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It’s a great time to be (a freelancer) in HR

— General HR

It’s a great time to be (a freelancer) in HR

Together with Lesley Arens from #ZigZagHR, we gathered eight experienced HR freelancers around the table, independent HR experts who are part of our freelance community. They bring an average of 30 years of experience in HR and beyond and a clear vision on why it is such a great time to work - as a freelancer - in HR. We bring you a synthesis of a remarkable, animated and above all, insightful roundtable discussion...

Employing freelancers is one of four strategies that organisations use to optimise the flexibility of their workforce and their crucial adaptability. This is what we learn in the white paper Flexing your Workforce by Professor Katleen De Stobbeleir and researcher Evelien de Ferrerre of Vlerick Business School. Working with freelancers is no longer an exception, not even in HR. In 2018, SD Worx, together with Antwerp Management School, also investigated the flexible deployment of talents:

95% of the interviewed organisations employed freelancers and a majority of them had at least 10% of their workforce made up of freelancers.

And yet... when we talk to Belgian employers, we invariably hear that they still prefer permanent staff. About 50% of the vacancies are filled by permanent employees, 30% by retraining their own employees and 20% by flexible workers.

At the same time, nobody denies the importance of freelancers. Unmistakably, they form a talent pool that is not only important to accommodate fluctuations in work volume, but that is also attracted to specific expertise, both in the periphery and in the core of organisations.

Who wants to work as a freelancer?

A court jester? Yes, but he/she chooses consciously for that statute.

Today, freelancers are more important than ever, partly because more and more professionals consciously choose a freelance career, and partly because of the shortage on the labour market. Try and find specific expertise. You can find it, for example, among seasoned experts, although that should not cause any misunderstanding regarding the age of the freelancer. Also, the fact that there are mainly experienced professionals around the table does not mean that freelancing is a professional career path for people over 50. That time is long behind us. More and more young freelancers have not even worked a single day as an employee. Today, more and more professionals consciously choose a freelance career because the flexibility they have in mind is not possible in an employee status.

The freelance community has thus become much more heterogeneous.

And that community has also weathered the corona crisis well. The assumption that many freelancers today, would choose a safer status is certainly not confirmed around this table. There will always be a risk-averse population and a population looking for challenges, we hear. Some people just need security.

Not everyone wants to become a freelancer, and they don't have to. But it is necessary to continuously invest in your own development and to ensure that you have a USP as a professional, so that you remain attractive on the labour market.

Choosing a freelance career is a personal choice and depends for some on their stage of life and career, and sometimes on the economic climate. One thing we must not forget is that both freelancers and employees must take ownership of their own careers and seek their own happiness. However, experience has shown that employees adopt a (too much of a) wait-and-see attitude, limiting their development to training that remedies what they are not so good at. If you never jump to another role, you miss out on numerous growth opportunities. Freelancers on the other hand are more future-oriented with their career and make more conscious choices.

From the research of Antwerp Management School we also remember that freelancers especially want interesting job content and freedom in their work. They want to be able to choose and combine. And they do not want to go back to an employee status:

You go through life more light-footed, as if you have ballet shoes on. Because you are not part of the structure. That ensures that you can put all your energy into the project and not into the internal debate.

And did you know that in the French courts the court jester was the only one who could criticise the king? The court jester could go against the prevailing views without being punished for it. In that sense, he had a high social status and a special social position. As a freelancer, you also take on this role...

Who wants to work with freelancers?

Fewer and fewer objections, more and more advantages

Especially the culture and people vision of a company determine whether or not to work with freelancers. Risk assessment also plays a role: for some companies, long-term knowledge building and knowledge transfer are so important that working with freelancers is strategically not considered the right solution.

Yet this objection is heard increasingly less: you can indeed bind freelancers to your organisation and solve the problem of knowledge building and transfer by including clauses in the collaboration agreement. Companies will (have to) follow the market: if you want to attract and retain talent and expertise, you will have to explore this option.

How do HR freelancers value HR today?

Three tips for HR

And how do our specialized freelancers think about HR itself? Not an empty question, because they too have a lot of experience and have had to face the most challenging projects. What does it show? The challenges for HR have remained the same in recent years, regardless of the type of company or sector: human relations in a company are still the most crucial factor for success. We distil three lessons from their findings.

Lesson 1: Ask the right questions

HR is too slow to change its own habits. An example? For years, we have been measuring the efficiency of recruitment by mapping out the lead time: how long does it take to fill a vacancy? A much more interesting question is to find out whether that recruitment was effective. Is that person still on board 6 months later and is he or she living up to expectations? We stand at the front door shouting to bring people in, but perhaps the back door is wide open.

Lesson 2: Take the manager with you in the bathtub

We spend a lot of money jogging together and eating fruit, but it's only excitement in the job that keeps people engaged. And that's what a manager has to feel partly responsible for, through coaching leadership and letting people stand on their toes.

"Recruiting people is so important that I would never outsource it to HR", the late Chris Van Doorslaer (former CEO of Cartamundi) once said. In other words: the HR Manager may be the manager of the HR department, but the real HR Managers are the people managers. So the key to meeting the challenges does not lie with HR alone.

The big challenge is to get the responsibilities that are now often placed with HR more in the hands of line managers, so that they realise that attracting, developing and retaining employees is just as much their responsibility.

Lesson 3: Get to work

We have been talking about the same challenges for 30 years, but we are not doing enough about them. We need to exchange ideas and discuss what we can do, and we just need to get started. Now!

The consensus around the table is that HR currently has three urgent projects to tackle.

Project 1: From buy (short term) to make (long term)

All companies are looking for the right talent and this goes hand in hand with a greatly increased workload for the employees who have to keep the ship afloat. But in their search for that talent, companies mainly focus on the external labour market and try to entice talent with particularly attractive employment conditions in the hope of poaching them elsewhere. A better alternative would be to abandon this short-term approach and focus on training the talent they already have in-house.

There is too much short-term trading, which puts us in a bidding market.

Project 2: Start with the why and back it up with data and figures

We must rid HR of its woolly nature. Terms like soft HR certainly don't contribute to that. Still too few HR Managers have data savviness.

To make a business case, you always have to start with the why, but then you have to back it up with figures.

Project 3: HR needs to do more marketing

It is certainly possible to find the right employees when you know how to tell an inspiring, clear story. HR doesn't take on that role enough yet. After all, it's not the same as employer branding...

Participated in this Round The Table:

  • Host: Tama Heps, Matchmaker HR Talents
  • Jo De Cock
  • William De Plecker
  • Jan Glazemaekers
  • Stef Stevens
  • Martine Van Campenhout
  • Linda Vandevelde
  • Els Van Holderbeke
  • Dominique Vosse

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Every organisation’s goal is to have a clear strategy. A strategy that is supported by its employees. A strategy that its customers feel in the customer experience they get. And yet many companies struggle with their strategies. Convincing and motivating employees to really support their company strategy remains a challenge for them. Why is that?

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