The Positive Mindset Work Innovators Have Toward Freelancers

The Positive Mindset Work Innovators Have Toward Freelancers

As the explosive growth of generative artificial intelligence (AI) technology in 2023 illustrated, organizational skills needs and business roadmaps can shift overnight. Amid widespread AI adoption, companies that never imagined needing a prompt engineer, machine learning engineer, or AI ethicist suddenly found themselves in need of talent to support AI initiatives.

Research from The World Economic Forum estimates that demand for AI and machine learning specialists will grow by 40%, or one million jobs, by 2027. Our own Upwork platform data revealed a 1,000% increase in generative AI job posts and a 1,500% increase in searches using generative AI-related keywords during Q2 of 2023 compared to the end of 2022.

No matter the latest business or technological transformation, the ability to find, engage, and onboard qualified talent quickly can mean the difference between meeting or missing moments of significant change. High-performing companies understand the importance of moving beyond traditional talent models—such as exclusively relying on full-time, in-house workers—and instead embracing flexible talent ecosystems to more effectively adapt to change.

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Opening your culture to flexible talent

The Upwork Research Institute’s inaugural report, Reinventing Work: Unveiling the Work Innovators' Blueprint for Success, analyzes what sets high-performing companies and leaders apart from others. Based on nearly a year of research, we developed “The Work Innovator Framework,” which identifies three core attributes that make Work Innovator Companies stand out from their peers. One of the attributes is that Work Innovators open their cultures to flexible talent.

Creating environments and cultures where flexible talent models thrive enables organizations to better respond to disruption and ensure they have the skills they need to drive ongoing business success. This approach requires more than simply having diverse worker types, such as full-time, part-time, and independent talent, to support an organization.

While the ability to access different types of skilled talent is important, being a true Work Innovator is about taking a thoughtful, proactive approach to enabling all talent to succeed, which often involves deep organizational change starting at the leadership level.

Four characteristics of companies that support flexible talent

Our Work Innovator Framework identified four distinct characteristics of Work Innovators who excel at creating an environment and culture where flexible talent models thrive.

1. Adaptive strategies that meet the needs of diverse talent types

While individuals generally share a set of core work needs such as competitive pay and strong working relationships, different talent needs emerge depending on worker type.For full-time, in-house team members, a core need may be establishing long-term stability. To support this, managers can outline career path options at the organization, identify measurable goals for each team member to grow in their career, and provide talent development resources to encourage ongoing improvement and skill-building. A core need for independent professionals may be completing various short-term projects for any number of clients that fuel their passions. Leaders can support this by engaging independent talent for projects that align with their skills and passions, and sharing clear resources, milestones, and desired outcomes to set individuals up for success.

2. Established processes for knowledge transfer across all worker types

Many companies suffer from in-group and out-group dynamics when it comes to collaborating with different worker types who support the same organization. Often, independent talent doesn’t have access to important information to successfully complete their work. This limiting approach to knowledge-sharing hinders companies from operating at their full potential, as some individuals lack the details and context necessary to drive effective business outcomes.

Successful Work Innovators intentionally design and implement knowledge-sharing processes that empower all workers by ensuring they have relevant contextual information to complete projects and achieve business goals.  

Examples of effective knowledge-sharing processes include:

  • Offering a standardized ramp up process to set new workers of all types up for success
  • Leveraging project management software to centralize critical updates
  • Sharing essential documents and other resources with all workers
  • Recording meetings (with appropriate consent) and circulating notes to keep individuals who can’t attend updated
  • Encouraging standardized asynchronous communication to facilitate effective collaboration across time zones  

3. Visibility and insight into the talent mix across their organization

When most organizations identify a skills gap, their initial reaction is often to bring in more full-time workers. While this may be the best option for core skills and roles, exclusively leveraging full-time talent can be costly and time-consuming. This is especially true when teams need to quickly access specialized skills to complete one specific project, experiment with new technology, or explore new areas for business expansion.

Even when companies engage independent talent, they don’t always have full grasp of the talent mix at their organization or a process or strategy in place to determine which work is best suited for full-time workers versus freelancers.

Teams also often lack insight into the impact and effectiveness of independent professionals on overall business success. However, Work Innovators stand out from others when it comes to having visibility and insight into the full talent landscape across teams. In fact, 92% of Work Innovators know their current talent mix—meaning how many full-time, part-time, and freelance workers support their business—compared to only 62% of their peers.

Our research also shows that Work Innovators are:

  • 2.6x more likely to know what work is better suited for freelancers than full-time, in-house employees
  • 2.3x more likely to hold leadership accountable for the effectiveness of freelancers supporting their teams

A key way to hold leaders accountable for the effectiveness of all workers—including both in-house workers and independent talent—is by measuring output and outcomes, rather than time and schedules. For example, an outcome for a full-time sales team member may be to increase the number of leads by 15% in the next quarter.

When engaging freelancers, teams can drive success by outlining clear project goals and tying outcomes to specific milestones throughout the project. As an example, milestones for a content writing project may include interviewing a subject matter expert, creating an outline, writing an initial draft, and completing revisions.

4. An open mind to the best talent

Perhaps the most critical differentiator between Work Innovators and their peers is in the mindset leaders have toward individuals in their workforce. Work Innovators have a much more open mind toward the potential positive impact freelance talent can have on their business.

When asked, “Do you want to work with the best talent, regardless of whether they are freelancers or full-time employees?” only 69% of leaders overall agreed, while 92% of Work Innovators agreed with the same statement. Additionally, in an age of ever-evolving in-demand skills—given AI and other disruptors—94% of Work Innovators agree that freelancers give their team access to specialized skills, compared to 56% of leaders overall.

These examples are only two of several ways Work Innovator attitudes differ from their peers, as outlined in the chart below.  

Work Innovators adopt a different mindset

Work Innovators recognize the importance of engaging the most qualified talent, whether employee or independent talent, to help drive project and long-term business success. Rather than having biases about the specific type of talent they work with, Work Innovators view each individual as a valuable contributor to the business.

By having an open mind toward engaging independent talent, Work Innovators can gain a competitive advantage by expanding—rather than limiting—their talent pool. According to our 2023 Freelance Forward report, the share of professionals who freelance increased to nearly 64 million Americans in the past year, making up 38% of the U.S. workforce.

Engaging remote, independent talent can enable your organization to reach more professionals with the skills you need by easing geographical constraints. Expanding your reach across can help you diversify your workforce with the most qualified individuals, achieve strategic business outcomes, and save time and reduce operational costs compared to traditional hiring processes.

A positive perception of independent professionals

In addition to quantitative research highlighting the differing attitudes toward freelancers, qualitative research was also conducted by asking more than 1,400 U.S. business decision-makers to write down the first word that came to mind when they thought of freelancer talent. The words reported contained the biggest delta between our Work Innovators and their peers.

Overall, Work Innovators used notably different expressions to describe freelancers than other leaders and were more likely to associate freelancers with positive terms.

The first word that comes to mind when describing freelance talent
Work Innovators

Other leaders


Embracing a positive mindset toward independent talent means recognizing that freelancers bring unique skills, fresh perspectives, and specialized expertise to organizations.

When leaders view independent professionals as valuable contributors rather than temporary placeholders, they’re more likely to take a strategic approach to engaging freelancers as part of their overall workforce planning. They’re also more likely to invest in building strong working relationships with these individuals. This mindset helps foster collaboration, trust, and loyalty among in-house workers and independent professionals, which can drive impactful business outcomes as a result.

Reaping the benefits of engaging independent talent

Here are two real-world success stories showcasing how organizations can benefit from having an open mindset to engaging and supporting flexible independent talent.

PGA of America team tested new ideas on its engineering team

The engineering team at PGA of America has no shortage of ideas for new projects. However, the internal team doesn’t always have the time or resources to build out each and every new idea. The engineering team faced challenges with striking a balance between staying on track with strategic project timelines and experimenting with innovative ideas to move the business forward.

PGA of America’s engineering team engaged independent talent from Upwork to test new ideas while staying on track with existing projects. Upwork’s diverse, global talent pool made it easy for the team to access specialized skills—including tough-to-find talent such as AWS, CSS, and React.js developers. And the average time to engage is just one week.

By leveraging talent on Upwork, PGA of America completes projects three times faster with 50% average cost savings. Now, when new ideas emerge, the team engages independent developers and other professionals to test proof of concept while in-house team members remain focused on the strategic roadmap.

Upwork launched a global Enterprise support team in less than six months

Teams across Upwork engage talent from our own platform to reach diverse talent, access specialized skills, and support business growth. In recent years, our Enterprise customer base has grown significantly and expanded globally. When Enterprise customers needed support in the past, they often reached out directly to a member of the sales team. While this worked initially, the team recognized a need for a dedicated Enterprise support offering to meet customer needs across time zones and around the clock.

Our customer support team has turned to freelance talent from Upwork since the team was first established and has built long-term relationships with many independent professionals on the platform. When the time came to create an Enterprise support offering, the team turned to some of the most skilled and respected talent to support Enterprise clients. Developing trusted relationships with independent talent from around the world enabled customer support to quickly access the technical skills and Upwork platform knowledge needed to build and deploy the offering in less than six months.

Launching an Enterprise support solution powered by independent talent sourced from the Upwork platform helps the team address requests 24/7 and drive satisfaction across our growing Enterprise customer base. To date, the team has resolved more than 7,500 cases. This approach also frees up the sales team members’ time, enabling them to focus less on addressing technical issues and more on strategic efforts to build customer relationships and identify revenue opportunities.

Learn more about what it takes to be a Work Innovator

As the world of work, business priorities, and in-demand skills rapidly evolves, Work Innovator Companies will be better positioned for continued business relevance and long-term success. The Upwork Research Institute’s Work Innovators’ Blueprint for Success highlights additional insights about how forward-thinking companies can redesign work, employ new technologies, and drive organizational performance.

Learn more about the other attributes of high-performing companies, the actions leaders are taking to drive successful business outcomes, and the performance benefits Work Innovator Companies experience. Download the full report today.


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Author Spotlight

The Positive Mindset Work Innovators Have Toward Freelancers
Kelly Monahan
Managing Director, Upwork Research Institute

Dr. Kelly Monahan is Managing Director of the Upwork Research Institute, leading our future of work research program. Her research has been recognized and published in both applied and academic journals, including MIT Sloan Management Review and the Journal of Strategic Management. In 2018, Kelly released her first book, “How Behavioral Economics Influences Management Decision-Making: A New Paradigm” (Academic Press/Elsevier Publishers). In 2019, Kelly gave her first TedX talk on the future of work. Kelly is frequently quoted in the media on talent decision-making and the future of work. She also has written over a dozen publications and is a sought-after speaker on how to apply new management and talent models in knowledge-based organizations. Kelly holds a B.S. from Rochester Institute of Technology, an M.S. from Roberts Wesleyan College and a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from Regent University.

The Positive Mindset Work Innovators Have Toward Freelancers
Managing Director, Upwork Research Institute

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