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This is the third post in a series about how to thrive amid shifting workplace demographics.

The U.S. freelance workforce is currently 53 million strong and growing fast, according to a recent report from the Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk. In fact, freelancers make up 34 percent of our national workforce. As Sara Horowitz, executive director of the Freelancers Union, writes, “This is an economic shift on par with the industrial revolution."

Some managers will groan at the thought of the increasing freelance population. They may think of freelance employees as difficult employees. But in fact, the growth of freelancing opens up just as many new opportunities for employers as it does for workers: The so-called "gig economy" can expand your talent pool, empower a mobile workforce and allow your company to finish projects faster.

That's not to say managing freelancers is the same as managing full-time employees. Yet, effective HR teams and managers already have the skills to integrate freelance employees effectively; they just need to understand the common problems that occur when working with freelancers. Then your organization can put helpful protocols in place before things get tricky (and know how to handle the situation if things do go awry).

Here, three common challenges companies face when working with freelancers and how to address them effectively.

Challenge 1: Communication

When it comes to freelancers, you are managing people who could be working at a desk, poolside or on an airplane. Clear and consistent communication between the freelancer and his or her manager is needed for this arrangement to work. If not, both parties will become frustrated and tasks that can be done quickly will end up being delayed.

Follow the four tips below to avoid communication mishaps.

  • Set email protocol in advance
  • Schedule all checks-ins in advance
  • Establish a system to recap meetings
  • Track projects in an easy way for both you and your freelancer

Challenge 2: Collaboration

When bringing a freelancer onto a collaborative project with full-time employees, it's important to identify everyone's role on the team. If no one knows who is in charge, or who is handling the operational aspects, you'll not only have work fall through the cracks, but work being done twice — a waste of everyone's time. In addition, the entire team dynamic will crumble and the project will suffer.

One of the most effective ways to ensure positive collaborative environments between freelance and full-time employees is by using a “GRPI" model, an approach to team development created by the Systemic Excellence Group:

  • Goals: Managers need to make sure that all members of the team, whether working in-house or freelance, know the end goal for their work.
  • Roles: All workers need to know the role they play on the team, as well as the role their team members play.
  • Processes: Managers should be open to shifting the plan when needed — an effective process for completing all projects takes time and flexibility.
  • Interactions: Managers should maintain organizational culture when interacting with employees who do not work in-house. We’ll take a closer look at how to do this below.

Challenge 3: Culture

Organizational culture is dynamic. With a team that is split between the office and elsewhere, culture can easily begin to take its own form, whether you like it or not. As the centerpiece of culture among your organization's workforce, managers and HR can make a tremendous impact. These three tips will help maintain organizational culture with freelance workers:

  • Keep culture in mind during the hiring process. Don't just hire freelancers for their skills or portfolio, but make sure to ask questions that measure their cultural fit as well.
  • Model the desired culture through your own actions, behavior and communication style with freelancers.
  • Integrate freelancers into the organization: virtually pair them with a seasoned employee, add them to company-wide meetings or newsletters and, if possible, invite them to work at the office during the project.

The freelance workforce isn't going anywhere. It's one of the four major workplace trends organizations are currently facing, in addition to Baby Boomers retiring, women leaving the workforce in droves and minorities becoming the majority of the workforce. Managers and HR teams that take time to work with freelancers will benefit from collaborating with diverse employees, and help the organization as a whole as it enters the future of work.

Stay tuned for another post in this series on changing workplace demographics next month!

Photo: Creative Commons