First, let me just say that being an independent contractor is awesome. You are your own boss. You can turn down work, you can work from home, from your car, from the coffee shop and you can set your own hours. If you're having a busy week (when it rains, it pours!) you could be burning the midnight-to-wee-hours oil. But it's all good, because you are your own boss dancing to your own fiddle music. Going solo is a great way to work, if you can pull it off. Did I mention that you get to be your own boss?
But independent contractors who take on long-term contracts can start to feel stuck in a rut like your average employee, because just as the average cubicle dweller has a job description, so can your average independent contractor. John does X, Y, and Z, and only X, Y, and Z. John the Independent Contractor, similar to a full-time employee, becomes the "go-to" person for certain types of assignments and projects, and over time, he gets damn good at doing X, Y, and Z.
So good, in fact, that he can almost churn out the work in his sleep. The problem starts when John the Independent Contractor has been doing X, Y, and Z for years without many, or any, opportunities for change and growth. He's grown professionally as a contractor and would like to take on more challenging projects for the client, but the client may continue to see him as doing X, Y and Z, and only X, Y and Z. There's never any variation to the theme, and there's little or no challenge to the work anymore. The job description starts to feel more and more confining over time.
After awhile, John the Independent Contractor starts scanning the horizon for new, more exciting projects and opportunities that fulfill the need for professional growth. It's the "move on to move up" thing in action.
For now, many independent contractors are happy to do the same projects over and over again in the same exact way if the pay is adequate. But they will start "seeing other people" as the economy picks up, especially if they haven't had any opportunities for growth and development in their current gigs.
I know what you're thinking, managers: Growth and development for freelancers? Give me a break! Yes, that's exactly what I mean. But they're just going to ask me for more money! Maybe, but if they're doing great work and have become integral to your success, that's even more of a reason to make sure they continue to feel valued, and see occasional opportunities for growth. To quote the ultimate ode to freelancing: The years start coming and they don't stop coming, fed to the rules and I hit the ground running, didn't make sense not to live for fun, your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb. Are your freelancers still having fun, or do they feel like the work is dumbing them down these days?
Think about it, boss. When was the last time you offered your independent contractors a performance review? Or got a better idea of the work that excites them, the new ideas they might like to contribute, and how they see their role as a contractor to your firm? When was the last time you met with them in person (if they're based locally), or spoke with them over the phone? (Email, Twitter, and texting don't count.) Freelancers, for all their allegiance to independence, like to feel like they're a part of the team just like everyone else. A tangential part of the team to be sure, but a part of the team nonetheless. Freelancers want to be in your wheelhouse, at least in spirit. It's a human thing.
But no self-respecting, free-spirited independent contractor ever wants to feel bored, or boring. That's why he or she went freelance in the first place. So don't forget to periodically throw your independent contractors a bone by offering them new, exciting challenges, the random performance review, or simply asking them to coffee as a goodwill, get-to-know-you gesture every so often. Whatever you do, don't put them in a box in a dark corner and expect them to stay happy, quiet and content. Independent contractors need love too, so put a little love in your heart.
I encourage employers to ponder the proper care and feeding of independent contractors before the economy takes off and the market beckons them with its siren song of new, more exciting projects. Now is the time to check in so they don't eventually check out. Tomorrow, you could be very glad you took the time to hug your contractors today. Now get your game on and go play, because only shooting stars break the mold.