A Matter of EXperience: setting up for success with your freelance consultants
With freelancers making up increasingly large percentages of the workforce, is it time for companies to rethink employee experience?
Over the last few months, we’ve been gathering insights from senior consultants and experts in the Choix Network to understand more about the importance of EX for freelancers, what companies can do to improve it, and tips for the immediate steps that clients can take to set their consultants up for success.
What are the benefits of creating a strong talent experience for freelancers?
If you create a strong TX for freelancers, they’ll be able to hit the ground running faster and add value more quickly. They’re more likely to return / recommend others, and more likely to convert into a permanent role - or consider one down the line. They are also more likely to have the space / strength of relationship / understanding of the culture and vision, to be able to offer up additional insights, advice and feedback throughout the project.
Should the EX as a freelance consultant be the same as it is if you’re a permanent employee?
While it’s clearly best practice to have the same values and ethos underpinning approaches across the workforce, it’s likely that the specifics of EX will be different for different groups.
For example, offering the same long-term personal support and development to freelancers and permanent staff might not be feasible or appropriate. Giving freelance consultants the opportunity to engage with company culture however - by inviting them to participate in away days / socials / stand-ups etc. - though often overlooked, is generally both feasible and appropriate, and can make a tangible difference to the strength of a partnership, and to final project outcomes.
What can clients do right now, to set their freelancers up for success?
Onboarding / kick-off is as important for freelancers as it is permanent staff, but it often gets less attention. Clients often focus on ‘getting started asap’ - which generally translates as getting a consultant into the office, rather than laying the foundations for them to add value quickly.
Ideally, a consultant would begin a project with access to tech and the right stakeholders, and an understanding of the strategic and cultural context they’re operating in.
I’ve been in firms where there were large numbers of new long-term contractors brought on every week, all starting at different times. It was pretty chaotic and a lot of time was lost every week with people looking for documents, asking the same questions as the person who started the day before... While there is obviously upfront investment in designing an onboarding process, longer term it’s far more efficient.
Choix Network Member
What are your top tips for clients who want to create a great onboarding experience, improve partnerships with their freelance consultants, and ensure project success?
1. Sort out the tech!
If it takes weeks to get a laptop / email address / access to documents you’re losing value / potentially exposing your business to risk by having people use their own machines. Is it worth having them start later?
2. Prepare the internal ground
Internal perception is key to project success. Be transparent. Tell your company / the relevant teams in advance a) who is coming on board b) why - what are they here to do c) what they might ask / need from the team.
This could be as simple as circulating an email with a brief intro and a link to their profile - you could also encourage the team to say connect and say on LinkedIn. Convert the 'highly paid stranger here to tell me what to do' vibe, to 'ah ok, so they're an actual subject matter expert who's going to help the company and potentially, I could learn xyz from them too'.
3. Prioritise trust
You need to trust your consultants. And they need to trust you. Once trust is in place a lot of the other stuff will flow - you’ll spend less time managing in the long run, have a better platform from which to handle issues and friction, and you’ll create a stronger foundation for project success. If you’ve both communicated your expectations around trust, it will be clear when they’re not being met and you can take immediate steps to realign.
Think about what you need from your consultant to be able to trust them - ask them to do the same. Prioritise a discussion about trust; and stay close in the early stages of the project.
When I bring in a consultant, I put a lot of investment into their first week. I stay close to them, get regular updates on what they’re doing / who they’re meeting etc. This isn’t about micromanagement / lack of trust - it helps to build it! Plus there will always be things I have forgotten to tell them, things I haven’t written down, I’ll remember them in the moment or I’ll be reminded - oh you’re meeting x, you should definitely get thoughts on y…
Choix Network Member
4. Align on aims and requirements
You might have done this as part of the hiring process. Recap! Make sure you’re still speaking the same language. Make sure you both know and agree on what success looks like - that you have a North Star.
Talk your consultant through the impact the project will have on the broader business: how does it feed into strategic targets / the company vision?
Ask your consultant what they need - specifically, from you / from the broader team. You know the business - is there anything they’ve missed? Is there anything you can’t deliver on / don’t agree with? If there is, address this head on - have an open conversation.
5. Discuss ways of working
Like everyone, consultants will have a preferred working style - and it might be different to yours! Think about how you manage projects yourself, how you like to be communicated with / updated, what frustrates you etc. And share it.
The good news is consultants are highly adaptable, but it’s important to take the time for a thorough discussion of approaches upfront, in order to establish a clear, shared communication process and plan.
6. Invest in getting your consultant up to speed on the broader business context
We were on a systems integration project - our consulting team was effectively sitting between two clients - and we were told that we weren’t doing things the ‘preferred style.’ That was when we realised we hadn’t been inducted into the cultures / ways of working / vision of either firm. I think taking the time to properly explain these things often gets overlooked or is undervalued, seen as soft and irrelevant, but actually it’s vital.
Choix Network Member
No matter how senior, a consultant still needs to understand the broad landscape they are operating in: from how the project feeds into the overall business strategy / key targets, to standard ways of operating / managing projects, company values and culture.
They’ll also need to understand the more immediate terrain. Imagine you’re the consultant. Ask: if I was about to start this project, what would I need to know? Are there any obstacles / challenges / conflicting agendas? Who are the key stakeholders - when do they need to make contact? It’s a terrible waste of time for your consultant to spend weeks thinking in one direction, only to meet a stakeholder who says ‘oh we’ve done that already / we tried that last year and it doesn’t work.’
7. Include your consultants in the company culture
Loneliness is recognised as one of the greatest challenges for freelancers. People who feel connected and included are likely to perform better. If you think about how you can include / let your consultants experience the company culture, they are more likely to be able to pick up information casually / network more successfully - again this can have a direct impact on project success / deliver additional benefits.
On one of my recent remote projects, my client had a weekly bonding meeting. No business chat - it was all about weekend plans, other life stuff, dogs etc! It was a great initiative, because the social layer really matters and it’s easy to lose it when you’re remote. As a freelancer, I appreciated being included, it gave me a much more 3D feel for the people and helped to build solid working relationships. I felt welcomed - a genuine part of the team.
Choix Network Member
8. Take advantage of your consultant’s experience / fresh eyes
Look through your consultant’s CV / LinkedIn profile again, talk to them about their life, their past experience: get to know them.
And don’t worry if your consultant has more experience than you / has done your role elsewhere on a larger scale, a freelancer is extremely unlikely to be after your job, and it’s literally theirs to make your life easier and help you achieve your goals - so use this experience to your advantage! Is there any additional advice and experience that they can share with the company before they leave? Are there other projects where they can add value?
As a consultant I’ll always proactively flag things that I’ve noticed / ideas I’ve had for a client that go beyond my remit. This is almost always extremely well received and on many occasions has led to further improvements for a client. But I’m very rarely asked. So clients, actively open a space for discussion here, invite your freelancer’s POV and insights while you can!
Choix Network Member
And finally, if companies want to completely rethink EX for the freelancers in their blended workforces, where should they start?
When you have a clear sense of how freelancers are deployed in your organisation, you’re in a much better position to think clearly about creating an experience that supports them and helps them to achieve your shared goals. Stepping back and answering a few key questions is a good first step:
- What % of your workforce is freelance?
- How does this break down - what kinds of engagements are they working on?
- What are the volumes / seniority levels? Do you have, say, a few senior experts coming in throughout the year, or 50 contractors per week rolling onto a large change programme?
- Are your freelancers integrated into teams / solo operators?
- Do engagements tend to extend - might you have people rolling on for years?
- Do you often hire / would you like to hire permanent staff from your freelancers?
Then it’s about going to the freelancers themselves and asking about their experience - what works, what doesn’t, what else could or should be considered, and what impact would that create.
At Choix we help the buy and sell sides of consulting to better understand one another’s needs. If you want to talk to us about, or you’re looking to connect with our network of high quality freelance management consultants, please email firstname.lastname@example.org