20 Dec. 2017 | Comments (0)
It’s your job as a manager to make work meaningful for the members of your team. But what about the freelancers with whom you work? Have you stopped to consider how they’re finding meaning in their careers?
We answered this question by interviewing freelancers in a wide range of industries — from tech to advertising. And what we found in our interviews was an interesting reinforcement of our prior work on employer branding and agile talent. The freelancers’ answers about what made work meaningful for them mapped to these six drivers:
- Advancement: Moving up, seeking status and responsibility
- Autonomy: Independence, seeking choice and flexibility
- Balance: Time for what matters, seeking achievement and enjoyment
- Service: Social contribution, seeking to make the world a better place
- Variety: Development, seeking new opportunities to learn and grow professionally
- Affiliation: Community, seeking membership
Here’s a quick sampling of what we heard:
When we asked Jen, a U.S.-based expert in advertising and public relations, where she found meaning in her work she honed in on balance and autonomy: “First is balance. As a mom to three kids, having the flexibility to work during the hours that I am not with them, on the days that I want, is really important to me. But autonomy is a close second. I like to have control over my work schedule and actually find I work better at home with intermittent meetings. I want to be able to sink my teeth into a project, without dealing with office politics and the constant interruption of new projects that need immediate help. I want ownership of my work and my life.”
While Jen chooses her work based on its potential to provide balance and autonomy, Usher took a different focus. Usher is a Canadian anthropologist who recently retired after a career of university teaching and advising provincial governments on the social impact of major infrastructure projects on rural and native Canadian communities. For him, personal meaningfulness was best found in variety and honing his craft. As he put it, “What excited me about social impact assessment was the act of getting my hands dirty; deliberately entering a situation of social conflict and using my skills at applying the best knowledge from the social sciences to solve problems.”
Christine, a Danish social scientist who recently left university teaching in Copenhagen to start a career in organization development, emphasized service: “My freelancing has always swung from a deeply felt urge to serve when and where needed. As a result, I only agree to do work that I believe will directly deliver value and will help client organizations work more confidently and more capably as a result of our work together.”
In our interview, Charles, a U.S.-based software developer, focused on affiliation and the importance of feeling part of a community: “The meaningfulness of a project for me comes down to sharing in the product owner’s objective and success. When that happens your work is naturally appreciated day-to-day and over the long term. When the project is finished you can reflect and see the value that you delivered. Seeing your work in the wild and powering a business, which is of course a group of people, is very rewarding.”
What’s the takeaway from these personal stories? Get to know your freelancers and tailor their work experience to what matters most to them. Here’s how:
Before they even take the job, ask “What are the conditions for you to do your best work?” You may be surprised to learn that even a small amount of flexibility will go a long way, for example. They may be caring for a disabled child or an elderly parent and need a position that offers balance or autonomy or both.
Provide opportunities for job sculpting. The concept, introduced by Timothy Butler and James Waldroop, allows people to make small changes to a role or assignment to better tap into an individual’s skills, experiences, or work preferences so that they stay engaged. While initially applied to full-time employees, the concept is equally valuable when working with top freelancers. For example, for freelancers who are advancement-focused, the chance to publish their results or to talk at a conference may make the difference between a lackluster experience and one that leads them to speak glowingly about your company.
Check in and offer feedback. Research led by our Agile Talent Collaborative points out that project leads who manage freelancers don’t give enough specific feedback. In addition to providing freelancers with positive and constructive input on their performance, managers should also check in about the freelancer’s satisfaction with the project and the team. A useful question might be: “How well are we providing the conditions — the environment and relationships — for you to do your best work?”
We know that freelancers are becoming a larger force in organizational performance — a recent global study by Toptal (with which we are both affiliated) found that 91% of organizations depend on external experts, from software developers to cultural anthropologists, to provide assistance. It’s time for organizations to both recognize and act in concert with this reality. Organizations that want to retain their best people make employee meaningfulness and satisfaction an obvious priority. But they shouldn’t stop there. Organizations that create the conditions for freelancers to also do their best work will ultimately attract the very best external talent.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 12/08/17.