Play the Agile Talent Game … and Win

Think of your best freelancer: She’s hardworking, dependable, and respected—and bursting with potential you never thought to tap. Until now.

By John Younger

The workplace of tomorrow will likely be filled with empty cubicles. Not because of the pandemic or corporate downsizing, but because the agile talent revolution is real and growing very fast. By 2025, 68 percent of the workforce may be agile and on demand, according to a Randstad USA survey of 4,500 executives and workers.

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That means full time and freelance workers side by side or, more likely, communicating across cities and even countries. What’s the key to keeping your remote talent happy in an age when health insurance and corner offices won’t move the needle?

Professors Brook Derr and Ed Schein have developed a framework called the career orientations model that identifies what people are looking for from the work they do. To benefit from freelancers’ experience and expertise, you’ll need to consider their five orientations.

Orientation #1: Getting Ahead

Some freelancers are motivated by advancement and seek upward mobility. They’re eager to rise and motivated to climb quickly. They choose assignments and build working relationships that help them grow in reputation and obtain attractive advancement opportunities. But here’s an important note: This doesn’t necessarily mean a full-time role. In fact, most often it won’t.

Orientation #2: Getting Secure

Some freelancers are eager to feel a sense of belonging and reciprocity from their organizations. They’re motivated to make important contributions to help them develop stability and income security.

Orientation #3: Getting Free

Many freelancers seek self-direction and choice in when, how, and with whom they work. They’re looking for independence, autonomy, and opportunities that allow them control over work processes, schedules, and especially creative freedom. Because they’re good at what they do, they’re in high demand—and will gravitate to employers that empower them.

Orientation #4: Getting High

Some freelancers want change and variety in their assignments. They’re always looking for a new challenge. They prefer cutting-edge opportunities and doing new things in exciting and unconventional ways. They’re easily bored, often impatient, and hunting for companies with a strong track record of innovation and change.

Orientation #5: Getting Balanced

Freelancers want to work in flexible organizations that allow them to invest in interesting and challenging work. At the same time, organizations and managers shouldn’t lose sight of why these individuals decided to enter the freelance world in the first place: to have more time for family, personal interests and hobbies, community activities, and the demands of children or elderly parents.

In Exchange, Look What Freelancers Can Do for You!

If you can give your freelancers the experiences they seek, they’ll pay you back in myriad ways. A great freelancer can provide enormous value to your team and organization beyond his or her job duties. Here are six hidden areas where your agile talent can help the rest of your staff grow.

Area #1: They Can Coach Across Functions

In a survey by Success Factors, less than half of millennial workers felt their manager provided the developmental support they sought. Rather than depend on a single supervisor to show them the ropes, millennials can benefit from multiple mentors to provide important coaching in specific areas. 

Your freelancers who work with internal team members on a regular basis are prime candidates to provide this kind of support on the job.

Area #2: They Can Mentor Executives

General Electric was recognized as being one of the first companies to connect top-performing millennials with executives in a “reverse mentoring” relationship. Freelancers who are skilled in new, important areas of technology are obvious candidates to provide reverse mentoring to executives. 

This doesn’t need to be an overly formal process. An occasional hourlong conversation between a senior manager and top freelancer with real expertise and deep experience may mean the difference between success and failure in a technical project or business initiative.

Area #3: They Can Do Peer-to-Peer Training

Peer-to-peer education is a natural avenue for freelancers to expand their contributions and build a deeper relationship with their organization or team. For example, a freelancer who wants additional income security will be eager to build long-term internal relationships. 

Facilitating or leading a training event is a good way to meet people and build a reputation as a competent and amiable colleague.

Area #4: They Can Serve on Boards

Shell Oil and 3M were early adopters of technical review boards, while P&G has used a similar approach that they call innovation boards. In both cases, external experts are invited into organizations to help R&D or technology executives assess a particular program or investment. 

While teams and formality may be essential for large-scale evaluations, mini-technical reviews are an interesting way for your best freelancers to weigh in on opportunities for improvement that haven’t been previously considered.

Area #5: They Can Identify Best Practices

Best practice identification is typically a process where internal staff members go outside the organization to learn what companies are best at a particular activity, and then study them to both understand and adopt (or adapt) their practices. 

But we know a major reason for using agile talent is the ability to learn from their experience. Too often we forget to learn from our freelancers, and instead obsess about their time, costs, and task productivity.

Area #6: They Can Help You Recruit

A LinkedIn report on recruiting points out that cohort referrals or professional networks are particularly robust sources of freelance and full-time employment. Are you engaging your best freelancers to help your team or organization attract the best talent?

Jon Younger is the founder of the Agile Talent Collaborative nonprofit, coauthor of Agile Talent, and a leader and consultant in talent strategy and human resources transformation.