Firms tapping more on freelancers, but new challenges arise

Firms tapping more on freelancers, but new challenges arise
Photo: Reuters
Published: 10:45 PM, May 19, 2017

SINGAPORE — Sourcing for freelancers in the technology field used to be a headache for Mr Keith Chua, executive director of IT firm NTC Integration.

More often than not, he had to rely on word-of-mouth referrals. But not anymore these days: With online platforms such as IoTalents, Mr Chua can easily rope in gig workers when he has lots of projects on hand, or scale down during the lull periods.

“Projects are very ad-hoc, so when there’s a spike (in demand), and clients want the work (delivered) as soon as possible, this group of freelancers helps to address this (issue),“ said Mr Chua, whose team comprises about five to eight freelancers out of some 30 IT engineers.

Likewise, the new wave of gig workers in the labourforce is proving to be a boon for food-delivery service giant Foodpanda. With the team of delivery riders “more than doubling” each year, managing director at Foodpanda Singapore Luc Andreani said this helps the firm adjust to meet the demand and supply more flexibly and efficiently.

But a shift in the balance of power at the workplace - owing to the rise of the gig economy - means companies have to cope with a new set of challenges too. In contrast to an employer-and-employee relationship, the level of control is “much lesser” for independent contractors, noted Mr Andreani. “For our few full-time riders, we can decide when we would like them to work, such as during the lunch or dinner peak ... For independent contractors, they are free to choose when they want to work or don’t want to work ... so this is something we cannot completely control and poses some challenges in terms of planning,” he said.

Without familiarity with the freelancers’ personal traits and quality of their work, companies also have to take a punt on them. For instance, while some have the technical expertise and paper qualifications, they might lack relevant soft skills or the right attitude when dealing with customers, Mr Chua said. “You can get the job done, but customers might not like the way you handle them and it could impact our business continuity ... We can’t always (enforce rules) but just tell them discreetly what (to watch out for),” he said.

He pointed out that it may not make sense for his firm to invest in training of freelancers since they are only engaged on a short-term basis. To get around this, Mr Chua first puts them through simpler projects to assess them before offering them more complex projects.

Human resource experts said other concerns faced by companies include safeguarding intellectual property and confidential information.

Ms Audrey Chia, vice president of global solutions in Asia Pacific at Kelly Outsourcing & Consulting Group, noted that in some firms, organisational cultures, legal restrictions or HR policies could also prevent freelancers from being effectively integrated. Companies also need to consider the time and effort needed to train and assimilate freelancers into their organisations, she added.

Companies tend to train freelancers purely based on what they need to deliver for a specific project, noted Robert Half Singapore managing director Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard, who sees an increasing number of freelancers, or professional contractors as the industry calls them, with highly niche skill sets such as freelance IT security analysts, data scientists and financial controllers.

“Organisations have to realise they have to treat their independent contractors like their permanent staff to make sure they can integrate well too,” he reiterated. Retaining their knowledge is crucial as well, so that the key skills and processes can be passed on to future employees, he added.

Pointing out how Singapore is still very “conservative” in managing the gig economy, Ms Chia stressed that more needs to be done to “seamlessly integrate” freelancers into the workplace. For example, by including them in team or department meetings, talent and performance reviews, and learning and development programmes. This can help businesses build better relationships with freelancers, and spur them to perform better, she said.

“Companies here need to look at freelancers as complementary to their permanent workforce in driving business productivity and take a holistic approach towards talent management,” she said.

Apart from having an impact on companies at large, the rise of the gig economy will also have a huge bearing on the work of professional recruiters.

Mr Foo See Yang, managing director and country head of Kelly Services Singapore, believes that with the rise of freelancing, recruiters’ services may be more valued in future, especially when it comes to finding talent to fill high-end contract positions. According to data from Kelly Services, placements for such jobs — with salaries of more than S$10,000 a month — increased by 14 per cent between 2012 and last year.

Overall, there is an increasing trend for contract work across industries such as government, healthcare and life sciences, information technology, procurement, supply chain, and logistics, Mr Foo said.

Mr David Ang, capability and business development director of Human Capital Singapore. noted that recruiters can, for example, harness more sophisticated artificial intelligence tools to match workers to companies, by developing a more intuitive algorithm to mine information on potential hires.