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I'm a freelancer, so please treat me like one

By Elisa Silverman · April 26, 2022
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The number of people who freelance continues to climb, including a growing contingent of freelancers who work side by side with employees. Freelancers and employees can work well together, but we aren't the same.

The key to building a long-term productive relationship with your freelancers is treating us like freelancers. We love that you feel like we're part of the team—but we're also part of a lot of other teams, and it's best to remember that, for everyone's sake.

Flexibility for everyone

You can find freelancers who are employees somewhere and freelance as a side hustle. Others fall into freelancing after losing their job, and they're doing what's needed to make things work until they find their next job. But for more and more of us, freelancing is the dream, not an interim step.

Here's my entirely unscientific, yet often heard, conclusion about the motivation of the committed freelancer: flexibility. The flexibility to grind away in a 100-hour workweek because there's no ceiling to earnings. The flexibility to enjoy a three- or four-day workweek. And even the flexibility to change our minds about all this along the way.

We like being able to choose to work with people mostly because we think they're really wonderful or what they're doing is really wonderful, and choose not to work with people who get aggressive if we don't reply to an email within ten minutes.

And flexibility is also the reason companies like to work with freelancers. You get access to expertise on an as-needed basis, and if you don't think we're wonderful, it's easy for you to move on as well.

If you remove any of that flexibility, you might push your freelancers away, which is good for no one. Some examples:

  • Don't ask for (or require) access to freelancers' laptops or logins for their business accounts. It's nosy, it's unnecessary, and it's a major security issue: it's not just your information on their laptop or business accounts.

  • Don't expect freelancers to be part of daily check-in calls to go over the day's tasks. I know these are popular in the world of widespread remote work, but that sort of micromanaging doesn't fit the freelance flow. It doesn't allow them the flexibility they need to do their best work. Your freelancers should certainly be happy to provide updates, either as part of an agreed schedule or as needed. But that's different from forcing them to meet for homeroom each morning. 

Any freelancer who takes their business seriously embraces the obligation to operate professionally with clients. They want to deliver top-quality work and keep the communication channels open. But don't fence us in.

If a freelancer is falling short, absolutely have that call to let them know what you need from them or what expectations aren't being met. Just keep in mind that if you demand too much control over how and when the freelancer works, you risk losing them (it also starts to blur legal boundaries between employee and freelancer).

Freelancers and employees have entirely different business models

The employee's business model is one simple equation: you get X amount of their time for Y amount of salary or wages. Yes, there may be commissions and bonuses and other perks, but this is the basic bargain.

When you're paying for an employee's time, you can invite them to endless meetings and expect them to show up. It's probably not a productive approach (and you'll eventually lose those employees too), but you're paying employees for that time regardless of whether you let them use it productively.

You can also give them ambiguous, incomplete, or conflicting instructions. If it takes five tries over one month to get something done? Again, not productive, but that's a leadership or company culture issue, not the employee's issue. They get paid either way.

Not so for the freelancer. The freelancer's business model relies on maximum productivity. This is true regardless of whether the freelancer bills by the project or the hour. Inviting them to unnecessary meetings or not having a clear idea of what you want them to produce leads to freelancer frustration. 

For project-based rates, it directly hits their margin on the project. For hourly freelancers, it will either get very expensive for you, or the freelancer will trim the billable hours off the invoice to stay within cost expectations. Either way, you've made your project less economically attractive. Requiring unproductive time from the freelancer also hits them with an opportunity cost: it soaks up bandwidth they could give to a new client or project.

We get it—sometimes you aren't sure exactly what you want or what the freelancer needs from you to meet project goals. That's fine if you address it head-on. Here are a few options:

  • Detail the project scope and objectives prior to signing an agreement to clarify these issues. The freelancer can price the project accurately, and you can feel good about what you'll be getting from the freelancer.

  • Ask the freelancer to set the strategy and propose solutions. I recently onboarded a new client that needed case studies. After working together, she decided she wanted me to write blog articles too, but she didn't know what would make suitable topics. Could I help with that? Of course. Topic analysis and ideation is a paid service, and she was thrilled to know we could collaborate in that way.

  • Ask the freelancer if you've provided what they need to complete the work. This could be background materials, resource contacts, clear deliverable objectives—whatever the freelancer needs to deliver exceptional work.

This is definitely a two-way street. As freelancers, we also need to speak up if we feel like we aren't getting the tools or information we need from the client to deliver quality work. We're not serving our clients well if the unproductive time is unproductive because we're grumbling quietly to ourselves instead of asking for what we need.

Tips for a mutually beneficial relationship with freelancers

Start with your mindset: the freelancer is a business owner and a service provider—you're their client. Here are a few ways this mindset will show up in your relationship:

  • Create a contract specifically for freelancers. Don't make some changes to an employee or large vendor procurement contract—it won't work. It will probably be much longer than it needs to be and include a ton of stuff that doesn't apply. If you edit an employee contract, you may leave in language or clauses that create ambiguity. When you put together the freelancer contract, structure it to reflect the nature of the relationship. For example, don't write a non-compete clause that bars the freelancer from working with another organization that "may become a client of Company," or require prior approval over other clients. Have tight confidentiality and non-solicitation clauses, for sure, but don't expect veto power over who else we work with. (P.S. I'm not giving legal advice; talk to your lawyers whenever you draw up contracts.)

  • Create separate workflows for freelancers. Don't shoehorn freelancers into employee workflows, like onboarding or how additional work gets assigned. Taking a freelancer through a new employee onboarding can be awkward and intrusive. Why do you need an emergency contact number? Let's skip any HR videos. Document your freelancer onboarding, so it's very clearly separate. 

  • If you want to "assign" work as needed, sign a retainer agreement. If you don't have a retainer agreement, you can't assume the freelancer is available to take on additional projects for you—but certainly ask. The freelancer will likely be happy to come to a mutual agreement on how to expand the scope of work.

One way freelancers and employees are similar

I'll share some inside tea: a freelancer will stay with a less-than-ideal client for only as long as it takes to replace the client with a better one. This is part of the fun flexibility I mentioned earlier.

Employees may have less flexibility to leave since they'll take a bigger immediate financial hit, but they do leave. This is where employees and freelancers should be read the same way. Experiencing a lot of churn in your employees and freelancers adds unnecessary costs to your business and, yeah, it might be you.

Freelancers are energetic resources, who offer substantial contributions and flexibility to organizations—use us well and wisely.

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