This chapter explores the growing economy of freelancing and its impact on the global communications landscape. It covers the drivers behind this new ‘third way’ and how to manage dispersed teams, as well as practical tips and helpful technology.
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THE FREELANCE ECONOMY: FROM REVOLUTION TO EVOLUTION George Blizzard and Nicky Imrie
• The opportunity for public relations practitioners looking for work outside of a traditional in-house or agency role
• How organisations can better manage team workload and resource by employing freelancers
• Ten of the top tools for managing a ‘virtual’ agency with dispersed team players
A brave new world
There are now 1.4 million freelancers in the UK with over 14% growth year on year and 8.9 million in Europe – making them the fastest growing group in the EU labour market.
In 2014 we attended an event at Number 10 (Downing Street) hosted by Enterprise Nation looking at how to embed freelance and flexible work practices into corporate life. Some predict that doing this will add as much as £21 billion to the British economy alone. The government is taking note.
In 2005, we set up The PR Network to create a professional network of senior communications consultants collaborating to support a range of blue chip and start up clients. We have been managing dispersed teams across counties, countries and continents successfully ever since.
We see three main drivers behind this growth and the viability of the ‘dispersed team’ as an option for small and large brands:
1. The “Third Way”
A few years ago the main choice for professionals serious about their careers was to progress up the agency ladder or head for a comms board level role. However as freelancing becomes accepted as a valid and credible career choice, the quality of the freelance workforce has vastly improved as talented individuals swap permanent roles for a freelance career to gain control over their work / life balance and the type of work they do, when and for whom.
These people have run agencies and directed large communications teams. They’ve got a wealth of experience to offer companies that need external support, but they don’t necessarily want to work in isolation and they definitely don’t want to compromise on the quality of opportunities.
2. Trend to project-based budgets
Freelancing has become more viable as changes have occurred on the client side of how PR budgets are set and managed. We’ve noticed a shift away from a retainer model towards a flexible, project and outcomes based approach across clients of all sizes. This was partly driven by the recession and its fallout in 2008, often forcing a change in mindset client side.
Moving to a project-only model, or a halfway house incorporating a small retainer for press office activity supplemented by large strategic projects, allows the PR team to support the business as needs change throughout the year and keeps agencies on their toes, having to demonstrate outcomes and value for each project.
While we love retainers for the security they bring, we frequently find that with a dispersed self-employed “workforce” delivering client programmes, we don’t have to worry about capacity planning or filling staff time with projects that are not a good match for their experience.
The strength of the freelance model means we can engage consultants based on the brief and budget for a project, but with total transparency on both sides and no fear about the dreaded O word (over-servicing!).
Another area where a project-based, flexible approach using freelance teams works best for the client is international PR. This is often because the budget is disproportionate with the true cost of hiring a traditional agency in-market. However it is also a great way to test the water in a country without the cost and time required to source an agency partner.
3. Technology enablers
The rise of remote working and its acceptance within corporate culture has spawned the creation of a myriad of technology tools. When we first set up in 2005, Skype was in its infancy and cloud computing was a glint in Google’s eye. Ten years on, as more firms are using dispersed workforces, we’ve seen the ‘death of the desk’. It’s not just about connectivity and communication but about using the best technology to be accessible and to present a professional ‘shop front’ that competes at the highest level.
As a “virtual” organisation with six staff and a further 1200+ in our global network, we’ve got a big appetite for finding and using the best technology tools out there.
Here’s our current Top 10, which we are happy to recommend:
1. Speek conference calling
2. 4th Office portal for team collaboration, info management and communications
3. Receipt Bank app for expenses. Never post a receipt again!
4. Wunderlist app for managing mammoth to do lists. It got us sorted
5. Zoho set of business apps
6. Timetastic app for managing team holidays. Don’t lose track of who’s away when
7. Google Drive no explanation needed!
8. Signable cloud-based e-contracts system
9. Panda Docs online professional proposal generator
10. World time buddy managing international call times
So how can you make it work in practice?
We’ve talked about the importance of great technology to ensure our workforce is connected. The other aspect is of course people. A disparate network of people who work for themselves with their own agendas and on their own clocks can present a management challenge.
We also find many of the people who join our network do so because they want to feel part of something and miss the collegiate atmosphere of a communications agency or department. This makes working culture very important.
Harvard Business Review (HBR) lists one of the biggest concerns for global workforces as Social Distance - one of the greatest barriers for effective international teamwork.
Social Distance is common in teams that are dispersed and complicated by multiple languages, time zones and locations. Leadership is key in this situation and demonstrating and encouraging trust, confidence and supporting those who are working in a time zone and language that is out of kilter from others is critical.
HBR refers to it as a combination of multiple marriages that all need love and nurturing – a bit like the Moonies!
Our experience has shown us that creating a PR hub based on the guiding principles of exceptional client service as the bedrock to all accounts, means teams know what they need to deliver when and in what format. Constant two-way communication that takes into account time zone issues and individual work practices ensures that expectations are met on all sides and any issues are flagged and dealt with early on.
The path of true teamwork never runs smoothly – particularly when you are bringing together a team of international freelancers. This was recently distilled by Gardner and Mortensen into 5 key lessons:
Bring people together who have common interests and help them connect on that level.
2. Shared goals
With joint KPIs teams will become more collegiate.
3. There’s no I in team
Demonstrate what team work can achieve.
4. Right resources
Check that everyone is working on the right tech platforms and has the same access to information.
5. Personal tours
Share personal background e.g. if you only communicate via Skype, take a few minutes to show where you are working.
In reality, most teams in modern day PR teams (and across other sectors) are working in a dispersed environment. Remote and flexible working options are the norm and senior team members are frequently travelling or working from sister offices. Freelancing is really no different. In our eyes, it’s the open lines of communication and establishing trust and respect which are the cornerstones to success.
Senior PR consultant Nikki Alvey was the first associate to join our own network, following a career in large agencies and in-house. She has worked on countless projects for us over ten years:
“I joined The PR Network in 2005 after it was made clear that my in-house PR role was not available with flexi time. I was looking for a way to continue developing the career I loved, but without sacrificing time with my small children. I’ve since been able to build a successful independent consulting business and move into retail PR from tech, having delivered a number of retail projects. I’ve worked collaboratively with other associates and even though we are not in the same building (or sometimes country!) PRN makes us feel we are part of one team.”
Doyel Maitra, former deputy head of global communications at Viagogo, said,
“We have used PRN’s virtual model in markets where we needed short-term support for strategically important projects and in emerging markets where we wanted to test the waters without committing to a full time agency partnership. In both of these cases, we found the model to be flexible and cost-effective. We were matched with consultants who offered relevant experience in Japan, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica and the Netherlands. As the team was widely dispersed geographically, we agreed KPIs with our central hub and they took responsibility for quality control, project management (when we needed it for multi-country campaigns) and reporting.”
 Report by Professional Contractors Group
 According to IPSE’s report “Future Working: The Rise of Europe’s Independent Professionals”
 The Leadership Behaviours That Make or Break a Global Team, David Champion
 Collaborating Well In Large Global Teams, Heidi K Gardner and Mark Mortensen, Harvard Business Review
George Blizzard and Nicky Imrie are co-founders of The PR Network, a global PR agency based on an international consultant network that they began building in 2005. The PR Network works with Zipcar, Toyota, Disney, MasterCard, Experian and Ashridge Business School. George and Nicky are co-chairs of the PRCA’s Independent Consultants Group.