Hiring freelancers: How to deal with knowledge workers

Whether you are hiring a freelancer, or are a freelancer yourself, this one’s for you.

I have always detested the term ‘freelancer’. It tends to conjure up images of the starving artist/actor/musician, the techie with social problems, or a ‘liberal arts’ graduate with illusions of grandeur — figuring themselves the Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson of our generation. I’ve used the term here because it is widely accepted and applied, but I prefer ‘knowledge worker’. Whether they are self-employed, contracted to other companies, or are full-time employees looking for an additional income stream, is inconsequential. What matters is that they are being hired, one way or another, for the skill set/s they provide.

I ‘freelanced’ at the beginning of my career, and have worked with increasingly larger teams of freelancers over the years. I know that the hours they put in are long. The material, and briefs, they deal with are often convoluted, sometimes incoherent, and constitute what many a full-time employee wouldn’t dream of touching.

People who contract freelancers are not always aware of the hours a freelancer needs to, and is probably ‘expected to’, put in. So, what are the differences between a typical full-time employee and a freelancer in terms of a seven-day week? Have a look at Figure 1. Let’s assume that a full-time employee works eight hours a day and gets the recommended eight hours of sleep a night. They probably spend two hours (an optimistic and conservative estimate) commuting five days a week. Their week looks like this: 33. 3% is spent sleeping, 23.8% is spent working, 6% is spent commuting, and 36.9% is spent living life.

Now let’s look at the hours a freelancer works (again, a conservative estimate). I’ve assumed that they work from home, or somewhere that has a minimal impact on their time (they are usually paid by the hour, so every minute is precious) — commute time has, therefore, not been included. I have also assumed that they work eight hours, seven days a week, and that s/he is asleep for the recommended eight hours a night. Their week is thus roughly divided into thirds: a third is spent sleeping, a third working, and a third living life. If we accept these estimates, the freelancer works approximately 10% more per week than the average full-time employee.

I remember one of my employers telling me that freelancers are there to be exploited. According to him, their services are subject to supply and demand: “These people don’t determine their worth — we do”. That never sat well with me, and I said so. I never entered into agreements with people who felt that a job was not clearly explained before they embarked on a project. How could I justify giving a half-baked brief or floundering project to someone knowing they would probably spend a third of their week working on it?

Sure, most freelancers are accustomed to the hours and the demands, but you do need to warn them that a project may require working longer hours. Consider the following before hiring a freelancer:

1) Draw up a fair and simple contract. If you include too many strangleholds, ludicrous demands, non-negotiables, or punitive measures, who is likely to sign it? Your legal department, or a legal professional, will deal with clauses pertaining to patents, intellectual property, and copyright, but you should have a basic understanding of how to read and understand these clauses in order to field any queries.

2) Chances are the person you are hiring is a seasoned professional.They are not necessarily going to be open to renegotiate fees once a final amount has been decided upon. You should send them a sample of the work and a detailed brief before they sign any agreement. Better yet, send them an idea of what you are looking for and a detailed brief.

3) Be sure of your budgets and deadlines before you contact anyone. If you say one thing and then do another, or renege on your initial promises, you do not seem trustworthy.

4) A negotiation is a negotiation. Be fair and realistic. If you only have xamount in the budget, state this upfront. If you need to have something by a certain date, emphasise that the deadline is immoveable.

5) Remember that you are dealing with people. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are great, and sometimes things go horribly wrong (a car accident or emergency operation). Build in fat with regard to deadlines and expect life to happen.

What, then, are the responsibilities of freelancers? If you are a freelancer, you need to insist on a few things, and you need to honour certain things too. What these are will vary from project to project, but the same over-arching principles apply:

1) Speak up if you feel exploited. You don’t have to immediately assume the worst if you have taken on a project that is vastly different to the brief you have been given — but you do need to express your concerns as soon as possible.

2) Log your hours. This is a good way to measure how long it takes you to complete given tasks, and will assist you in providing a reasonable hourly rate.

3) Go through any contract carefully and note and discuss any irregularities you are uncomfortable with. Now is the time for clarification, and you can turn down a job with ease if you have not yet signed anything.

4) It’s a good idea to see what reputable associations, affiliates, and organisations offer support for freelancers. Most offer industry-specific support in what can sometimes be a lonely and tough business, particularly if you are just starting out.

5) Grow your network (co-working spaces are a great option to support you with this), and recommend people — they will pay it forward sometime! Know a great project manager, programmer, or graphic designer? Say so, and pass on the relevant details! Don’t look at people in the same industry as competition: They are probably the best allies you have — if they can’t take on a job guess who they are going to suggest if you do the same?

Employers and freelancers are spoilt for choice when it comes to platforms which support remote and freelance work. FiverrFreelancerUpworkSimplyHired, are just some of the sites you can try. Knowledge workers are available in abundance, you just have to know how to interact with them.

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