Are you protecting your ecosystem?

Mercer recently published a solid think piece about learning development trends. They observed seven key trends, as shown in the diagram below.

We particularly liked that they included ‘ecosystems’ in their model because we’ve noticed that contingent workers are frequently overlooked by organisations designing L&D or career development programs. (The term ‘ecosystem’ usually describes a network of people that an organisation interacts with in order to tap into as-needed talent, e.g., contractors, freelancers and consultants.)

There is growing demand for quality contingent workers as organisations get leaner and more dependent on technological innovation to compete. And yet, very few organisations do anything to attract, retain or engage members of their ecosystem, other than offering them more money. This is despite the fact that research shows that contingent workers want many of the same things as permanent workers, including feedback and professional development.

Why is this the case? Basically, because most organisations’ people-management culture and infrastructure lag behind reality. In many companies no one is accountable for managing the contingent workforce in any meaningful way. Over-stretched line managers might have nominal responsibility for the contingent workers they bring on, but they are unlikely to invest time or budget in developing people they view as more of a commodity than an organisational resource. An arms-length relationship suits them just fine.

Systems too are an issue. Many contingent workers don’t have access to company networks, and are shut out of learning systems as a result.

We have started talking to some organisations – including recruitment and staffing agencies – that want to change the way they manage contingent workers. Specifically, they are looking at giving contingent workers:

  • Some kind of formal onboarding so that they have context for their work and can form internal networks more quickly
  • Performance feedback, recognition and other forms of career development including being included in succession planning and global talent pools
  • Access to training and development opportunities via web-based learning systems.

This last point – the space where we operate – is probably the easiest of the three to implement. Technology makes it possible to offer learning opportunities to almost anyone, from casual staff on the shop floor to independent contractors based overseas. And doing so sends a clear message: “We are prepared to invest in your development because we value your contribution”. Imagine how compelling this message would be if you were a contractor more used to hearing “We want you to deliver great work and then get out of here”…

What contractors want

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.