In an ideal workplace, the perfect team would come together to work on a specific project, then disband after the project is complete, and another team would form for the next project.
That might be the norm for future teams, but we’re not quite there yet (because of offices, permanent employment, and so on). Instead, we still have teams largely made up of the same people, but with a few people brought in for each project.
One of the most important kinds of those “outsiders” is the external contractor.
Contractors join your team for a fixed duration because they bring in specific skills, and then move on. They make your team more fluid and flexible, because you’re getting the best people for the job – not just the people who happen to be occupying the cubicles in your office right now. They also bring their experience from elsewhere, which means they inject fresh ideas and perspectives.
On the other hand, they also have less internal experience, which means it takes time for them to be fully productive. If you can accelerate this integration process, while still tapping into their fresh ideas and experience, you get the best of both worlds.
Recruit with flexibility in mind
In addition to considering their skills and expertise, look for contractors who are likely to be more flexible in your workplace.
This doesn’t mean you want people who will only fit in. That will certainly help you integrate them into the workplace faster, but might not help you tap into their ideas and experience. Ideally, you want people who are flexible enough to fit in and speak up: They fit in to make the work run smoothly, speak up when they can offer something better, and have the good judgement to know the difference.
Get them on board fast
Experienced contractors already take responsibility for fitting in to a new team, but will still look to you for guidance. You might be able to give them some standard material – such as an employee handbook, online training, and access to your documented systems and processes – but that is not enough. Consider how to share the informal knowledge of your team as well.
For example, their HR material is probably for the entire organisation. You might have specific team documents to share as well – for example, case studies, templates, a team wiki, and other informal documentation.
If you have many informal processes and undocumented systems, assign one of your other team members to help the new contractor.
Ask for their ideas
Invite your contractors to share their ideas, suggestions and experience with you and the rest of the team.
If you already have a culture of openness and innovation in the team, they should welcome the newcomer’s ideas. However, don’t take this for granted, and be sensitive to resistance or resentment. If in doubt, start small. For example, start by scheduling private meetings with the contractor to discuss their progress, and ask for their suggestions in those meetings. Over time, as the team accepts the contractor and recognises their expertise, you can ask for their ideas in a more open forum.
Invest in their future
Your contractors assume they are only available for the current project, but consider their long-term development as well. For good people, this is an investment in your future as well as theirs.
Here are some things to consider:
- Ask them what they want: If you know what they want, it’s easy to find low-cost high-value opportunities for them. For example, if they want to be better presenters, coach them to run a team webinar.
- Test their boundaries: Give them opportunities slightly beyond their expertise in order to understand how they can help you in the future. Sometimes they won’t even realise themselves that they have additional skills.
- Give them development opportunities: Give them access to training, coaching, mentoring and other development opportunities. This doesn’t have to be an extra expense either; sometimes it can be as simple as giving them time to enrol in online education.
- Give them leadership opportunities: Don’t keep all the best leadership opportunities for your permanent staff. Give contractors the opportunity to shine as well, as part of their leadership path.
Above all, don’t treat your contractors as one-off resources. It’s tempting to only look as far into their future as the length of their contract, but that’s a mistake. Treat them as valuable team members who could make a meaningful contribution for a long time, and you increase the chances that they will.