For years there’s been a suspicion among a small group of managers that no one understands the business or provides the same dedication as permanent staff. Project contractors, or independent professionals (IPros) as I like to call them, may be suitable for projects or assignments but to get real commitment, productivity and engagement, you need to rely on permanent employees.
Recent research however, contradicts this view, finding that project contractors are just as, if not more dedicated to their work as their permanent peers. The results are contained in the latest IPro Index, a research initiative of Monash University and sponsored by Entity Solutions. For four years the annual study has investigated and analysed the attitudes and experiences of Australia’s IPros.
This year, in addition to questions surrounding lifestyle and client commitment, the study included a special focus on productivity. The report provides a fascinating insight into the world of the IPro and dispels a number of myths relating to the differences between contractors and permanent staff.
Myth #1: Project contractors lack commitment
Contrary to expectations, approximately two-thirds of IPros experience a sense of commitment to their current client. It’s just that there’s a time limit on the commitment. At the end of the engagement the IPro moves on and becomes committed to the next client. A 2011 UK study by recruitment group Hudson found similar results when 77.5% of contractors agreed or strongly agreed that they are loyal employees.
It’s likely that this sense of commitment is at least in part fostered by IPros’ belief that their clients are equally there for them. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed for the IPro Index say their employers care about their opinions and that their employer is available to help them, should they need it. The majority also believe that their employer cares about their wellbeing and takes pride in their accomplishments at work.
Myth #2: Project contractors are less productive
IPros are largely classified as knowledge workers, however knowledge work is not easily measured. In the IPro Index 2012, to gauge productivity, IPros were asked to score their attitudes to 15 statements ranging from “I consistently do things right first time, every time” to “I adhere to agreed work schedules” and “I meet work/project goals as quickly as possible”. The responses provided researchers with information across the three key facets of knowledge worker productivity: efficiency, quality and timeliness.
The results confirm that far from being disinterested participants, the vast majority of IPros hold their clients’ interests at heart and are determined to meet client quality standards and timeframes. They perceive they are productive contributors to their client organisations and consider themselves trustworthy, professional, efficient and effective in their client dealings.
The 2011 Hudson study also found that twice as many employers believe contractors to be more productive and more engaged with their work than permanent employees. The reasons for this are explored in detail in Professor Linda Gratton’s new book The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here where she suggests that traditional employment is fundamentally changing with one result being that notions such as permanent workers being loyal to an organisation have disappeared due to “shortening contracts, outsourcing, automation & multiple careers”.
Gallup (2009) also stated categorically that “engagement is the key” to productivity, supported strongly by Hewitt Associates (2010) findings that high engagement firms yielded a 19% increase in earnings per share from 2009 to 2010, while low engagement saw a 44% decline. From the IPro Index 2012, we know that IPros are in fact very productive, and they are also very engaged in their work.
Myth #3: Project contractors are not as engaged in their work
Work engagement is one of the essential contributors to overall wellbeing. In academic terms it is defined as a positive state of fulfilment, characterised by vigour, dedication, absorption and professional efficacy. To the layperson, engagement can be readily seen in a person’s energy, enthusiasm, happiness and pride in work, and their immersion in a task.
Consistent with past years’ results, the highest attitudinal IPro Index score was for wellbeing, which measures engagement in work. The average score for engagement has continued to rise from 7.7/10 in 2009 to 8.1/10 in 2012. These results support that IPros are extremely engaged, possibly more so than their permanent counterparts. Engaged IPros are energetic and feel very connected to their work. Even more importantly, these results provide evidence of IPros being very capable of and able to deal effectively with the demands, stresses and continual change within their job.
These results are supported by a 2012 study by Manpower (Right Management Employee Engagement 2012 Benchmark Survey), which found that high engagement is a powerful tool for organisations as it influences not only customer experience but overall productivity and bottom line profitability.
Myth #4: Project contractors cannot get permanent roles
After four years of research, the idea of IPros being forced into contracting due to an inability to find a permanent position should be well and truly dead. The myth suggests that people become IPros because of negative ‘push’ factors such as retrenchment or the tight labour market.
Although there are slight variances across different vertical markets, the reality is that two-thirds of IPros say that push factors play ‘no role’ in their decision to engage in professional contracting. Instead they nominate positive drivers including the perceived ability to earn more money, variety of work and sense of freedom. They contract their time because they want to, and in the process they achieve high levels of job satisfaction.
With businesses steadily moving towards a blended workforce model that combines traditional employment of permanent staff with IPros for project-based activity, it’s time to recognise that project contractors are not a ‘second best’ option. Project contractors are a growing and valuable workforce that offers employers all the benefits of commitment, productivity and engagement, without the strings of ongoing employment.