Connecting With the Independent Worker

Meetings must address the challenges presented by the rapidly growing number of freelance, contract, and remote workers

According to consulting firm Accenture, between 20 and 33 percent of the U.S. workforce is now composed of freelancers, contractors, and temporary workers, up from 6 percent in 1989. MBO Partners, a firm that services independent contractors and the corporations that employ them, predicts that number will grow to 50 percent by 2020.

And despite Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's highly publicized and debated decision to bring the company's many remote workers back to the office, telecommuting is still on the rise. According to a 2013 study by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, the number of employees who consider their home to be their primary workplace -- some 3.3 million -- has grown 80 percent between 2005 and 2012. Factor in people who telecommute part of the week, and that number grows to 13.4 million, according to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Taken together, these two trends represent a sea change in the way workers interact with each other and the companies that employ them. Remote workers can lose touch with co-workers and the broader company culture, while freelancers brought on for a specific time period or project -- whether they work in or out of the office -- may not have the time to build those relationships or connect with the company employing them well enough to see the bigger strategies and goals driving their specific assignments.

Considering that providing employees both an understanding of the "big picture," and a venue to network and build relationships with one another, are underlying goals shared by most corporate meetings and events, the executives who host and run them will have to account for and adapt to these changes if they want the meetings to achieve their goals. 

When it comes to remote workers, this is a concern that has reached the C-suite. According to a 2014 survey of chief information officers by IT staffing agency Robert Half Technologies, nearly one-third said the greatest challenge of managing a remote workforce is communication, due to of a lack of face-time. 

"As remote work arrangements become increasingly popular, managers are often concerned that camaraderie and collaboration could suffer due to lack of regular, in-person interaction," says John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology. "Even senior executives in a technology-forward department like IT can feel disconnected from remote teams because of limited face time with staff and lack of visibility into how work is being accomplished."


The Camaraderie Challenge
As an analytics company that primarily serves the institutional investment community, eVestment is one of those technology-driven companies that is very comfortable with the videoconferencing tools used regularly by remote workers, says Heath Wilson, the Atlanta-based company's co-founder, who oversees its international business, including operations in Europe, Asia, and Australia. With only half of its approximately 250 employees based in Atlanta, the firm uses these tools frequently, he adds.

But it also has a two- or three-day annual meeting in Atlanta for all employees at the end of the year, Wilson says, noting that this is something the company has done since it was founded in 2000 with four employees. 

"Our annual meeting is an opportunity for colleagues to see each other, and to meet in many cases -- we've been on a high-growth trajectory for a number of years, so it's often the first time we get to put a face to a name," Wilson says. "But more importantly, it's an opportunity for us as a leadership team to set out the vision and the mission and the strategy for the next year, to make sure everyone understands the direction of the firm, and can rally behind our goals and objectives for that year. Along the way we have a lot of fun, we have parties and other events that make it more of a social experience."

Having worked in London for a number of years, Wilson adds that he has firsthand knowledge of how difficult it can be for remote workers to keep up with everything going on in a company. 

"While we function well day-in and day-out, getting everyone together from all over the world has a significant effect on the camaraderie of people who may email colleagues across the world on a regular basis but don't have that face-to-face interaction with their teammates," says Nanci Lamborn, eVestmnet's head of global human resources. "People can work more effectively with each other once they form a relationship."


Familiarity Leads to Trust
That's something even proponents of virtual meeting technology agree with. Debra Dinnocenzo, a consultant and author who's firm, Virtual Works!, trains employees, teams, and leaders to effectively communicate and collaborate in virtual work environments, says, it's not necessary for people to have met face to face to work well together. What is necessary, she says, is familiarity -- getting to know co-workers on a personal, social level. 

"Teams are more successful if they have worked together in some way or know something about each other," Dinnocenzo says. "The reason is that familiarity is a critical component of trust, which is fundamental to all good working relationships. This is a huge challenge for people trying to incorporate more freelancers."

In a virtual environment, she suggests exercises that replicate face-to-face encounters, like opening a virtual meeting 10 minutes early and allowing (or even telling) participants to chat, or create a list of things the team wouldn't know about each other, and try to match the fact to the person. 

"Face to face is great, if you can do it. It's going to make it better, provided you think about how to leverage that time," she says. "If you are doing it, make sure you are doing events or exercises, even if they're a little structured and forced, that get people to know each other better as quickly as possible."

One of these techniques that eVestment used in its 2013 annual meeting was assigned seating, notes Lamborn. "I thought it was especially effective," she says. "At first people were like, 'Wait, this is a little uncomfortable,' but it was actually quite effective because the assignments put together people who probably would never have chosen to sit together because their teams didn't interact very much." 

The company also mixes up the work sessions with entertaining speakers, ranging from triathletes to stand-up comedians, Wilson says. The main business day of the meeting begins with all employees gathering in the companies' offices at 9 a.m., but there is no formal schedule until lunch, providing time for the half of the company from around the country and abroad and the half based in Atlanta to interact. Then everyone treks over to an event space next door to begin work, he adds. The day ends with a dinner for employees and their spouses.

"A couple of years before that, we had small breakout groups where we did team-building things together," Wilson adds. "We try to get creative every year so it's not the same hours of presentations."


The Freelance Equation
As one of the fastest-growing subsets of American workers, freelancers and contractors present a particular challenge to companies that see them as more than just a plug-and-play resource. While 60 percent of companies say they plan to hire more freelancers in 2014, according to recent research by Tower Lane Consulting, 34 percent say they find it hard to manage and communicate with those freelancers. 

"We are seeing the freelancer and contractor populations within corporations growing, and it should be a specific consideration when putting together events for the organization," says Yma Sherry, vice president, North America, for American Express Meetings & Events. "They're going to have different needs as it relates to the meeting, and the corporation is going to have different needs as it relates to the meeting."

First and foremost, the key for meeting owners at these corporations is to make sure they "are addressing this category of worker and making a conscious decision about whether to invite them to the event or not," she says.

The first step in making this decision, she adds, is to categorize the type of contractors your company is working with. American Express Meetings & Events classifies freelancers and contractors into three broad categories, Sherry notes. These are:

Full-time, dedicated employees who work for a contracted amount of time.

Temporary freelance workers who may also be doing work, at the same time, for a competitor.

Part-time or variable freelancers who are hired on an hourly basis.

The first group is not treated very differently from regular meeting attendees, Sherry says, even though they may not be there in a year. "But we also see that kind of contractor sometimes get hired by the corporations," she adds. 

In fact, hiring freelancers to be full-time is another reason some companies invite them to meetings and events, according to Kristi Klemm, vice president of marketing at Eventup, a Chicago-based, online meeting venue marketing firm. 

"We see this a lot with the tech companies that we work with," she says. "That's such a highly competitive space that they can also use this type of event as a recruitment event. They'll have a lot of freelancers working for them who maybe don't want to commit to one company, and this is a chance [for the company] to show off its culture, take them out, wine and dine them, and get them to sign on full-time."

The second group is the most fraught when it comes to bringing freelancers to meetings and events. A big part of this decision, Sherry says, is confidentiality issues, particularly surrounding new product announcements, strategic goals, and other information the company does not want its competitors to learn. 

"If they do have freelancers go to the event -- because it helps with the engagement, it helps them feel that they are part of the organization and will want to contribute more, and the company will get better work out of them -- there may be some sessions that aren't appropriate for freelancers to attend," Sherry says. 

One simple way to deal with this issue is to schedule a separate but concurrent session for the freelancers focusing on issues of interest to them, "like how to get things done within the organization and what's important, values- and philosophy-wise, to the organization," she says. "That way, the company can be sure they're not going to a session it doesn't want them in, but it's not as exclusionary." Another common security technique is to give freelancers different color badges, so everyone knows who they are. 

With the third group, the biggest concern is often financial, Sherry says. "That group can be really pricey if you're paying overtime for an 18-hour day," she notes. "So, it's just thinking about what you want to do from a compensation standpoint."

As for the freelancers, they often get more out of attending corporate meetings and events than regular employees, says Ilise Benun, program director of the Creative Freelancer Business Conference (CFBC) and president of Marketing-Mentor.com, a consulting firm that provides career guidance for freelancers. 

"By nature, freelancers are independent, so they often do not have a huge network they can call on," Benun says. "Any networking, especially with prospects or colleagues, is worthwhile for freelancers."