There’s been a good deal of ink spilled in trying to explain “quietly quitting”. And, much consternation about how quietly quitting is a serious concern of many organizational leaders. Its prompted some executives to push employees to either participate more enthusiastically in their work and organization, or leave for greener pastures. Others go further and see quiet quitters in the crosshairs of staff reductions.
Interestingly, a number of pundits suggest increased reliance on freelancers as a way for organizations to avoid the productivity loss implied by the quietly quitting crowd, and reduce the distraction and pain of layoffs. Here’s the case they make.
First, the organization benefits by optimizing its use of full-time and freelance resources. Utilizing independent professionals in key functional or project areas establishes a more agile workforce, able to change and regroup quickly by staffing projects with the right mix of full-time and contract resources.
It’s also likely to be a more cost efficient solution, these pundits say, recognizing the cost advantage of fractional resources. It certainly provides greater choice. Using freelancers typically provides greater access to stronger talent than the organization might attract if only offering full-time slots. And, it reduces the pain of a forced layoff.
Second, it benefits the quiet quitters who, pundits say, may see freelancing as an attractive alternative to working for a single employer. This, after all, is one of the narratives supporting the great resignation: The awakening of employees to the attraction of a freelance career path that offers greater flexibility and similar or greater financial reward.
In fact, over 80% of full-time professionals in a recent survey would seriously consider a freelance career but for three concerns: income volatility, loss of attractive benefits, and fear of loneliness. For some quiet quitters, pundits say, a freelance career path might be a better fit.
So does freelancing, or open talent, solve the quiet quitting problem? The answer is no. And yes. And no.
Let’s start with the idea of quietly quitting. Or, what Gallup calls unengaged. Their surveys demonstrate that, at one end of the spectrum, about a third of employees are actively engaged in their organization; highly motivated, enthusiastic, and willing to invest discretionary time beyond 9 to 5. Slightly less than 20% are at the other end. They are actively disengaged, individuals who in Gallup’s terms are “not just unhappy at work – they are resentful that their needs aren’t being met and are acting out their unhappiness. Every day these workers potentially undermine what their coworkers accomplish.”
The remainder, about half the full-time workforce, are unengaged, neither actively engaged nor destructively disengaged. They are “psychologically unattached to their work and company. Because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they’re putting in time – but not energy or passion – into their work.” That’s quiet quitting. Remember the number: Half the workforce according to Gallup’s extensive surveying.
What drives engagement? Actively engaged employees feel rewarded and recognized. They experience their manager as accessible, actively involved, and interested in their development and well-being. The workplace culture is positive and supportive. And their work contributes, employees believe, to an organizational purpose they can get behind.
When those conditions are wildly unmet, says Gallup, organizations can reasonably expect more employees to be less engaged. Will freelancers solve that problem? Top freelancers have a different relationship to the organization. But one might reasonably assume that top freelancers, in significant demand, may well choose to leave poor managers or hostile work environments just as unhappy employees might. And, freelancers may find it challenging to do their best work in a troubled environment.
But, wait a second. It’s also a yes. Here’s why.
Freelancers do have a different relationship with an organization than employees. They’ve signed on for a project, not a career. They are probably working on projects for multiple clients over the course of a year, and so have a range of experiences that likely tempers their frustration with one particular client. They have signed on for a particular outcome so they know there’s an endpoint. And, because they interact with only a small portion of the organization, they are unlikely to experience the larger organization as fully or deeply as do full-time employees.
So the impact of a particular manager, or client culture, is less material to freelancers. Expectations are not so high because clients exist within a portfolio of relationships. Experienced freelancers, like good investors, understand it’s the portfolio that matters, not the gig. Regular employees, on the other hand, put all their chips on a single bet.
Freelancers also have a different motivation with their clients. They are motivated to do their best work – you could say actively engaged – because client satisfaction and strong positive feedback is crucial to their ability to obtain future clients and projects. That motivation is compelling and helps freelancers to experience management and culture as a lesser frustration than would full-time employees.
So, it’s yes? Well, wait a second.
Freelancers, like any independent business person, want good clients. We know quite a bit about that. It turns out that freelancers are most satisfied with their clients when six factors are in place:
- The organization knows how to work with freelancers, and has a respectful but clear philosophy on when to engage contingent expertise
- An effective on-boarding and performance system is in place: freelancers experience a clear scope of work, clear responsibilities and reporting lines, and well-defined deliverables, timelines, and compensation
- Client internal project managers are skilled in leading freelancers and blended teams and are invested in their success
- Freelancers are treated as full members of the team
- The organization is mindful of freelancers’ limitations in project staffing e.g., lack of access to protected IP
- Organizational administrators treat freelancers with respect and transparency, and pay freelancers fairly, fully, and on time
These six factors are crucial for freelancers, but also a good recipe for organizations in general. Managerial competence impacts freelancers and employees similarly. A productive team environment is important to freelancers just like employees. Culture influences the effectiveness of freelancers as well as employees.
So, again, no. Right?
When you add it all up, open talent is a powerful resourcing tool. Freelancers offer critical supplementary expertise. They offer an organization access to talent that may well not be available on a full-time basis, or an affordable cost basis. In fact, by shifting fixed cost to variable, open talent likely saves the organization money as well as adding experience and competence. But effective project management, teamwork, and positive culture are important to the performance of freelancers too.
Short term, freelancers can certainly jump into a tough environment and ignore some of the dynamics that might trouble full-time employees and lead talented people into quietly quitting. But the recipe for real long-term success, as Open-Assembly.com and other experts point out, and have shown with high performing organizations like UST.com, combines an open talent workforce with a strong managerial focus on the fundamentals.
Viva la revolution!