SI Review: February 2011

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Part of a Team

Six Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Contingent Workers

Contingent workers are members of two teams: the staffing company’s and the customer’s. But too often, they feel like an afterthought to both companies.

“They work for the agency – [that’s] the employer of record,” says Scott Wintrip, founder and president of StaffingU, which provides training, coaching and consulting for staffing and recruiting firms. “Yet the agency distances itself [from them] too much of the time.”

Staffing firms, of course, are juggling many workers and customers at once. And it’s not any easier for their customers

to welcome temps as part of the team. Contingent workers are often called in when a deadline is approaching or a project needs extra help – which means managers may already be stressed and overworked. In addition, some managers at customer sites treat contingent workers differently from regular employees in an effort to alleviate co-employment risk.

But staffing experts and temporary workers themselves say motivating these workers is not complicated.

“These are human beings, regardless of whether they’re full-time workers who work directly for the company or whether they’re there through a temp firm,” Wintrip says.

Motivating Contingent Workers

Making sure your temporary workers feel like a part of your team and a part of your customer’s team can make the experience better for the workers as well as your customers.

“Good staffing companies try to make them feel that they’re part of something,” says Lynne Mesmer, CEO of Creative Management Consultants, near West Palm Beach FL. Mesmer serves as a consultant to staffing companies.

Wintrip, Mesmer and others offer several tips for making this happen.

1. Communicate with your workers

When Michael Royce, a computer contractor in Concord NH, takes on a contract assignment, he wants to understand not only what he is supposed to do but how it fits into the customer team’s work.

“I like to know what other people are doing so I know how my piece fits into the puzzle,” Royce said.

Not all staffing firms communicate clearly with their workers.

“A big complaint I often hear about agencies is that they don’t communicate, they don’t stay in touch,” Wintrip says. Regular communication is “a free commodity – it doesn’t cost anything other than time.”

During the assignment, contingent workers need to know how they’re doing. The staffing firm should play a key role in making sure the customer is happy with the temporary employee’s work and communicating to the worker what could be improved.

Communication is essential near the end of an assignment, as well. Royce says he appreciates knowing before his assignment is up whether it will be extended.

2. Communicate with your customers

Effective communication begins before the assignment.

“The best way to solve a problem is to never have it come up in the first place,” Wintrip says. “A big part of this is setting expectations and then having those expectations be met.”

Staffing firms need to communicate with their customers to be sure they understand the work and the work environment. Then they need to communicate that to their temporary workers.

Agencies should also make sure customers know how they will communicate with the employees on site. “Let customers know you’re going to touch base with them [as well as] your associates in the field,” Wintrip advises.

3. Ask questions

Just as employers ask regular employees for feedback and suggestions, consider asking your temporary workers how their experience was, so you can improve your processes.

In addition to giving you valuable insights, this will make the workers feel valued.

“Give them the respect, the pat on the back,” Mesmer says.

“Many of my clients have created advisory committees made up of their temporary workers,” Mesmer says. The companies solicit opinions from these committees periodically and implement the best ideas, giving credit to the workers.

4. Recognize good work

In the current economic climate, there is not much talk of financial rewards such as bonuses. But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to reward a contingent worker for a job well done.

“Recognition is one of the most powerful motivators,” Mesmer says. This can take many forms, from a simple, private “thank-you” to a public acknowledgment.

“I feel it is very important for the president of the staffing company to make random phone calls or write notes to workers who receive excellent evaluations,” Mesmer asserts. “This is a tremendous way to recognize people, and it doesn’t cost anything. Hearing from the president is a very powerful form of recognition.”

Of course, praise needs to be genuine to be meaningful.

“I don’t believe in acknowledgment just for the sake of acknowledgment,” Wintrip says. Instead, praise the worker for something specific.

Having a formal employee recognition program can help. Let your customers know that the program exists and how they can nominate temporary workers who have made a significant contribution at their site.

5. Know your workers

Many contingent workers are doing temporary jobs while looking for a regular, permanent position. You may be able to help your best workers toward this goal, especially if your agency does temp-to-perm placements.

But keep in mind that not every contingent worker has the same goal.

Temporary work to some is a lifestyle, Mesmer says. “They want to take two months off in the summer; they don’t want to get involved with [office] politics.” Those workers are more likely to be motivated by interesting work and the promise of more contracts in the future than by the possibility of a permanent position.

“It’s two really different [types of] people and two really different motivators,” Mesmer says.

If their experience is positive, some workers who thought they wanted a permanent position may even come to prefer contract work.

“I can make the case that temporary work is more stable” than so-called permanent work, Wintrip says, especially for workers whose skills are in demand.

6. Understand customers’ legal concerns

Contingent workers feeling like outsiders at customer sites  sometimes is an unavoidable consequence of their being brought in for a short time. But some of the distance between regular workers and contingent workers is deliberate, because managers are afraid their company could be labeled a co-employer.

“What I think sometimes happens is temps are kept at arm’s length out of fear,” Wintrip says. Co-employment is a real concern. “But temps need to be equipped to do a good job.”

Employers do face a “Catch-22” in that the more they integrate contingent workers into their workforce, the more likely it is that they could be considered a co-employer, says Ron Wainrib, an attorney in Franklin MA who specializes in contingent workforce law and publishes Contingentlaw.com.

What, exactly, will cross the line into co-employment?

There is no easy answer, Wainrib says. It depends in part on what state you are in – states’ laws vary, and different state and federal courts vary in their approach.

It also depends on what type of claim is brought. (People don’t sue just to have a company declared a co-employer. Instead, they start with some other grievance, such as a sexual harassment claim or a dispute about overtime, and they try to have the company where they were working held liable in addition to the staffing firm that officially employed them.)

However, Wintrip said, “the little stuff,” such as communicating clearly and saying thank-you, is not going to lead to co-employment.

Big Benefits

When it comes to getting the best work out of your contingent workforce, though, “it’s the little stuff that makes the big difference,” Wintrip said.

This so-called little stuff can bring big benefits to your agency. When communication and recognition make the temporary workers you deploy feel like they’re part of your team and well integrated with the customer, your staffing firm benefits. First, the worker is more likely to complete the assignment successfully. The worker is also more likely to take another assignment from you, and the customer is more likely to hire you again.

All this helps with retention and, ultimately, the success of your staffing business.

“Finding good people is not easy,” Wintrip says, “even in this kind of market.”

Margaret Steen is a freelance writer in Los Altos CA who writes about business and the workplace.

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