More companies and nonprofits are turning to external experts, on a project or temporary basis, to tap into unique skill sets and experience that they otherwise might not be able to access, afford, or locate in their market. At the same time, more individuals are turning to freelancing as an alternative to full-time company employment. This blending of Internal and external talent can have huge benefits to the organization — cost savings, access to new capabilities, speed and flexibility — but having a blended workforce creates special challenges that most managers aren’t prepared to deal with. The increased use of external talent creates suspicion and generates concern and even resistance from internal employees, who worry about issues including:
- Is this the beginning of a reduction in force?
- Will I be replaced? Will my job be eliminated as a full-time position?
- Outsiders are often “hired guns” who don’t work the same way that we do or share our commitment to the organization. Will this impede our ability to achieve our goals?
- Will an outside expert’s skills or opinions be valued more than mine or other full-time employees’?
- Will they get to do all the new, interesting work?
When problems of collaboration exist between members of a team, whether they are internal or external, performance suffers. And when trust erodes between your employees and freelancers, your organization almost certainly will not be able to take full advantage of the expertise you’ve brought on to help your internal team.
To avoid these problems, organizations need to consistently build trust between internal employees and the contractors with whom they are expected to work. Here are five practices, based on our work with dozens of organizations, that can help foster trust and promote collaboration on your blended teams.
Clearly communicate your company’s blended workforce vision. We know that, in the absence of clear communications about change, employees tend to think the worst. In order to counter the misunderstandings that engender distrust, we encourage leaders to clearly define their longer-term vision for the blended workforce. Will the workforce be made up primarily of internal employees, with outside experts added only when necessary? Or will the organization regularly and structurally depend on external talent to augment their ability to do important, strategic work?
We are finding more and more organizations shifting from the first approach to the second. As organizations make this change, good employee communication is essential. A clear message helps shape how employees respond and helps to avoid misunderstanding, both inside and outside the organization. More than simply messaging, managers must think through and identify how they plan to keep top internal talent and to attract talent in future. For example, some years ago UBS Americas increased its use of IT freelancers, and it produced a worrisome level of attrition until the IT leaders recognized and addressed the communications gap.
Make employees part of the process of workforce design. One way to reinforce good relations between employees and external experts is to involve internal project managers and well-respected internal professionals in the shaping and execution of the blended workforce vision. If employees feel that their voices are heard, their input is reflected in the vision, and they have a deep understanding of the value of the model, they are much more likely to support it.
Employees should also be involved, where possible, when specific decisions are made to bring in external experts, both during planning and in the selection of specific talent to join the team. This is good practice whenever new team members are brought in, whether they are temporary staff or new employees, and it will increase the likelihood that you find talent that integrates well and has greater support from the team.
Look for more than technical expertise. Most organizations have defined the behavioral competencies on which they assess employees. We suggest that these competencies be employed in the selection, monitoring, and performance management of freelancers. By selecting contractors who may have different levels of technical expertise but similar behavioral commitment — for example, to good listening and communication skills, treating others with respect, cooperation, or punctuality and follow through — it will be far easier to establish trusting relationships between internal staff and external experts. Perhaps the most important factor to look for is whether the individual freelancer has a history of integrating effectively into teams, getting the job done well, and making a positive contribution to the skills of the internal employees with whom they’ve worked.
Ensure an effective onboarding process for freelancers. All freelancers should have a basic orientation, whether they are on-site or working remotely. Onboarding is certainly different and less in-depth for them than for full-time employees, but it’s no less important. We recommend using the following important topics and activities, allowing sufficient time for questions and discussion (half a day is usually enough):
- an overview of the organization, the project, and why it is important to the future of the company
- the culture of the organization and its implications
- the competencies expected of internal employees that are also expected of external experts working with the organization on a project or contract basis
- how performance is managed, for example, the frequency of performance reviews and the important factors in that review
- the unique expectations placed on freelancers
- typical examples of outstanding internal-external relationships, why and when the relationship turns sour, and what externals can do to avoid or deal appropriately with these situations
Give managers tools to build blended teams. Help managers get better at identifying and bridging the divide between internal employees and external professionals. There are a number of ways that training can provide meaningful insight on how to manage individual and team relationships in ways that promote harmony and team performance.
For example, through training, a manager might learn how to productively involve internal staff in interviewing and selecting outside experts. An early team meeting might engage internal staff in anticipating potential problems associated with a blended team and brainstorming solutions. A regular agenda item on weekly team reviews could include a discussion of how internal-external collaboration is working, what problems have arisen, and how effectively they are being resolved. And training will help managers become more thoughtful about how to invest freelancer time in making internal employees better, through training events, mentoring, or leading team discussions of innovative practices.
There is little doubt that freelancers are a growing and increasingly importance source of expertise, and that the shape of workforce is changing as internal and external professionals work together, whether sitting next to one another or cooperating remotely from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Whether proximate or remote, collaboration is essential and depends on a foundation of trust. The suggestions above are not exhaustive, but they are eminently doable and will set your organization on a positive path.