Work is changing. It’s no longer about a job for life, a single career or even your own office. Today’s workers are increasingly global, mobile and flexible. In this context, the rise of the independent or freelance worker over recent years has been no surprise.
To understand what freelance workers bring to the workplace, we, at the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute, conducted a study of over 33,000 workers in 26 countries. The study considered a number of essential workplace factors, including engagement, job satisfaction, innovation and collaboration. Here’s what we found:
Independent workers are more engaged
Employee engagement is a critical HR goal, since engaged and satisfied workers perform better than others. Our analyses revealed that independent workers are more engaged than most employees—and have greater pride and satisfaction in their work than even high-potential employees.
Independent workers are more innovative
Not only are independent workers more engaged, they are also more innovative than most employees, according to our study. However, high-potential employees still remain the most innovative of the three groups we studied (high-potential employees, independent workers and other employees). One of the ways enterprises are revving up their innovation engines is by establishing innovation teams, often combining internal and external collaborators.
But independent isn’t always ideal
Our study found that contract workers demonstrate collaborative skills that are comparable to most employees, but they are less collaborative than high-potential employees.
Although this lag in collaboration for freelancers could be due to a number of reasons, it can be counteracted through the use of collaborative technologies that enable teams of freelancers and other employees to work together more effectively. According to the IBM Center for Applied Insights’ Charting the Social Universe study, one of the top ambitions driving companies to adopt social technologies is improved collaboration.
What’s driving independent worker satisfaction?
As you might expect, autonomy—control over when, where, and how you work—is a fundamental differentiator between independent workers and regular employees, and is also a necessary condition of an intrinsically motivated workforce. The desire for autonomy is what attracts people to freelance work, and what freelance workers enjoy most about their arrangement. But interestingly, the control that independent workers have over their work is similar to that of high-potential employees. While independent workers are likely to come by their autonomy by side-stepping organizational hierarchy, high-potential employees are likely to be given leeway by their managers who trust in their capabilities.
What this means for organizations
Organizations will need to decide on the best make-up for their own workforce; however, our independent worker study does provide new insights into the freelance perspective. As a result, organizations may want to consider broadening conversations about freelancers beyond cost factors. Freelancers may be not only flexible and cost-effective resources, but also inherently engaged, satisfied and innovative workers.
However, we should also acknowledge the challenges of enlisting freelancers. Study findings indicate that they are less committed, even when they are in a long-term contract. They are also less likely than high-potential employees to work with others toward common goals, share information freely, reach decisions by consensus and resolve conflict.
Understanding your best workers, whoever they are, is a critical step in improving worker and organizational outcomes. To learn more, read the full IBM Smarter Workforce report, Your Best Workers May Not Be Your Employees: A Global Study of Independent Workers.