Freelancers are practically everywhere nowadays. According to freelance website UpWork, there are 55 million freelancers in the United States, 35% of the country’s total workforce. Between 2000 and 2014, this segment has grown by 500%. In fact, ask around the circles of millennials and some of their younger counterparts, and you’ll find that many are open to the opportunity. Whether you like the idea or not, the freelancer/gig economy is here to stay.

With a trend like this, it becomes inevitable that you will be working with at least a few freelancers when you’re in an industry that relies on digital in some form or the other (and let’s face it, almost everyone needs some kind of digital in their businesses nowadays).

This whole system of using a network of freelancers isn’t a new concept but it’s certainly not a practice mentioned often in management classes. At least not yet. I’ve been on two sides of the spectrum in the gig economy, being a freelancer myself for a couple of websites, and now handling freelancers to produce content for our clients. And I can tell you that even companies who explicitly pride themselves on having a network of freelancers don’t always manage them as efficiently as they could.

Taking all this into account, I’d like to offer the following suggestions to those of you looking to utilize this freelance ecosystem effectively for your own business goals or are currently finding yourselves having a difficulty managing your company’s freelancers.

1. Define clear roles and responsibilities

This may seem like a no-brainer but based on experience, it’s something that’s still quite frequently forgotten by employers.

From the very beginning of the relationship, it’s best to define as much as possible how you’ll divide and conquer the work with the freelancer. Answer questions like: What do they need to do and how often to they need to do it? What materials will you be providing them with to complete the job?  Is there a format or some guidelines they need to follow? How often will you be reminding them of deadlines? Who will they be reporting to? What happens when they don’t complete the work on time? etc. etc.

If necessary, clarify with the relevant clients and parties details you are unsure of. And if there are things that are subject to a flexible schedule, be upfront about it too.

Make it a conversation that allows both parties to understand the abilities and limitations of one another, so you can minimize the possibility of anyone being taken by surprise by sudden workloads and tasks. Of course, not everything has to be set in stone but try to be as succinct and as detailed as possible, so you can start a foundation for structure.

2. Have a main point of contact

I’m sure many of us can relate to situations where we’ve had questions or problems but didn’t know who to talk to in order to get the answers we need. That’s exactly how a freelancer feels when they haven’t been given a specific person to talk to.

The main point of contact should be responsible for keeping up with what the freelancer is working on, its progress as well as any queries that appear along the way. This way, you don’t have to keep reading through a backlog of messages to understand the situation and freelancers don’t have to keep explaining to people what’s been happening on their end. In situations like this, people end up spending precious time playing catch-up instead of actually moving forward on the project.

But if you have someone responsible for understanding the situation in its entirety, all you have to do is ask them if you ever want updates on the project’s status.

3. Create systems to follow

Once you’ve defined roles and responsibilities as well as the main point of contact, it’d be good to define a clear chain of command and create standard operating procedures in getting the work done.

Tell your freelancers the appropriate methods of communication, where they can find the materials they need and where they need to submit their work. Optimally all these things should stay the same throughout the project, so everyone doesn’t have to keep scuffling around trying to find what they need. You may also consider providing a timeline of deadlines or some sort of calendar that freelancers can easily refer to so you don’t need to keep reminding them all the time. Let them know where they fit in in the bigger picture and the possible steps they need to take to complete their assignments.

This will save them time from figuring out what exactly they need to be doing, and will save you from having to be reactive to every single situation that comes up.

4. Enforce boundaries

Let’s face it. There will be times when work isn’t on par or complete by the deadline, but that doesn’t mean that you should complete it yourself without letting the freelancer know what they did wrong and what they need to improve. As someone employed by your company, they have a responsibility to produce work that is in line with your expectation and on time. And as an employer, it is also your responsibility to communicate what you need.

Talk to them, try to understand their situation and see what both sides can do in order to make things more efficient for everyone and to prevent the same hiccups from happening in the future. And if it seems like the fault largely lies on the freelancer themselves, be clear about the consequences of their actions as you see appropriate. Some may be reluctant to confront these issues for fear of ruining professional or even personal relationships with their freelancers. But having these conversations is extremely important because the sooner you correct mistakes, the faster you’ll get to having a more streamlined process.

5. Never over-rely

Not all freelancers are created equal. Occasionally, you’ll have superstars who are very committed to giving the very best quality and are very particular about their work.  But other times, you may find yourself with freelancers who are more concerned about getting the work done, regardless of how it turns out. Regardless on which side of the spectrum they’re in, they can be just as likely to suddenly go MIA because of other commitments or simply because they have no more interest in the job. That’s just how it is, especially with remote workers.

During these times when freelancers are not available, someone needs to pick up the slack and it can be tiring scrambling through your contacts and social media profiles looking for someone else to do the job. Freelancers are generally affordable in terms of money, but when your business is essentially running on their work and they’re not available when you need them, it gets pricey on your peace of mind and the company’s overall flow of progress.

So unless you know you’re working with truly committed freelancers who prioritize their work for your business, save yourself the stress and anxiety by hiring someone full-time who can quickly make up for any work your current inventory of freelancers may have to drop. Or at the very least, create some sort of backup plan ahead of time.

By applying some of these suggestions in handling freelancers who work for your projects, hopefully you’ll be able to make things easier for everyone involved. I know I personally look for the above qualities when scouting for potential freelance opportunities and highly appreciate any company that tries to be as systematic as possible. I’m sure many other freelancers, especially those who do this as a side gig, would appreciate that as well. 🙂