“HR professionals, project managers, and entrepreneurs realise that they do not need to rely exclusively on their internal talent. Often, the same job can be done for a lot less money by a freelance virtual team without compromising on quality.”
Joseph Liu is a career change strategist and host of the Career Relaunch Podcast. The podcast features stories of how people discover what they really want in their careers, and how they ultimately pursue a professional path truer to their ambitions and values. Liu has a keen interest in the freelance economy, helping clients and business owners tap into it to build and relaunch their own personal brands as a way of making progress towards true career fulfillment. His work is informed by 10 years of global marketing experience managing consumer brands including Glad, Liquid-Plumr, Gü Puds, and Häagen-Dazs, his involvement with four major brand relaunches, and over 500 hours of professional career coaching.
I wanted to discuss the freelance marketplace with him – hiring virtual talent, managing virtual teams, and the contrasting ways of working of the corporate world and the so called “gig” economy. In this interview, Liu shares his views on new ways of working, the emergence of new team structures, and the impact of freelancing on relationship management.
Gloria Lombardi: How do you access talent if you want to tap into the freelance economy?
Joseph Liu: From a platform perspective, there is a global pool of talent that you can access online quickly. For example, one of the most popular platforms out there is Upwork. Another UK-focused platform is PeoplePerHour.com. There are thousands of businesses that are currently using those platforms – they can hire web developers, designers, writers, or virtual assistants. They search for the talent they are looking for, and can hire the right person for any particular project in minutes.
On those platforms, independent freelancers market their services. Those types of spaces are often called labor platforms – they provide services online – as opposed to capital platforms – which provide goods online.
Another way to tap into the freelance economy is through crowdsourcing. Platforms such as CrowdSPRING, DesignCrowd, and 99Designs are good examples. The purpose of crowdsourcing is to access the largest pool of talent to work on a a contest for a project. It allows you to simultaneously work with multiple individuals or teams and discover who has the best ideas. So, for example, I can post a brief that says that I am trying to develop a new company name and logo. I get multiple people from multiple countries and with multiple perspectives trying to come up with a name for me. I pick the best idea for me and work with the best designers. I only pay them once I select the design. In this type of situation, the freelancers have an incentive to give me their best design and I have an incentive to be as clear as possible on what I am looking for.
GL: What sort of challenges emerge from those ways of working?
JL: The biggest challenge is finding reliable and accountable talent. The opportunity to access different people around the world is great. At the same time, it is hard to find the right person with the capability, passion, attention to detail, and interest in your project.
If the project does not go well, you are not going to hire that person again. The worst that can happen to a freelancer is to get a bad review, which happens often.
So, the number one challenge is finding people who have both the capability and the work ethic to be someone you want to work long-term with. Sometimes people are not always honest about their skills and unfortunately that may not become apparent until you are halfway through a project with them.
GL: Which skills are required to manage a virtual freelance team?
JL: You need to be very good at communicating. The objectives of your project need to be clear. What are the parameters of your project? What are the must haves versus the nice to haves? Often, you work with people who you have never met or seen, or maybe even spoken to. So, your communication skills have to be really strong because you don’t have that face-to-face relationship building opportunity.
GL: Could you share some tips for improving communication with virtual freelance teams?
JL: Spend some time upfront getting very clear about what you want before searching for a person to help you with it. You would be surprised by how many project leaders and entrepreneurs who go to a designer or a creative artist without being clear on what they are looking for. It is worth taking the extra time upfront, even if you are eager to get started.
Also, be clear on what you would consider to be a success. For example, if you’re doing a design project, communicate how you define “great design” through examples or clear criteria. That way you have some clear metrics of success.
Be sure to use some digital tools to facilitate communication and collaboration with the freelancers who are not in your time zone. There are plenty of examples – from Trello and Asana for project management to Dropbox and Google Drive for file sharing to Slack for communicating with multiple people in multiple locations in one central platform.
GL: Contrasting the ways of working between corporate companies and the freelance economies, what are the main differences that need to be emphasised?
JL: The expectations of the workplace structure as well as the workday. Generally speaking, the traditional corporation tends to be more structured whereas the freelance world is all about freedom. Freelancers want to be able to work whenever they want; wherever they want. The regularity of the corporate workstyle – 9 to 6 Monday to Friday – differs greatly from the flexibility of the freelance world.
The freelance world is also less about planning and more about doing. There is a bias for action when you work with freelance experts – they want to get to work, they don’t want to spend too much time on planning. So, you should do the planning on your own — when you involve the freelance team, it is about doing.
Another key difference is around team structures being physical versus virtual. In the corporate world, there tend to be more in-person relationships among teams – it is very likely that you work in a physical office space with your colleagues around you. In the freelance world, it’s mainly virtual. For example, I have never met most of the freelancers I’ve hired – if I get the chance to meet them it is a real luxury because I hire people all over the world. For example, for my podcast, my brand designer is in Bulgaria; the person who wrote the music for my podcast is based in Italy; the person who did the script writing is based in London; and the team who developed the website is based in India.
The benefit of having a virtual freelance team is that you have unlimited access to global talent everywhere – with a few clicks, anywhere in the world; the boundaries are completely gone. That is incredibly empowering. However, the problem is that those teams are not always as integrated as they might be within a corporate. In the corporate world, you tend to have more integrated teams, perhaps every few weeks getting together as a one big team. In the freelance virtual world, teams can be disparate. So, it takes a lot more effort to ensure that everything you do is aligned, considering the different freelancers you are working with. It is harder because those people don’t work purely for you; they don’t report to you; they are helping you with one project and when it is finished they are done.
Finally, in the corporate world your performance is judged, mainly, through an internal valuation. Whereas in the gig economy it is all about public feedback – it is about external equity and what other people say about you.
GL: But of course, the corporate world and the freelance world have also started to merge, for example with some freelancers entering large enterprises for specific assignments.
JL: Yes. HR professionals, project managers, and entrepreneurs realise that they do not need to rely exclusively on their internal talent. Often, the same job can be done for a lot less money by a freelance virtual team without compromising on quality.
GL: How does the blurring of corporate and freelance life impact on the ways of managing a team? In particular, what’s the impact on internal communications when the enterprise interact and build relationships with freelancers?
JL: You have to be able to multitask more effectively. You are not only managing your internal teams but also people who don’t work solely for you. It is really important to make sure that you are crystal clear on what is it that you are trying to accomplish. This goes back to my earlier point: things can get lost in translation. So, it is very important to have some sort of unified vision and agree on the parameters that your team and the external freelancers are going to operate within. I always recommend having a brand guideline document to to guide and unify any communications.
Also, you need to make the freelancer feel as involved and as integrated with the team as possible.
If you are an outsider, you might feel that you are not really part of the team. People do their best work when they understand why they are doing it – when they have a meaningful mission.
So, the more you can move people from just getting a task done to being part of a broader mission, the better.