Creating an Employer Brand for Freelancers

As organizations turn to blended teams to achieve business goals, executives must demonstrate that freelancers are a valued element of their workforce. Jon Younger, founder of the Agile Talent Collaborative, explains how to create an effective employer brand for agile talent.
5 min read

Employer brand statements—sometimes called employee value propositions—are widely used in industry. LinkedIn, for example, describes employer branding as a key tool in attracting and retaining top talent, and recently pointed out that 59% of companies reported increasing their investment in employer branding.

The U.K. startup HR consultancy Talentsmoothie.com defines a well-crafted employer brand as follows:

“… describes the mix of characteristics, benefits, and ways of working in an organisation. It is the deal struck between an organisation and employee in return for their contribution and performance. This ‘People Deal’ characterises an employer and differentiates it from its competition.”

When effectively composed, an employer brand communicates a “give and get” contract based on three commitments between company and employee:

  • What the organization stands for, its values and priorities.
  • How the organization will provide you, the employee, with a superior work experience.
  • Your contribution to the organization: what the organization expects of employees in return.

But employer brands are not only for salaried employees. In this article, we’ll review how to create and live an employer brand that appeals to freelancers, providing organizations with a durable advantage in the competition to attract the best agile talent.

Branding Helps Attract Top Agile Talent

As employer branding grows in importance, the shape and composition of the workforce is also changing. Organizations are increasingly reliant on a blended workforce that incorporates temporary or project based freelance experts doing strategic work. These freelancers—we call them agile talent—enable organizations to scale rapidly despite challenges in attracting top technical and strategic resources.

Startups, for example, rely on agile talent to “even the playing field” as they compete against more mature, well-known or well-funded competitors. Executives in a recent survey reported in Agile Talent cite the advantages of access to unique expertise, cross-pollination (learning from agile talent’s experiences in other organizations), cost and headcount savings, and speed as benefits of a blended workforce.

But top freelancers are typically sought after and highly competitive. Like outstanding full-time candidates, they too have the challenge of deciding between multiple opportunities. Employer branding plays a vital role in enabling companies to better attract and retain high performing agile talent.

Some savvy executives understand this, particularly those leading high tech firms for whom technical excellence is part of their identity. For example, while intended as a more general statement, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg offered one of the first attempts at agile talent employer branding several years ago:

“We want Facebook to be one of the best places people can go to learn how to build stuff. If you want to build a company, nothing is better than jumping in and trying to build one. But Facebook is also great for entrepreneurs/hackers. If people want to come for a few years and move on and building something great, that’s something we’re proud of.”

What Top Freelancers Want

To build a compelling employer brand for agile talent, it is vital to understand the qualities that freelancers prioritize in client organizations. Based on our observations at the Agile Talent Collaborative, here are some of the most important criteria for a successful freelancer-client relationship:

  • Good employer reputation
  • Challenging, meaningful work
  • Continue to build and demonstrate expertise
  • Collaborative workplace
  • Flexibility; ability to manage work-life balance
  • Fair, respectful administrative treatment (contract, payment, reasonable administrative requirements)

By defining an employer brand that highlights these attributes—and most importantly, embodying the best practices in day-to-day collaboration with freelancers—organizations can maximize their chance of attracting the best agile talent.

Case Study: Adapting Airbnb’s Employer Brand to Attract Agile Talent

AirBnB needs no introduction: in the last ten years this “unicorn” has become an internet star. AirBnB’s employer brand focuses on three qualities:

“Move Fast. Every engineer deploys on their first day — and every day after that too. We practice continuous deployment so we can quickly try out new ideas and iterate on existing product features, and we love experimenting with new technology if it’s right for the job. Not only do we ride the cutting edge, we make it…our engineers regularly present at conferences around the country.

“Learn Together. We believe that engineering is a continuous process of learning and improvement, and that the best way to learn is by getting help from your fellow engineers. All of our engineers hang out in chat rooms so that we can keep informal knowledge sharing flowing — and because coding is more fun when you do it together. We host regular tech talks, both internal and external, so that everyone gets a chance to become the best at their craft.

“Pixelwax. That’s our word for the dedication and craftsmanship we bring to our work. For us, engineering isn’t just a job but a practice that we want to perfect. We aim to keep our systems modular, our code clean, and our documentation clear, and we follow the idea of leaving things better than how you found them. It’s not just about the code — putting the right processes and tools in place to make developers happy and efficient is important to us because it gives us the time to focus on polishing the product.”

Now imagine that AirBnB management decides that, in order to continue to grow and perform, they must rely increasingly on a blended workforce. This would not be an unusual decision. In a recent HR executive workshop we conducted in the Bay Area of San Francisco with CSHRP, HR leaders estimated that freelancers would play a growing role in their future workforces. While high-profile behemoths like AirBnB are able to attract top candidates, both mature enterprises and startups often lack the resources and reputation needed to recruit sufficient numbers of highly skilled and experienced engineering and other resources.

Given the precedent set by companies that use employer branding to engage full-time candidates, how might these same companies define an employer brand for the freelancers on whom they also rely? Keep in mind the key attributes, discussed above, that freelancers seek in partner organizations. Perhaps the following statement would do the trick:

“Building high performing teams is critical to the success of our business, and we depend on great talent to build those team. We will provide you and other freelancers with an experience that excites you and makes you a better professional. Whether you are with us for a month or a year, we want your best efforts to aid us in moving fast, learning together with our community, delivering an experience that makes you feel a real part of the dedication and craftsmanship we bring to our work, and your full commitment and engagement in meeting our goals.”

There are many ways to state this employer brand for freelancers. It’s the message that counts; remember, this is a contract, not an advertising pitch, so mean what you say. Furthermore, the real test is not just meaning it, and certainly not saying it, but truly delivering on the covenant you make with freelancers, as we will discuss in greater detail below.

When Your Organization Lacks an Employer Brand

Many organizations, particularly young companies in the early stages of establishing a cohesive culture, lack a strong impetus to create a meaningful employer brand. However, even when your company or division hasn’t articulated the “give and get” contract with full-time employees, an employer brand for freelancers is still a useful tool. There is no “right” format for how an organization chooses to express its employer brand for freelancers.

What’s necessary, as we mentioned earlier, is a clear statement expressing what the organization stands for, its values and priorities; how the organization will provide you, the freelancer, with a superior temporary or project work experience; and your contribution to the organization: what the organization expects of freelancers in return in terms of performance, reliability, internal relationships, and confidentiality.

Making the Employer Brand Real

As we suggested earlier, an employer brand is a commitment, a promise to provide a specific experience. Composing and communicating the brand is only the first step.

Five areas of organization and process make or break the quality of relationship that an organization has with top freelancers. We introduced these factors in our recent whitepaper The Future of Teams: Managing the Blended Workforce. From the perspective of an individual freelancer considering or engaged in a project, what matters most?

From the freelancer’s perspective, the most important factor is the authenticity of the employer brand. We know from the advertising industry that false promises are usually discovered and costly to the brand. The same is true in employer branding. For example, a study by LinkedIn Solutions found that significant gaps between the assertions of the employer brand and the reality of employee (or freelancer) experience proved costly in a number of ways: higher pay was required to attract candidates, and fewer candidates were interested in the company.

The clear message: It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. In determining best practices for managing agile talent, we find it useful to view freelancers as customers of your organization. Bain consultants Katrina Bradley and Richard Hatherall recently suggested a series of principles for gaining customer loyalty. Three of these customer-centric principles fit nicely in considering the ability to attract top freelancers:

  • Examine the experience from the outside in. Bain reminds leaders that the intended experience of customers – or freelancers in this case - should drive decisions about structure and process, not the other way around.
  • Meet customer expectations consistently. The obvious message: it's not enough to depend on occasional success. Leaders must establish a baseline of consistent performance in building effective freelancer relationships.
  • Differentiate where it matters most. The organizations that are best at attracting top freelancers are those that understand their most important needs best. For example, many organizations withhold freelancer pay until 60 or even 90 days after the freelancer invoices. Exploiting freelancers to manage cash flow is a fool’s errand, considering that reliable income is one of the highest priorities expressed by agile talent.

Concluding Thoughts

A few years ago, research by Towers Watson found that organizations that meaningfully invested in their employer brand were five times more likely to report highly engaged employees, and tended to report financial performance above competition that invested less in their employer brand. The survey also found that most organizations fail to achieve these results because they lacked a long-term plan to support the employer brand. That is, their actions were not consistent with the promises of the brand.

Organizations in all industries and geographies are dealing with an significant change in how they resource, and many have chosen to respond by shifting to a blended workforce. Doing so, however, requires organizations to place greater emphasis on creating the conditions for attracting top agile talent as well as excellent full time resources.

The starting point for success in this endeavor is defining and implementing a meaningful employer brand for agile talent. As organizations turn to a blended workforce to achieve their business goals, executives will need to focus on demonstrating, through words and action, that freelancers and agile talent are a critical and valued element of their total workforce.

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