Can HR learn anything from contractors?

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When the HR department is looking to respond to employees’ needs in a better way, a group that doesn’t often come to mind to look at is contractors. But in these uncertain economic times, with companies sometimes reluctant to employ workers on a full-time permanent basis, an insight into the contractor’s mind is becoming increasingly useful.

Having a flexible workforce that you can call on when needed enables a business to respond promptly to changes in the marketplace and stay competitive. But what do contractors look for, and how do they like to work? Better insight into their working habits and desires can ensure HR teams make better use of this resource, and it can also act as a useful reminder of how many employees like to work - not everyone wants a full-time, 9-5 job, and fostering a range of working methods means not missing out on any talent that can help move your business forward.

For example, the typical contractor looks for a challenging placement that lasts on average around 3 to 9 months. Their most frequent reason for moving on is that they like to make an impact, create a difference and move to another role. But that doesn’t mean that their value needs to be lost: if HR is smart, it can recognise that many people like this kind of challenge. Talent management systems and models can be used that offer people in the business greater flexibility to move around and develop their skills in a range of areas. Our recent Contractor Confidence survey showed that contractors are open to committing to one organisation, but offering them the same freedom and empowerment to work in this way can help appeal to their nature.

What’s more, this group of staff also have a lesson to share on pay; our Contractor Confidence survey showed that take-it-or-leave-it fee reductions halfway though a contract would mean that they would immediately start seeking a new position elsewhere. It won’t come as news to the HR community that contractors working in positions that are still highly prized and experiencing skills shortages - such as IT - won’t hang around with an employer who doesn’t work hard to retain them. The same is of course true of all employees. Times may be tough for many, but that does not mean people will stay with an employer that doesn’t do right by them. 

Contractors are also a great example to HR of how to successfully work from home. Many contractors operate exclusively from their home offices, or spend part of the week on site with clients and part of the week working from home. So what are some of the key working tips that HR can learn from contractors and apply to their own workforce?

The first, and arguably most important, point is to communicate what you expect from those working from home. Contractors have a very clear understanding at the start of a contract as to how their success will be measured and what outputs are expected. For someone looking to transition to working from home, whether that be full-time or a few days a week, this can be a challenge, as they will have to establish new ways of showing that they are still working, rather than simply being physically present in the workplace.

This could take the form of regular emails to the team updating them on progress, weekly calls, or a weekly face-to-face catch up if they’re in the office regularly. Many people often mistakenly think that people are doing less work at home than those in the office, which in many cases is totally untrue with some home workers putting in far more hours than those based in the office. However it is easy to forget about people when they’re working from home, so make sure home workers remain in contact with the team when out of the office. Instant messaging can be a great tool as it allows real time chats between colleagues, no matter where they are based.

If you are really concerned that someone might not be pulling their weight there is software available that keeps track of when an employee is logged into the system. This can be used to monitor activity centrally.

When helping an employee to start working from home it’s crucial for HR to tell them what kind of workspace they should set up. Having a dedicated area at home is important. While some may think that sitting on their couch with a laptop is fine, this comes with a host of distractions and could also have health and safety implications if their back starts suffering from being hunched over a screen all day.

When starting to work from home it’s important to set up a space that is free from disruption such as the television and family. Make sure everything needed for work is within easy reach – having to get up to answer the phone every few minutes will eat into the work day. And of course equipment is important, with a comfortable, adjustable office chair being key.

Contractors often choose to work for themselves so they feel like they’re their own boss. And this feeling of independence can be achieved by people working from home, with numerous studies showing that people allowed to work from home feel more engaged with their work, which in turn can make them more productive. For HR this is great news, as there’s nothing better than an engaged and productive workforce.

So next time you’re looking for ideas on how to do something differently, it might be worth a look at how contractors work.

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