Like a lot of stagers, I started in the AV business as an independent contractor. I broadened my freelancer perspective by founding a staffing company and later by managing a major stager. I have hired, trained, and managed hundreds of self-employed individuals. In fact, the first magazine article I ever published was about employment law, liability, and the independent contractor. So when I talk about the freelancers-employer relationship, I tend to take the broad view. Simply put, this industry needs freelancers, and freelancers need AV Stagers. The point of this article is to reiterate what's fair and professional when it comes to doing business. The most basic rules you need to know were probably first learned in kindergarten. In my experience, I have seen most of these points egregiously violated by both employers and workers, which is why they can't be stated too many times.
If you can't say anything nice...
Gossip is normal in humans and made easier and more dangerous by the Internet. We work in a frustrating and stressful business, which has caused more than one person to say things they regret. Unfortunately there are some folks who seem to believe that their ability to point out faults in others makes them look smarter. There is nothing more unprofessional to me than a freelancer that takes a company's money and then talks bad about them - especially on the job site. Employers aren't without fault. It is just as unprofessional to say on one hand a person doesn't meet your standards, then turn around and hire them when you are slammed. The better business decision for both employer and worker is to say nothing disparaging in public about the other.
Dance wi' the one that 'brung 'ya
Freelancers need to use discretion promoting their services when they are on a gig. As an employer, you have to respect the right of the worker to maintain basic business communication. If someone asks for a freelancer's business card, he or she should be able to hand it out. This is different from a freelancer soliciting business by saying, "Next time call me direct." For freelancers, the implication is that if that end customer does go around your staging client and calls you first next time, be prepared to turn down the job or redirect them to the stager. At the very least, call the stager and explain the situation and seek permission to jump their claim. This is also a point for "What goes around comes around." As a freelancer you have a lot more to lose by stealing a customer than you can imagine. Employers also need to recognize that freelancers are helping you retain customers. It wouldn't kill you to involve them in next year's job with that client.
No Passing Notes In Class
The workforce is evolving. We now have employees and contractors who have never known a world without cell phones, text messages, or email. Social and business networking are becoming blended. This is not to say that work can or should stop just because a phone rings. As employer, think how frustrated you get when you call or email a freelancer and they don't get back to you in a couple of hours (for employees I bet you count the minutes!). I bet you get even madder when they return your call while they are controlling a show.
There are two criteria I have for using communication while working. First it has to be safe: No phone conversations while climbing scaffold. Second, it needs to be transparent: It cannot interfere with tasks. When you extrapolate these two points, phone and email need to be answered during breaks or the more nebulous "downtime". Employers, just adding five minutes to crew breaks will allow more time for email and phone will probably increase the day's overall productivity by reducing the urgency for ad hoc communication.
You made your bed, now lie in it
This is a dynamic industry in that sometimes projects go away as fast as they appear. If an employer regularly cancels freelancers at the last minute without any allowances, then freelancers either won't want to work for them, will charge higher rates, or will enforce cancellation policies. If freelancers regularly cancel themselves to take a higher paying, longer, or more interesting assignments then employers will either book them less or not at all. Since it is in the best interest of both the employers and the freelancers to have a flexible system, some compromise is required. For employers the solution is to respect the booked time as best they can and try and reschedule freelancers when jobs cancel or change. Freelancers have to be flexible about accepting these changes and should resist the temptation to take another gig once they have committed. There are exceptions to both rules - and that is also part of the compromise.
Use your words
Many of the challenges I see between freelancers and employers are attributable to poor communication. More specifically, there is too much information trying to be shared. Freelancers need to understand that employers have limited capacity for tracking the special caveats and rules that freelancers love to require. Employers need to do a better job of expressing reasonable expectations for contractors without specifying everything the worker does. Less is more.
In conclusion, the individuals and companies that behave like pros, will earn broad respect and develop long-term business relationships. It is the best interest of everyone involved to cultivate professional standards for the sake of their craft and businesses. Practicing your kindergarten rules and maintaining consistent standards will minimize the need for policies and controls that ultimately undermine relationships and trust.
Living with Communications Tools
By Tom Stimson, CTS
I recently had my first major computer failure without the luxury of an IT Department to bail me out. It happened on Super Bowl Sunday so I probably wouldnt have gotten much support anyway. The next day, the nice folks at the Apple Store cured what turned out to be a hard drive failure and I restored my data from my trusty backup. I know I was lucky but I wondered how other folks deal with these things. This months survey revealed an electronically enabled (or enslaved) pool of subjects. 100 percent of the respondents have cell phones, and 87 percent use a laptop in their work. 38 percent also carry a Blackberry or other popular Cell/PDA combo, and over one third of those folks carry a secondary cell phone. In contrast, only one person of the 12 percent who carry iPhones admitted to having another PDA or Phone. And being the geeks that we are, almost 80 percent carry one other electronic device they felt was worth mentioning.
With so many folks dependent on laptops, how do they solve failures like the one I had? A surprising 48 percent said they could get tech support working on a solution in a couple of hours. 27 percent might have to wait till the end of the next day. These numbers correspond roughly to the type of IT support available 65 percent have some sort of internal IT support at their company. 9 percent of respondents would (like me) be trotting off to the computer store for support.
Three years or less seems to be the norm for expected computer life, but many of the comments indicated that there did not seem to be a company replacement policy that they were aware of. The operating system of choice is Windows XP at 71 percent, but a growing number use Apple OSX. This months essay question was How important is it to have the latest hardware and software for business? What's the risk if you don't? We had over 80 responses. These represent the two major points of view:
If we market ourselves as a communications company then we are obligated to keep our sights on the technology abyss. It is a necessary expense of doing business in this industry. If your client is more technically capable than your company then it is not only embarrassing it is potentially an account killer. -Chris Alford, A&V Company
Not important at all. In fact, it is more important not to change "for change sake". We will only change if the product will no longer be supported.
-Karl Dannecker, CMS, Inc.
There is a lot more data and comments in the survey report. Download the complete Mar 08 Survey at: www.trstimson.com/surveys.
Each month The Stimson Group conducts a short survey of AV industry professionals about a variety of topics. To participate in or comment on those surveys, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.