More of us are either becoming contractors, or having to hire and/or manage contractors. Despite this, it’s very rare to hear of an organisation supporting line managers to operate within this new framework.
Many organisations assume that line managers will know how to manage contractors or freelancers. They assume it will be less challenging than managing permanent staff and, on that basis, don’t provide any guidance. In many cases they are right – it can be a less fraught relationship to navigate – but it can also be a high-stakes one.
There is huge demand for contractors with specialised skills. In many cases they are more valuable to an organisation than most of their permanent staff. One contractor we know has been so integral to the success of his client that he’s been placed the organisation’s key-man risk register.
The first thing that line managers need to understand is what motivates each individual contractor they are managing. Recent research indicates that money is still the biggest motivator for contract workers, but contract workers still want many of the same things that permanent staff want, like recognition, challenging work, a supportive manager and a team environment. There is however one thing that contractors value more, and that’s building a network to secure future work.
A line manager needs to find out what makes a particular contractor tick right from the beginning of the relationship. Is this person contracting because they were made redundant and hope a contract position will lead to a permanent role? Are they contracting because they are very independent and loathe being micromanaged? Are they contracting being they are super task-focussed and have no interest in making friends or getting drawn into office politics? Are they contracting because they have a child with health problems and need flexible hours?
Knowing what motivates a contractor is essential to meeting their needs and giving them a positive experience of the workplace – the sort of experience that leads them to sign up for a second contract in another part of the business or recommend the organisation to fellow contractors.
Getting this information is exceedingly easy: managers just have to ask “What are you hoping to get from this position and how do you prefer to work?”
Contractors also appreciate managers being clear about their expectations. They want to know exactly what they are expected to deliver and when. Managers should provide a clear brief, preferably in writing. They should also give contractors background information and context for the project – no one likes working in a vacuum. A manager should schedule a briefing meeting for the contractor’s first day, as well as arranging for the contractor to meet with key team members and project stakeholders. By the end of his or her first week, the contractor should know exactly what they need to do, why they’re doing it and who to go to for information or advice.
Finally, we’d encourage managers to make contractors feel part of the team. Treat them like people – not machines. Invite them to lunch, give them feedback about their work and introduce them to key people in the organisation. (None of these things need constitute ‘employer-like behaviour’ from a compliance point of view.)
A good contractor can make a huge difference to the performance of a team, and even the wider business.
Equipping managers to work effectively with contractors to get value from them – and give them a valuable experience in return – is a no-brainer for any organisation that relies upon contract labour.
Unfortunately, one of the most powerful things that managers can do to improve their performance – and that of their teams – is something most of them are loathe to do: have regular career conversations with their people.
In fact, Right Management’s comprehensive 2015 study of the issue found that only 16% of employees report having ongoing conversations with their managers about their careers. Unsurprisingly, Right Management also found that employees desperately wanted to have these conversations and would be significantly more engaged with their work, and far more likely to stay with their employers, if only their managers would stop avoiding the subject.
Which brings us to the question of why managers are so committed to not having these important conversations. In our experience there are a range of factors at play:
- Managers don’t consider career development to be their responsibility. They figure that individual employees can sort out their own careers, or ask HR for help.
- Managers aren’t confident about having these conversations. They haven’t been trained to have them and fear raising expectations they can’t satisfy or being asked for pay rises or promotions that will cost them.
- Managers aren’t incentivised to have these conversations. In the absence of real pressure – or reward – it’s easier to avoid the discomfort that comes with talking about potentially sensitive subjects.
So what can organisations do to change managers’ minds? We’d suggest four things:
- Provide training on the subject. Give managers the guidance they need to start a dialogue with their people, which will help them build their confidence and skills.
- Make it clear that having regular career conversations is a key part of a manager’s role and that managers will be held accountable for it.
- Make sure that managers know what the organisation offers in terms of career development opportunities. Managers need to be empowered to offer transfers, training and other development opportunities to their people. They also need to be encouraged to come up with creative budget-friendly ways of developing staff.
- Encouraging employees to push for these conversations. We recommend offering employees training on the subject to ensure they too feel confident to talk about their careers.