Fashion designer working at home on a design Lots actually. With employee turnover and talent shortages at record highs, employee engagement at all time lows, talent management professionals are in a spin; they are navel gazing, soul searching, early adopting, innovating, lagging, ignoring, desperately trying to find the secrets to attracting, retaining and engaging talent. We attend conferences, forums, brain storming sessions, yet some of the key secrets to delighting and engaging employees are right under our nose. These secrets lie in the unruly, dark side of the talent force: that unmanageable group of freelancers, contractors, virtual workers, and self-employed workers who slip under the radar of HR and aren’t governed by HR processes.

Generally, HR does not commune with freelancers and contractors and do very little for them. Yet, while employees are experiencing records levels of disengagement and stress, this study by the University of Zurich of 23 countries shows that in contrast self-employed workers are substantially more satisfied with their work than employed persons.

If only HR could tap into the freelancer’s world and find out what the secret elixir is that drives the self-employed to be more satisfied than the employed, they might be able to apply some of these principles to their own process and drive up engagement levels. So, what are the secrets to freelancer satisfaction?

Well, the University of Zurich study provided some clear insight into what was behind the high satisfaction levels of the unemployed, (not forgetting that the self-employed work longer hours than employees and are often more stressed). Their study suggested that the self-employed are more engaged and happier with their jobs because their work includes three key benefits in greater magnitude than with salaried employees. These three key characteristics, which are driving job satisfaction in freelancers, include:

  1. Freedom and discretion to decide when, where and how to carry out the job.
  2. The degree to which the job requires the exercise of a number of different skills, abilities or talents.
  3. The perception that one’s job has a positive impact on other people.

This isn’t rocket science and should be achievable in the workplace, but with just 13 percent of salaried workers being engaged at work, the suggestion is that benefits are not in rich supply in the workplace, which is a missed opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s no picnic for the self-employed as this data from Pew Research shows that self-employed workers have the same income as the salaried but feel more financial stress. They also are thought to work longer hours. But, given the fact that there are these drawbacks to self-employment, it shows just how important these three inherent benefits of self-employment actually are to satisfaction.

So, I think that the challenge for HR professionals is to put aside the current doctrine and ideologies for the moment and to open their eyes to the highly engaged and self satisfied environment of the self-employed and ask whether any of these three qualities of autonomy, diversity and meaningfulness of work can be fostered in greater amounts across their own organization. If employers can do this, the evidence suggests they could make a serious improvement to employee engagement levels within their organizations today.

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