Using Associates: The low effort option?

That’s great news, and whilst the energy and the scale of the project is exciting, it does present challenges – the most notable being, how do we get enough qualified and skilled people ready to deliver a large scale project?

In any business, where it is growing and where people are central to the delivery, the growing pains will be felt. Business owners all over the world continue to ponder whether they would rather stay the size they are and just work for themselves or if they are going to grow, how do they do it in a controlled manner?

For us the challenge is exaggerated as we move from being asked to deliver four or five days of top quality workshops at a time to committing to delivery of Emotional Resilience workshops for organisations that are concerned about thousands of people. That in itself sounds fantastic but what happens at the end of the project to all the people needed to deliver it?

For us, the answer became clear. We need to use an associates model rather than employ. From our perspective employing people was to bureaucratic, not fast enough moving and from a personal point of view carried a fear of having to start processes and systems that had been one of the reasons I had enjoyed leaving a large organisation behind in the first place.

There were other factors that influenced our decision as well. One of those is that there are a decent number of quality facilitators out there who we could call on to work with us when we need them. Many of those, like us, enjoy the flexibility of working for themselves and being able to choose the projects they get involved in. In other words even if we wanted to employ them, they probably would not wish to be employed.

Knowing that we have a flexible and skilled workforce available to us on demand but without all the overheads sounds like a dream come true. There are, however, a number of precautions you need to take if you are going to go down this route.

By the time we had worked through them some of it, it feels surprisingly like we may be employing people under a different name. In other words just because they are self employed it does not mean that you as the main contractor to the project have no responsibilities. As we worked through what we needed to do, we realised there were key areas that needed attention.

Start with the end in mind
Where have you heard that before? It’s true. In this case it applies to giving plenty of time to building a network of associates who could work with you and who you would want to work with. There is no point being so focused on tying down a deal on a large project and not being confident in the team which will work with you. Trying to gather them at the last minute because you never believed this big project was really going to happen will lead to hastily made decisions and potential liabilities, instead of assets, being brought on to the team. This means we have had conversations and detailed discussions with facilitators up to a year ahead of talks on a project.

Communicate, communicate, communicate
If these skilled persons are going to work with you they need to know how you are getting on every step of the way. Waiting a year for you to tie up a big project is not going to pay their bills. They need to be working. Be honest with your virtual team about timescales, negotiations and potential. They will respect you for it.

Think of a number and double it
This does not relate to the fees you are charging. If the project you are discussing will need five people to deliver it then get 10 interested people and start communicating with them. The fact of the matter is that when you do sign a contract and start rallying troops some will be working on their own projects, another may be ill and may be another will have given up waiting and got a job.

Check their capacity
Associates may have children, may or may not have partners and may or may not be able to travel. I always have a note of how many days a week they can commit to and what their maximum travelling distance is.

Be clear about your standards
The work we do is specialised. The material we deliver, in some cases, is unique and in other cases the way we do it is unusual. This means that a lot of our colleague’s have not experienced it in this way before and they are the ones that need to deliver it. Time needs to be set aside for training and you need to be absolutely clear about what needs to be done, when and how.

Put contracts in place
At first this seemed an anathema to me. I wanted to stay away from bureaucracy. After a really useful chat with a lawyer I saw sense and realised that a contract is really another way of being very clear and explicit about expectations. They protect your associate and they protect you. They protect your IP and stop you accidentally employing someone.

Seek feedback
The feedback loop is important to me when I deliver workshops because I know it’s a vital link to the customer. It’s even more important when I am not the person running the workshop. In fact it becomes one of my only means of knowing how it’s going. Get both formal and informal feedback. Your customer will love the attention you are giving it and it will strengthen the relationship.

So if you imagine that even before you secure a project that is large enough to scare you into planning how you would deliver it, you have started planning, then you have cracked it. If you imagine having contracts, training people, being clear about standards, having to assess capacity and continually be communicating with them then you may be wondering why you don’t just employ them in the first place. May be that’s the right decision for you.

For us we know we have made the correct decision, we just need to take as much care over these new colleagues as we do about the workshops we deliver in the first place.

Ultimately, if you want a moveable and flexible workforce you need to be movable and flexible in your thinking.

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