Business management

Supplementing your SME workforce: using freelancers

With tips and insights from SME owners, we explore the benefits and challenges of outsourcing work to freelancers.

These free agents vary massively in specialism, covering everything from traditionally freelance-friendly fields like journalism and photography to areas that might be less obvious, such as marketing and IT.

Their skills will likely play a large part in helping small businesses across the UK to return to full strength post-lockdown, so if you haven’t considered using them before, now could be the perfect time.

With numerous benefits to tapping into this diverse talent pool, here are three big ones to consider…

1. Flexibility without the overheads

For London-based design agency Evolve, outsourcing has kept overheads down without compromising capacity.

“We regularly hire freelancers to cover a range of tasks, from graphic design and copywriting to web development,” says senior account manager Carla Pia. “We use them to expand our workforce based on what our clients need at that time.”

“This works for us as we don't have to worry about having a large office with massive overheads – we have a core team of five and can pull in trusted reinforcements as and when we need them. That allows us to be incredibly flexible.”

2. Fresh perspectives

Rebecca Middleton, managing director of PR firm Middleton Davies, says freelancers help to keep her internal team fresh and enthusiastic. “We love working with freelancers who have an energy and enthusiasm for their work, so we always look for that first,” she says.

“We’ve been lucky to work with some great people, and it helps to know that we can call on them again and again, but it’s not all about the specific tasks they do for us. Many have constructively challenged our own ways of thinking and doing things – we love learning from them and value that outside perspective massively.”

3. Swift access to great talent

Permanent hiring is a long-winded process full of interviews, notice periods, inductions and training – but a freelancer will be good to go when you need them. They’re used to moving between clients and should be able to apply their valuable experience to your projects without any real delays.

This swift and straightforward route to industry expertise is a big selling point for Tom Etherington, operations director at Newcastle upon Tyne-based Evolved Search. “Freelancers have helped us in various business areas over the years, from client strategy and payroll to marketing and communications,” he says. 

“This kind of outsourcing has given us quick access to senior-level expertise across various business areas, as each person we've enlisted to help us already has a successful career and lots of relevant experience and knowledge; that helps them to get started quickly and make an impact from the off.”

Maximising your freelance investment

As with any type of recruiting, there are right and wrong ways to go about hiring and using freelance workers. Overcome the pitfalls, however, and you should be well on your way to increased efficiency, agility and flexibility. The following tips will definitely help.

Learn how to brief

A freelancer’s work will only be as good as the brief you give them, so be sure to take responsibility for that part of the exchange. This is the advice of Jay Lee, who’s been using freelancers to help get his new online training business, uAcademy, off the ground after he lost his job in the early stages of lockdown.

“A strong brief is imperative,” he says. “You need to make sure that the freelancer fully understands what you want from them by asking them to confirm the brief to you and to explain how they will move forward with fulfilling it. This is to prevent any issues in the future and ensure the job is completed in line with everyone’s expectations.”

As for what details to include, Sarah Roberts, marketing director of John Cullen Lighting, recommends “a background of your company, the target audience, your USPs and a deadline.”

Treat external workers like your own

Keep strong relationships with your freelancers and they’ll be more likely to work hard for you both now and in the future.

“If there's one piece of advice I would give, it’s to treat freelance staff like any other team member,” says Mark Webster, co-founder of Authority Hacker. “I've seen so many cases in the past where people assume just because they're a freelancer they can be treated as an outsider to the point where they're not even allowed to get involved with group discussions that they should be involved in.

“In our case, we invite them to join our internal communication channels, we actively ask for their input and ideas and we treat them like actual human beings – this may seem like a given but I've seen many people take the opposite approach, treating freelancers like disposable assets.”

Explore your freelancers’ varied skill sets

The freelancers you recruit may be able to help you in more than one way, so don’t be afraid to ask what they can do. If you already have a trusted relationship with a particular person, working with them in different capacities could save you time.

“Ask what other services they provide and see if you can utilise their skills in other areas,” advises Matt Dowling, founder of Freelancer Club. “Freelancers are generally well versed when it comes to remote work, client management and communication – learn from them because these ‘soft-skills’ are now highly valuable attributes in the new world of work.”

Get the details down on paper

Contracts are important, even if you’ve worked with someone before or have hired them because of a personal recommendation, and it’s vital that everyone signs before any work begins.

“To legally protect yourself and your freelancer throughout the project, your contract should cover topics such as confidentiality, copyright ownership, time frames, working locations and payment,” Middleton says.

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