Projects taking on guns for hire

Project-based assignments, employing temporary specialist staff, are becoming increasingly widespread and offer opportunities as well as challenges, writes Dan Matthews


Since 2008, the UK’s approach to work has changed. An undulating economy, new communications and a general warming to flexible working are all factors that have either encouraged or shoved salaried staff into working for themselves.

Official data published in August shows that self-employment rates are higher than at any point in the last 40 years. The rise in UK employment levels since 2008 has been driven by a mass migration to self-employment, including a doubling of those over the age of 65.

Some are running shops, software companies and cafés, but the vast majority are consultants doing the job they did before, only now as a gun for hire. They are nimble, experienced and hungry for work, and employers are happy to hire them because of the flexibility and cost savings they bring.

For project managers, this development is good and bad. On the plus side there is a growing body of talented individuals who can perform a job for the life of a project, then happily walk away when the work is done. The talent pool for one-off contracts is bigger than ever before.

On the minus side is the complexity of herding such a disparate group of workers. Are they loyal? Will they approach a piece of work with the same vigour, diligence and dedication as someone who wants to retain employment when the project is done? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Lisa Cohen, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at the Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, says commitment to the cause, or lack of it, is a potential stumbling block for project managers taking on contractors for a job.

Another is loyalty. Can it be guaranteed? If not, why would an organisation load someone up with sensitive, competitive information and then send them on their merry way? “The risk remains that the contractor knows everything about your project and could move directly to a competitor,” she says.

One solution to the problem is to treat a contractor like one of your own

To protect themselves, project managers need to adopt a grown-up approach to recruiting contractors, making them jump through the sort of hoops that common-or-garden full-timers do before they get hired. Taking on contractors shouldn’t necessarily be a quick fix or an easy option.

“For a project that requires expertise you don’t already have in the organisation, contractors can be great, but if you need long-term confidentially and commitment, then it might not work,” says Ms Cohen. “Project managers need to be better recruitment managers, and should learn more about the legal and HR issues that surround contracting.”

Questions to address include how contractors’ work is assessed, in what ways they are bound to the organisation during the contract and after it finishes, whether they qualify for bonuses and the rights they enjoy in relation to their full-time brethren.

The challenges of organising contractors differ from profession to profession. The legal sector, like others, is juggling the opportunities and threats of flexible workers and forming a best-practice approach to hiring temporary staff.

Alison Bond is head of Vario at lawyers Pinsent Masons. Vario is a firm of freelance legal professionals who work for clients on a flexible basis, giving them greater control over how they commission legal expertise.

She says: “As projects are typically short term, often around three months, organisations need to be able to on-board a new freelancer effectively and efficiently outside what can sometimes be a lengthy induction process.”

One solution to the problem is to treat a contractor like one of your own, according to Richard Selby, co-founder of Pro Steel Engineering, which provides professional project management and construction services in the steel industry.

Mr Selby says the growth of project work motivates managers to look after their talented workers to avoid losing them to competitors. “We have even put contractors through accredited training courses to grow and develop their skills. This improves staff loyalty and helps us form a team we can depend upon,” he says.