Actually, the event occurred in the U.K. I think U.S. freelancers have yet to be honored with a designated holiday. But, mark my words, this new iteration of entrepreneurship is already redesigning the employment landscape. For associations seeking minimum risk with maximum impact, this pool of unencumbered talent could represent the next growth spurt.

Surprising Statistics

The Freelance Revolution, my recent presentation during the ASAE meeting, described the phenomenon dubbed workforce 2.0 (AKA the gig economy) and outlined some of the surprising related statistics. A 2017 Annual Freelance Survey conducted by Upwork found that:

  • Nearly 50 percent of millennial workers are already freelancing
  • 36 percent of the U.S. workforce is currently freelancing and contributes $1.4 trillion to the annual economy
  • 7.8 million Americans will work on-demand by 2020

At the current growth rate the majority of U.S. workers will be freelancers by 2027. How can associations leverage the tsunami of on-demand workers who will soon flood the economy? Based on my consulting experience, most associations prefer to innovate in baby steps. There are actually still some organizations that don’t have a remote work policy. Others have procedures in place but are reluctant to abandon the timeclock and brick and mortar office space for a more fluid style—let alone routinely hire freelancers to handle important projects. Whether you view the freelance revolution as liberation or tyranny may depend on your vantage point and your association’s culture. Following are some issues to evaluate when you consider how freelance support might improve your game plan:

Probable Benefits

  • Specialization—You can find and hire a freelance expert in almost anything. Talent pairing platforms are springing up like mushrooms. There are sites dedicated to IT, communications, design and a myriad of other skills.
  • Commitment—Freelancers are entrepreneurs. They need to be at the top of their game on every job. As the customer, you are their priority for repeat business.
  • Scale—If you want to expand product lines but not your footprint, freelancers might be the ticket to that growth.
  • Geography—Can’t find a 3D designer in Indianapolis, try Ireland or India. Cloud computing, file sharing, and teleconferencing make remote work seamless. Freelancers in another time zone can be working while U.S. employees sleep.

Possible Boondoggles

  • Scheduling—Successful freelancers are in demand. Your perfect meeting planner may be so good that she’s too busy to manage your next big event.
  • Status—Be prepared to prove that your freelancers are contract employees. If you are in doubt about the regulations, the IRS will set you straight. Click here for the rules.
  • Continuity—If you’re seeking to build relationships with members or preserve organizational memory, freelancers may not be the best choice.
  • Time—Projects that require significant onboarding, training or supervision are probably not appropriate for freelancers. On-demand workers function best when they can hit the ground running.

Cultural Shifts

When my business partner Kevin Ordonez and I were interviewing CEOs for our recently released book, Association 4.0—Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption, we profiled 18 forward-thinking leaders. Some of those executives were beginning to make the cultural changes that are conducive to a freelance workforce. Others were already diving deep into alternate employment strategies.

Stuart Meyer, former chief at the National Barbeque and Grilling Association, made the bold move of taking his entire organization virtual. Meyer, who is an enthusiastic proponent of innovation in the workplace describes his reasoning like this, “Sacred cows are the greatest threat to how we run associations. How we define our management and operations practice, and how we work must evolve rapidly if our organizations are going to continue to be relevant. We must stop the punch-clock mentality and the belief that if we let staff out of our sight, they’re going to be doing anything other than working. As we move toward the future, I believe we’ll see a continued rise of independent ‘fractional’ freelance association professionals splitting their time across multiple organizations working on very focused and defined activities and objectives.”

A more skill-based style of project management is fundamental to the freelance culture and can be an asset to both organizations and employees. When resources are allocated according to ability and interest everyone comes out a winner. Peggy Winton, President and CEO at the Association for Intelligent Information Management says, “My personal goal is to make opportunities for the future leaders at AIIM. Our organization had been pretty tall and top-heavy. To change that, we came up with a structure that allows for on-demand project work in blended, cross-functional teams. It’s a way to use people’s best talents regardless of their department or responsibility.”

Winton also notes that this skill-based, collaborative model is the way millennials prefer to work. “The success is shared. Nobody feels like they have the entire profit and loss resting solely on their shoulders.” Although Winton’s example applies to full time employees, it illustrates the type of cultural shifts that are needed to integrate freelancers into an organization.

Successful Adaptation

An important lesson we learned in conducting the interviews for our book is that organizations weather change successfully when they are willing and eager to adapt. A virtual office may not be in your future. But the fluidity and focus that this new workforce represents should influence how you utilize current staff. The freelance revolution is well underway. It’s past time to get on board with the benefits of this new resource.

Additional reading: