digital workplace can help:
- Faster onboarding: It’s such a simple thing but rarely is it done well. The best intranets have a ‘Welcome to X’ page that acts as an alternative navigation to the content. It gives people all the ‘first week’ essentials like contacts, floor plans and templates. Going further, there’s huge scope for a chatbot to learn and respond to the top task questions common to new hires.
- A clear operating model: Anybody working within an organisation needs to know how it is structured and how to get things done. Your intranet should reflect the operating model of your organisation, with menus and sites that use the same terminology.
- Practical collaboration access: With that ubiquitous promise that ‘work is no longer a place’, there’s no need to assume your freelancer will even be working in one of your buildings. If you are to collaborate remotely, you need a permeable digital workplace. It’s so much easier if you collaborate in the cloud and can selectively grant access to externals. But even tools like Office 365 are patchy on this — SharePoint works fine, but Teams still has limitations.
- Practical system access: Sometimes when I talk to long-standing employees, they say that even they don’t know all the tools available in their digital workplaces. Ideally, there should be a way to navigate to all of them based on task, not system name. Once learned, there’s no issue if people keep shortcuts to them, but that first navigation is exploratory, so needs to be clear and logical rather than quick.
- Faster networking: Often in big companies, what helps people get the job done is knowing who to talk to. But these personal networks can be invisible. An active enterprise social network (ESN) can make them more accessible to temporary workers: they can see what is going on and who the influencers are. It’s even better if people Work out Loud so that the ‘buzz’ of the place is visible too. I was initially unconvinced about Microsoft’s Delve, but as a way to discover who is working on related tasks, or even just to see where the ‘work’ is happening, it definitely has a role in organisations using Office 365.
An opportunity to bring in specialist knowledge
Sometimes you hire temporary staff because they have experience you lack in-house. As a consultant, this is typically why I’m engaged. Part of how I see my task is to impart knowledge back into the organisation. It’s no good if I come up with a report full of recommendations that the client doesn’t have the capability to implement.
People used to talk about ‘corporate memory‘ as the way organisations retain a collective capability to do things even though people might change. If you rely too heavily on temporary workers, that corporate memory becomes corporate amnesia.
This is where embedding knowledge into revised processes, and capturing the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ in any decision matters. It won’t capture everything though, so consider a buddy model between permanent and temporary workers as a way to do skills transfer. Online messaging tools for some conversations will help too — they won’t capture knowledge, but they will leave more cues to help people remember.
It still takes time
Despite all of the ways a digital workplace can help, we shouldn’t forget that work is typically an inter-personal activity, and that requires social capital. This capital needs to be built, and that takes time. Digital tools can accelerate it, but they don’t replace the need to build up rapport, common views and trust.