Five Strategies For Building A Virtual Talent Bench

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift to remote and hybrid work while also increasing the number of independent workers. The future of work is now. As companies become more comfortable with building and integrating on-demand workers into their talent strategy, more companies are realizing the value of building a virtual talent bench.

What is a virtual talent bench?

A virtual talent bench is a pool of freelancers, independent contractors, vendors, and small agencies that you’ve sourced, vetted, and are ready to work with. Having a virtual talent bench allows your team to quickly staff projects as needed, particularly as work shifts from being role-based to project-based.

Why should you build a virtual talent bench?

Building a virtual talent bench makes it easier to deploy independent workers to work on critical special projects quickly. By creating your own in-house virtual talent bench, you’ll save time and money by reducing the time to find and onboard talent — and save fees you may have paid to sourcing agencies.

In addition, building a virtual talent bench well before engagement allows businesses to properly qualify, vet, and onboard talent. Having advised startups for most of my career, I’ve seen many companies bring on talent without formal contracts or vetting simply because of an eagerness to get to work. Without sufficient vetting and executing appropriate contracts before onboarding talent, companies open themselves up to worker misclassification risk and intellectual property issues.

Now that we’ve established the importance of building a virtual talent bench, here are five strategies for building your pipeline.

1. Start by assessing skills gaps.

Start by assessing the skills of your employees against the work you do and may do in the future. You’ll likely find areas where additional resources, specialized skills, or expert advice could be helpful from time to time. Once you have a sense of what kinds of people you need on your virtual talent bench, you’ll be able to start looking for and recruiting the external talent you need.

2. Identify experts and other independent contractors.

There are many ways to find experts, consultants, and other independent contractors, but I’ve found that trusted referrals are the best way to fill your virtual talent bench. Ask your existing virtual talent to refer other freelancers and independent contractors to you, and ask your network to share their trusted talent with you. Freelancer marketplaces like UpWork or Catalant are also another source of virtual talent if you’re having difficulty sourcing referrals. Or, if you are open to establishing a relationship with a company with a deep bench, consulting firms like Business Talent Group or our own firm, FlexTeam, are built on virtual talent benches so that companies don’t have to build their own roster of talent.

3. Develop processes to vet and onboard talent.

Once you’ve identified talent, it’s important to make sure they’re vetted. Check references, run background checks and make sure they are seasoned independent professionals. Then, when you’re ready to onboard your virtual talent, create a standardized onboarding process that makes it easy for your company and your talent to work together. Using automated and electronic onboarding processes makes it easier to ensure all the proper contracts and tax forms are signed quickly and stored safely. Vendor management systems can help you manage all onboarding, contracts, and payments for your virtual talent bench.

4. Develop relationships and prioritize communication.

Working with a virtual talent bench can be transactional, if you choose. But you’ll likely find that building relationships with your virtual talent bench improves outcomes. Not only does relationship building make it more likely that your virtual talent will want to work with you in the future, but it also makes each project run more smoothly. Make sure you’ve documented and communicated best practices and expectations to your virtual talent. Communicate frequently and clearly, both during projects and outside of projects. Engaging your virtual talent bench even when they aren’t actively working with you helps keep you top of mind — making it more likely that your virtual talent will choose to work with you when the time is right.

5. Create procedures for providing feedback and assessing performance.

Providing feedback to your virtual talent during each project is critical to building strong partnerships. Start by creating a procedure to assess performance and give feedback. Make sure all employees who have interacted with your virtual talent bench are asked to provide feedback. If appropriate, ask your virtual talent to provide feedback on the other individual freelancers or consultants they may have interacted with during projects at your company. In addition, store the feedback in your virtual talent bench database for future reference. This information should provide you with actionable insights to help improve future engagements.

Be sure to compile the feedback to share with your virtual talent. I’ve found that freelancers and consultants are eager for feedback, excited to learn, and keen to build new skills.

Transition to a blended workforce.

To successfully compete, companies need to be agile and have workforces that can flex to meet a variety of challenges and opportunities. With a virtual talent bench, your company will have a flexible, blended workforce. That workforce will be able to quickly tackle problems and take on new opportunities. Are you ready to start building your virtual talent bench?

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

Eight Practices Of Successful COOs

Being the chief operating officer or head of operations is hard work. In many organizations, from tech startups to social enterprises, the COO is the director of “getting everything done.” While COOs need to have strong organizational, analytical and project-management skills to solve problems strategically and create procedures, there’s much more to the job.

Whether you’re a new COO or an experienced VP of operations looking to level up your game, you’ve come to the right place.

The following are eight things successful operations leaders do:

1. Build COO-CEO partnership and alignment.

The COO role is unique at every company and depends on company specifics and the CEO’s needs. Align with the CEO early and often on what you can take off their plate. This might be a mix of company-wide alignment and planning, owning departments or teams and taking on special projects or initiatives. Never forget that the CEO and COO are partners in growing the business together.

In some ways, the COO role is a lot like the chief of staff role — you are a sounding board and thinking partner. Like any meaningful relationship, trust, empathy, and communication are foundational. Building and maintaining trust requires maintaining confidentiality when needed, being transparent with the CEO, and thinking through situations and problems using the lens of what is best for the organization and the CEO. Always own up to any mistakes made and lead with grace and compassion.

2. Develop relationships.

Yes, you need to be intelligent, perceptive, and organized, but operations is also about knowing the right people and getting them together to get stuff done quickly and efficiently. One COO I know told me that the biggest value-add this past year has been running workshops to help people decide what their priorities are — not the analytical bits she was hired for.

Make time to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Adapting your style to what others need allows you to develop more robust relationships with your team and colleagues. Be willing to shift how you talk and act, depending on what is appropriate for that specific person in that particular conversation.

Put the work into understanding the power dynamics and politics in your company. In every organization, there are people who are not necessarily senior in role or title but who are very well respected. These are people you don’t want to overlook — you want them on your side.

3. Develop adaptability, flexibility, and resiliency.

Just as soft skills like resilience and adaptability are essential for the future of work, these same skills are needed to be a high-performing COO. Adaptability fosters creative thinking, which is critical for planning and executing strategic initiatives. Flexibility enables you to quickly pivot to any opportunity or challenge, while resiliency helps you overcome those challenges.

4. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

As a COO or director of operations, your time is limited. Preparation is invaluable. Have a clear plan of what you need to get out of each discussion before going in. Prep your presentations and workshops with as much detail as is practical. The more work you put into clearly understanding what you need out of each meeting or event, the more likely you will get it. And the more efficient you are with each meeting, the more people will know you appreciate their time and, in turn, will appreciate you.

5. Develop a data-driven mindset.

For COOs, a data-driven mindset is essential for tackling day-to-day and strategic decision-making. Successful COOs rely on data and metrics as critical inputs when determining recommendations and decisions. But being data-driven doesn’t mean using any and all data. You need to know which data matters, why, and for what purposes, while being mindful of any data limitations. A data-driven mindset requires open thinking, not rigid thinking — data can yield unexpected possibilities and opportunities but can also leave questions unanswered.

6. Keep it simple.

Don’t overcomplicate things. You may be tempted to demonstrate your intelligence by using fancy words or phrasing things in a complex manner. Instead, make it a point to create simplicity and clarity with straightforward questions, clear reports, simple explanations, easy-to-follow presentations, and uncomplicated plans. The more you can distill complex concepts into something easy to understand, the better. While your work is complex, present it so that anyone can follow along — which will make work more efficient. Simplicity breeds speed, scalability, and success.

7. Build your team.

Like any leadership role, as COO, you’re only as good as your team. But as the future of work evolves, how you build, grow and adapt that team is changing. A 2020 HBS and BCG study surveying business executives found that 90% expect that talent platforms will be critical for their competitive advantage. As COO, you need to draw on the right skills and expertise at the right time — on-demand freelancers and consultants can add and supplement the skills and expertise of your team to accelerate strategic initiatives and ensure success.

8. Don’t forget the strategy.

There is never a lack of high-priority things to get done. It can be too easy to get down into the weeds and neglect the high-level strategy. Spend some time each week thinking about the largest obstacles to the company delivering on its goals — like needing more output from a particular team. While you might not be able to address everything immediately, make sure you’re making significant progress each quarter and over the course of a year.

Take operations leadership to the next level.

Following these eight practices can help you achieve success as COO, regardless of industry. Evaluate to what extent you’ve already adopted these practices and what you can do to continue to improve in each area. You’re no longer just the COO — you are the critical partner in helping to grow and evolve your business.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

Six Tips to Build and Integrate Your Flexible, On-Demand Workforce

How we work has changed. The pandemic has accelerated trends already in progress, and it’s become imperative for organizations to develop a flexible, on-demand liquid workforce.

1. Develop a flexible, on-demand workforce as a competitive advantage.

A November 2020 HBS and BCG study of leaders and executives reveals insight into how companies are changing how they think about their workforce. A growing number of organizations are shifting their talent model to a blend of full-time employees and freelance workers as a future competitive advantage. Nearly 90% of respondents expected working with on-demand platforms for premium talent to be critical to the success of their strategic initiatives in the future.

More than half of leaders responding to the same study said they expect their full-time workforce in the future to be much smaller than their current one, and the same number said they would increasingly prefer to rent, borrow or share talent with other companies.

Executives and leaders agree that the future of work requires embracing a modern business strategy that includes working with on-demand consultants and advisors.

2. Change work definitions to be project-based.

A flexible, on-demand workforce cannot function if leaders don’t get better at planning and defining the work itself. The risk of redundancies, missed handoffs and other unforced errors only grows when some or most of the team responsible for delivering work includes freelancers, consultants, and contractors.

This starts by training employees to ask the right questions to get to the right level of clarity and detail about what needs to be done. Use this input to clearly define the scope into discrete pieces of work with finite milestones for external talent. Ambiguity and shifting goals can quickly escalate costs and reduce effectiveness when working with the on-demand workforce.

3. Create an integrated approach for the liquid workforce.

At most companies, consultants and vendors are kept isolated from the inner workings of the company as much as possible. Executing work across cross-functional teams has always been challenging. These issues can be magnified when working with external talent without an integrated mindset and approach. All workers — employees as well as freelancers, consultants, contractors, and vendors — need to understand the overall goals of work. They must also have visibility into pre-existing and ongoing work that informs the work at hand. Keeping the liquid workforce siloed can duplicate work and increase the time and cost for completing work.

Truly confidential and sensitive information should be protected with many internal safeguards. And it’s essential to have every external worker and employee sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or, as we use in our company, a confidential information and invention assignment agreement (CIIA) before work begins. But while it is necessary to keep strictly confidential information safe, it’s paramount to also provide access to the data, information, and people needed to get projects done quickly and efficiently.

4. Define new processes and guidelines.

At some companies, consultants, freelancers, and vendors are subject to rigorous scrutiny, including background checks. Some may have master services agreements (MSAs) or independent contractor agreements (ICAs) or similar contracts in place. But in all too many companies, external workers are governed on a case-by-case basis at best — or with verbal agreements at worst. This puts undue stress on hiring managers and workers, as well as the legal, finance, procurement and HR teams who share the burden of compliance.

Make sure to get fully signed and executed MSAs/ICAs along with NDAs/CIIAs and clearly defined work orders before work begins. This helps to mitigate compliance risk and ensures that work gets done smoothly.

5. Change the culture.

A flexible, on-demand workforce is disruptive. It’s the future of work. Workers and managers will have to rethink their roles, and some will question — or even resist — change. Great shifts require cultural adaptation.

Executives and employees will need to trust outsiders with information and think about freelancers, consultants, and contractors as more than just people who execute non-strategic work. Leaders will need to be more transparent and better at communicating specific, discrete objectives for the work they need to accomplish. Teams must become adept at working with a revolving set of colleagues, both full-time employees, and on-demand workers. This begins by building the habit of explicitly verbalizing formerly implicit team norms and making progress more transparent for others to track.

6. Build in software that integrates your flexible, on-demand workforce.

Moving to a flexible workforce requires leaders to think very differently about how they integrate outsiders with their most important work. A successful organization must build the capacity and capability to manage the complexity of compliance, payments, and legal agreements across multiple cross-functional teams. Key to building this capability is partnering with a vendor management system (VMS) or freelancer management system (FMS) like Liquid (our offering), WorkMarket, or Coupa with the tools and processes to help.

Using a VMS can help organizations scale and optimize project-based work at a lower cost, with lower risk and greater transparency and visibility. The same HBS and BCG study mentioned above also found that difficulty in onboarding external talent quickly and efficiently is a barrier for companies engaging flexible talent. Automated onboarding is just one of many key benefits of using a VMS or FMS.

Building Your Flexible, On-Demand Workforce

Building and integrating a flexible, on-demand workforce requires rethinking work definitions, integrating external talent, adapting company culture, and enabling via processes and software like a VMS. While these requirements can initially seem daunting, each is critical for companies to engage their on-demand workforce successfully. And flexible, on-demand workforces are increasingly becoming an essential strategic lever for companies. It’s time to embrace the future of work.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

Soft Skills Are Essential To The Future Of Work: Hiring for Skills of the Future, Part One

Whether you are hiring employees, independent contractors, or a blended workforce, we all know that the world is changing rapidly and how work gets done is evolving. As a result, how we screen and hire employees and freelancers has changed too. Soft skills — such as empathy, emotional intelligence, kindness, mindfulness, adaptability, integrity, optimism, self-motivation, grit, and resilience — have become crucial success factors.

Why Soft Skills Have Become More Important

As more and more job activities become automated, soft skills, which cannot yet be replicated by machines, have become more important. In 2017, Deloitte also reported that “soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030” and that hiring employees with more soft skills could increase revenue by more than $90,000.

Empathy And Emotional Intelligence

The importance of empathy and social-emotional skills cannot be overstated. Emotionally intelligent teams have a competitive advantage, and I have found that empathy is one of the most important skills to hire for. Caring about how your teammates and customers feel and sensing their unspoken feelings is a true skill that I believe increases productivity and revenue. Empathy and emotional intelligence require self-awareness and enable better listening, leading to improved communication.

When screening potential employees and freelancers, I like to ask if there are charities or causes they care about. This gives me insight into whether they care enough about others to take action. I also like to ask this question: “Can you think of a time when you worked with someone difficult to get along with — how did you handle interactions with that person?” This shows me whether their empathy and emotional intelligence enabled them to not only defuse a challenging situation but turn it into a win.

Integrity And Ethical Responsibility

Billionaire Warren Buffett is famously credited with calling integrity the most important trait to look for when hiring. I agree that this character trait is critical to long-term success. I’ve found that my most successful employees and contractors are those who are ethical, take responsibility for their successes and mistakes, have humility, respect other people’s time, give others credit and take full ownership of their work — especially for losses. When someone tells me they’ve made a mistake and how they intend to fix it, I know I can trust them. In today’s fast-paced world, integrity is even more critical. It’s easy to take shortcuts and show short-term gains, but it’s harder to do things right to set yourself up for long-term success.

In the days of in-person interviews, I liked to ask the receptionist how applicants treated them (and if a meal was involved, how the applicant treated the wait staff). In our remote work world, ask admin assistants how applicants treat them over email. How people treat others reflects their true character.

To encourage a culture of integrity, I own up to mistakes and encourage others to do the same. To screen for this, ask potential workers to explain an incident that occurred in their life that didn’t go as expected and how they resolved it. How they respond usually shows whether they are capable of taking responsibility when things go wrong.

Adaptability And Resilience

As technological advances come more rapidly, hiring for adaptability and resilience is critical. You need open-minded people who can shift gears and take on different responsibilities as needed, adapt their behaviors to their teammates’ needs, manage uncertainty and find the positive when things go wrong. Agility and flexibility — which go hand in hand with adaptability — allow workers to bring and implement fresh ideas.

One question I like to ask potential employees and independent contractors to look for adaptability is, “What’s the most stressful situation you have handled, and what was the outcome?” I also look for people who have combined working part-time during college or graduate school or taken on different roles and responsibilities. To build adaptability and resilience, challenge yourself to be comfortable in unfamiliar environments and situations.

Self-Motivated And Self-Directed

Self-motivated workers, people who have intrinsic motivation, need less oversight and management. Self-motivation and self-direction enables people to take initiative and ownership of their work, set achievable goals against a schedule and take steps accordingly and adapt their plans as necessary. In a future where things are constantly changing, these skills are paramount to success. While I’ve found these skills difficult to develop, helping connect employees to find intrinsic motivation in their work can help.

One question I like to ask potential employees and freelancers is “Tell me about a time when you set a goal for yourself and what you did about it.”


Mindfulness is a soft skill that builds on other skills. Those who are mindful tend to be more emotionally intelligent, adaptable, and forthright. Mindful people stay more focused during difficult situations. Mindfulness is the amplifier of all other soft skills as it cultivates the awareness and discretion to know how to respond in a centered, balanced way across diverse situations.

While I don’t have a secret for hiring for mindfulness, I believe in mindfulness training. Companies can support developing mindfulness by offering perks like a subscription to Headspace or Calm. Or, if you want to maximize the benefits of mindfulness, a subscription to Yoga Ed. so your employees and their families can benefit from on-demand mindfulness and yoga practice. (Full disclosure, I’m an investor in Yoga. Ed.)

Hiring For The Future Of Work

Assessing soft skills should be an essential part of your hiring process for potential employees and contractors. Soft skills strengthen other skills and abilities, and teams with these skills will be equipped to adapt more quickly and easily as the future of work continues to evolve.

Next time, I’ll share additional skills required for success in the future of work, how to hire employees and freelancers with these skills, and to develop these skills with your teams.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

FlexTeam  is  a mission-based micro-consulting firm, co-founded by Yolanda Lau in 2015, that matches talented mid-career women with meaningful, challenging, temporally flexible, remote project-based work opportunities. FlexTeam’s clients are businesses of all sizes across all industries and sectors. FlexTeam’s most requested projects are competitor / market research, financial models, and investor decks. FlexTeam is also the team behind Liquid.

Modern Businesses Need Modern Strategy

The future of work is rapidly changing and already impacting businesses today with the growth of the liquid workforce. Companies are also facing ever more complex challenges as we are increasingly globally connected. Modern businesses need a modern business strategy built on strategic and operational agility to thrive and grow, especially in today’s turbulent times. To compete successfully, companies need to iterate rapidly and be opportunistic in their approach.

Developing Strategic And Operational Agility

In Harvard Business Review, Donald Sull, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, wrote, “Business opportunities are not distributed evenly over time. Rather, firms typically face a steady flow of small opportunities, intermittent midsize ones, and periodic golden opportunities to create significant value quickly.” This statement is as true today as when it was first published in 2009 and underlines the importance of strategic and operational agility in any modern business strategy.

Since that time, what has changed for businesses are fundamental shifts in how we work, where we work and what we work on. Covid-19 has rapidly accelerated the shift to remote work, but the future of work is much more than that. Workers, particularly knowledge workers, are increasingly becoming their own bosses. Upwork and the Freelancers Union reported that in 2019, over 57 million people worked as freelancers in the U.S. Similarly, as companies increasingly embrace agile and scrum methodologies, work is becoming more project-based than strictly role-based.

Modern companies dynamically build specialized project teams to tackle different opportunities and challenges. Startups to enterprise-size companies can successfully develop and execute modern business strategy by enabling two key pillars: an agile, flexible workforce and project-based work.

Creating An Agile, Flexible Workforce

As the liquid workforce grows, companies are working with FlexTeam, GLG, Catalant, and other consulting companies or expert marketplaces to develop a blended workforce that consists of a mix of full-time and on-demand (liquid) talent. Human resources leaders are rethinking their approach to building and developing a company’s workforce, shifting to growing a talent-based workforce. With a talent-based mindset, these leaders consider both the near-term and long-term skills and experience needed to support a modern business strategy. The workforce is no longer composed primarily of employees; it’s now an overall talent pool of full-time employees and liquid workers available to tap on demand.

With liquid workers as part of the workforce, companies can nimbly and quickly deploy the right talent to address strategic opportunities and challenges. Knowledge-based workers can swiftly jump in from day one to lead or execute projects. Companies benefit from faster time-to-market for projects and more cost-effectively managing their resources. A blended workforce often yields fresh thinking and new ideas — it can even boost diversity and inclusion for a company.

And while this workforce may be a fluid, yet integral, part of the team, it’s essential to have the right onboarding and processes in place to set up every liquid worker for success. Building strong relationships with your liquid talent is critical for retaining them in your talent network for future engagements.

Shifting To Project-Based Work

Project-based work has long been supported by traditional, big consulting companies. However, working with big consulting companies frequently poses challenges for modern businesses. These companies often move too slowly; the future of work requires modern businesses to move quickly to take advantage of opportunities or resolve challenges. Additionally, consulting companies can be expensive to engage, particularly for smaller companies.

Modern businesses are increasingly relying on liquid talent for project-based work. These knowledge workers can bring a new perspective and deep expertise and can quickly jump in and help these businesses address specific questions, challenges, and opportunities, often through shorter engagements. For example, liquid talent might create competitive or strategic analyses, conduct market research or build financial models. On-demand talent supports all levels of businesses, also serving as consultants and advisors for corporate boards.

The key to engaging liquid talent for high business impact is to focus on answering very specific questions or addressing particular challenges.

Transitioning To Modern Strategy

Competing successfully in an increasingly complex environment requires businesses to be nimble, agile and opportunistic. Building an agile, flexible workforce and shifting to a project-based work mindset are critical. Without these fundamental building blocks of modern strategy, businesses are forever conceding the potential for first-mover advantage. Start taking advantage of the opportunities today and tomorrow by shifting to a modern business strategy approach.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

FlexTeam  is  a mission-based micro-consulting firm, co-founded by Yolanda Lau in 2015, that matches talented mid-career women with meaningful, challenging, temporally flexible, remote project-based work opportunities. FlexTeam’s clients are businesses of all sizes across all industries and sectors. FlexTeam’s most requested projects are competitor / market research, financial models, and investor decks. FlexTeam is also the team behind Liquid.

Bringing Emotions Into The Workplace

Emotions matter. Emotional intelligence is a critical 21st-century skill, and as such, companies with emotionally intelligent executive teams have a competitive advantage. Today, managers and executives must not only master their own emotions, but also craft strategies to support emotions at work. Doing so ultimately creates a more productive, supportive, and energizing work environment for all.

How We Got Here

For most of the 20th century, companies valued employees who behaved like robots. When the limiting factor in increasing productivity was increasing the efficiency of assembly line workers, having emotions at work became a liability. If a worker had to take a moment during factory work to process their emotions, that would hold up the production line. In fact, our current educational system is said to have been developed to train people to become assembly line workers who could be easily replaced. But humans aren’t emotionless robots or machines.

But the world has changed. We have actual machines to complete assembly line manufacturing, and the skills needed to succeed in today’s workforce have changed.

Why Emotions Matter

It can be challenging to leave emotions behind when coming to work — it’s why crying happens in the bathroom when people are expected to smile at their desks. Emotions, particularly negative emotions, can be distracting at best and be debilitating at worst. Moreover, positive and negative emotions are contagious. Emotions can spread unconsciously among people in groups, such that when you encounter someone in a bad mood, you may unknowingly begin to feel upset as well.

The truth is that try as we might, emotions leak out of us. Your employees’ emotions leak out to each other and your customers and potential customers. And a potential customer sensing negative emotions is less likely to become an actual paying customer. In contrast, a potential customer who senses excitement and joy from a business’s employees may feel more energized, allowing you to move them further down your sales funnel.

Thus, it is essential to be aware of your feelings and inner emotions — to connect with those emotions and name them. Without this awareness, it is difficult to manage or change those feelings. Still not convinced? Research has found that employees working in cultures of joy and compassion show increased commitment and reduced burnout.

Expressing Emotions Versus Being Emotional

Some people think that strong negative emotions are linked to raised voices, slammed doors, eye-rolling and more. In short, people think that strong negative emotions result in venting, which we know to be unproductive. But these are simply unskillful expressions of suppressed negative emotions — expressions that can cause harm to others.

In contrast, expressing emotions begins with getting in touch with how we feel. It’s important to take responsibility for how we express those emotions and how those expressions impact those around us.

Practical Tips

Let’s go over some tips to develop your emotional intelligence and to encourage your team to bring their emotions to work. Doing so will do more than increase productivity; you’ll create a workplace that employees feel supported in, allowing you to recruit new employees more competitively.

1. Learn The Language Of Emotions

Tools like Emotion wheels, RULER’s Mood Meter, or Atlas of Emotions can develop your vocabulary of emotions. Soon you’ll be able to name the wide range of emotions that are part of the human experience — energized, lonely, worried, peaceful, motivated, fuming and anxious are all valid feelings. When you name your emotions, you defuse them and take away their power. From there, start adjusting how you react to your emotions.

2. Conduct Check-Ins

Once you and your team are comfortable with the language of emotions — have started developing emotional intelligence — you can begin to incorporate ways to encourage and allow employees to bring their emotions to work. Conduct individual or group check-ins that encourage employees to share what they feel, be aware of where their attention is and process and manage their emotions.

Some teams use a green-yellow-red check-in system, where green indicates that you’re in the flow, while yellow means you’re feeling off, and red means you have some feelings blocking you (feelings that you are encouraged to tend to before you get back to work). Others prefer the RULER Mood Meter with its yellow/green versus red/blue check-ins and its ability to allow people to be more expressive. However you structure these check-ins, they should encourage your employees to express and manage their emotions for the goal of increasing employee productivity and satisfaction.

3. Encourage Positive Emotions

Creating a kudos board — whether virtual or in your office — where people can post kind words about their co-workers can help employees get in touch with and share positive feelings. You can also schedule or periodically remind people to breathe or relax. Encouraging positive emotions at work will pay dividends.

4. Honest Leadership

I recommend that leaders be aware of their mood and deliberately energize and lift their spirits before interacting with their teams. Leaders must be honest with themselves and their team members about their feelings. Faking positive emotions can only fool people for short periods of time, but your true feelings will eventually leak out. Your team will pick up on your posture, facial expressions, and vocal expressions to “catch” your negative emotions. Moreover, faking emotions can also lead your team to distrust your words — which can lead to disastrous consequences.

Today, managers and executives must use their emotional intelligence to not only manage how they present their emotions, but also to encourage the spread of emotions that will contribute to higher productivity, increased job satisfaction and improved team performance. Paying attention to the emotions in your workplace may be the difference between success and failure for you and your business.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Interested in the Future of Work? Join the Work of the Future #FutureOfWork Facebook Group.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

How To Convert Your Salary To An Hourly Rate As You Start Your Consulting Business

The future of work is the liquid workforce. Companies that expect to maintain their competitive edge must engage and activate the liquid workforce, often by hiring on-demand advisors and consultants, along with other skilled freelance workers.

Whether you’re already a consultant or a former executive looking for new challenges, it’s a great time to start your new consulting business. I speak from decades of experience consulting on my own and starting my firm when I say that for people like us, there’s nothing more rewarding than running your own business.

On-Demand Consulting When You Have A Full-Time Job

Even if you have a full-time job, you can still start a part-time consulting business by working at nights and on weekends. It’s a great way to learn new skills, make contacts with potential employers and give your resume a boost — plus, add some extra money to your bank account. Just be sure to check with your employer to see what restrictions are in place regarding outside compensation.

Starting Your Consulting Business

It’s pretty simple to start your consulting business. Just order some business cards, and create a simple website on Squarespace or WordPress, and you’re pretty much ready to go.

You can use your Social Security number (SSN), but with the increased focus on freelance workers’ rights, I highly recommend incorporating your consulting business and applying for an IRS employer identification number (EIN). Talk to an attorney and an accountant to figure out which structure is best for you. The advice I’ve received is that incorporating helps to substantiate the claim that you are indeed an independent contractor — and this allows companies to be more confident in engaging your services. With increased focus and regulations on freelancer rights, be prepared for clients to ask about your incorporation status. Personally, my own consulting firm is incorporated as a limited liability company (LLC).

Some people choose to start their consulting business with their name. Others choose names that convey the services they offer. Others choose more abstract names. Regardless of how you choose your business name, be sure to have business cards to give out to potential clients.

How To Set Your Hourly Consulting Rate

It’s best for new consultants to start by setting their hourly consulting rate, which can be used to calculate a monthly retainer and as a guideline for project-based fees. Most fledgling consultants struggle with setting their consulting rates, but it doesn’t have to be difficult to calculate based on your current or most recent annual salary.

Imagine your most recent annual salary is $100,000. Begin by converting that figure to a basic hourly rate. Full-time employees typically work 2,000 hours per year after holidays, so divide 100,000 by 2,000 to get 50 — or $50 per hour as a starting point.

Why You Should Add A Buffer To Your Hourly Consulting Rate

However, on-demand consultants and advisors should also add in a buffer. That’s because consultants pay for their own healthcare and office expenses, along with not being eligible for paid sick time or vacation days. In addition, consultants rarely work 40 hours per week for clients, as they need to spend time on business development (BD) to get their next projects, and they have to spend time invoicing and collecting from clients.

Most consultants I know add a buffer of 30% to 50% to their hourly rate to account for all these expenses. Those same consultants will add a much smaller buffer when using a marketplace or other service that allows them to focus their work hours on billable project hours — versus BD and sales or time spent billing clients.

If you build in a 30% buffer to your rate of $50 per hour, you can charge $65 per hour. If you add a 50% buffer, your hourly rate becomes $75 per hour. More experienced on-demand consultants and advisors with highly specialized skills, pedigreed backgrounds and proven track records of delivering results to clients usually increase their rates beyond that. I’ve worked with on-demand expert advisors who charge as much as $800 per hour, but $65-$75 is a terrific place for a brand-new consultant in search of their first client to start.

Gut Check

After arriving at an hourly rate, be sure to do a gut check. Think about the potential impact your work may have on the client’s business, how urgently the project need is, and how specialized your specific experience and knowledge are. These are just a few reasons you may want to consider adjusting your hourly rate. Don’t sell yourself short!

Now that you’ve calculated your hourly rate for on-demand consulting and advisory services, you’re ready to embark on your new venture. You will be thrilled when you get that first check — but more importantly, congratulations on setting yourself up for an independent and rewarding career path.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

FlexTeam  is  a mission-based micro-consulting firm, co-founded by Yolanda Lau in 2015, that matches talented mid-career women with meaningful, challenging, temporally flexible, remote project-based work opportunities. FlexTeam’s clients are businesses of all sizes across all industries and sectors. FlexTeam’s most requested projects are competitor / market research, financial models, and investor decks. FlexTeam is also the team behind Liquid.

Four Tips For Managing Your Liquid Workforce

By Yolanda Lau

We’ve all heard that the “gig economy” is the future of work. Estimates put the number of Americans doing freelance work between 54 million and 90 million. In particular, there’s been an increase in the number of freelance strategy and management consultants, as well as marketplaces and platforms connecting businesses to independent consultants. Boutique sites like SpareHireHourlyNerdMBA and CompanyHillgateToptal Business (formerly Skillbridge) and 79 Studios’ own FlexTeam make top quality consultants more accessible to and affordable for smaller businesses.

The future of work is the liquid workforce, and trends show that it’s imperative for companies to activate this cohort in order to maintain their competitive edge. Managing your liquid workforce — from freelancers to highly specialized on-demand advisors and consultants — is both like and unlike managing your full-time workforce. Overall, much is similar, but the specific strategies and techniques are slightly different.

Having managed hundreds of freelancers, I’ve learned that to successfully grow and manage your liquid workforce, you need to think like both a human resources leader and a finance leader. Once you’ve mastered this, your company will become more agile, and you will accelerate your own career development.

Here are four tips that can help leaders working with the liquid workforce, whether you are managing a few freelancers or hundreds.

1. Developing Your Talent Pool

How can you attract the right freelance talent for your company? In many ways, it’s similar to searching for the right candidate for a full-time position. When hiring an employee, establishing the strengths, experience and skills the right candidate will possess is critical. You also need to assess and evaluate the candidate, along with checking referrals. To source candidates, canvas your network for recommendations and use online portals.

From a tactical perspective, these actions are mostly the same when hiring a freelancer or vendor. The main difference is that instead of posting a job, you will post a request for proposal (RFP).

Your approach to liquid and full-time talent will diverge on strategy for developing those pools. Inherently, your freelance talent is fluid. How often and how long you work with each freelancer will vary. Often, you will want to start freelance work within days — or even hours. What this means is that to fully take advantage of the potential for liquid talent to accelerate your business, you need to approach the development of this talent pool strategically.

Think ahead about the types of skills your business will need over the coming year. Do you already have relationships with freelancers with those skills? If not, consider using smaller trial projects to recruit and vet new freelancers. Keep track of your liquid talent pool in a database or freelancer management system — make it easy to search and find the talent with the right skills and experience.

2. Onboarding And Processes

Just like your company has human resources management systems and processes for managing full-time employees, you need to have the right processes and systems in place to successfully grow and manage your liquid workforce.

A robust onboarding process that includes both automation and customization is just as critical for your freelancers as it is for your employees. The right onboarding process not only gets your project off to the right start, but also ensures your company is compliant with regulations. Make sure your onboarding process includes executing independent contractor agreements and nondisclosure agreements, as well as collecting all the W-9 information your company will need for filing 1099 forms.

Your systems and processes should also make it easy to manage and pay your freelancers. As you grow this team, keeping track of projects and invoices can become complicated and time-consuming very quickly. Plus, as your liquid workforce becomes a critical part of your overall workforce, you need to have robust financial management. Your company needs to not only accurately track payments, but also track cash flow and future expenses for your freelancers. To become an expert manager of your liquid workforce, you have to be more than an HR leader — you have to also be a finance manager with complete control and visibility into current and future expenses.

In my experience, depending upon the number of freelancers you hire, you can easily save 20 or more hours every month by using an FMS instead of manual processes and spreadsheets.

3. Evaluating Your Team

Effectively managing your liquid workforce is about much more than handling RFPs, contracts and invoices. Providing feedback to your freelancers throughout a project is critical to successful project completion and to building long-term relationships — 360-degree feedback matters for freelancers, too, not just employees. Gather feedback from anybody who worked with an individual freelancer. Use the responses to share feedback and to review their performance.

As part of your review, remember to think ahead to potential future projects. What types of projects is this freelancer best suited for? What level of complexity can he/she handle? Keep notes on working style or other factors to help you partner even more successfully on the next project.

4. Retaining Your Freelancers

Like your employees, freelancers want to be valued. Would your employees still want to work for you if they were underpaid? What if you didn’t pay them on time? Are you offering the freelancer routine work, or is it more interesting, challenging and intellectually stimulating? Do you provide positive and constructive feedback? Are you committed to the freelancer’s success and providing support when needed? Think about these factors from the freelancer’s perspective; this will help you build long-term relationships with your liquid workforce.

Don’t forget that for most freelancers, one of the critical benefits of freelancing is flexibility. Make sure you are supporting this and respecting any boundaries set on available hours for communication and meetings.

Beyond Liquid Workforce Leadership

As you develop, manage, evaluate and retain your liquid workforce, you’ll expand your skills as an HR professional and position yourself for executive-level advancement. What’s more, using these tips will help you grow your liquid workforce into a strategic advantage for your company, with agile talent ready to tackle any challenge. You and your company will be ready for the future of work.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

15 business practices to adopt as you start your small business

I’ve started and operated several companies, all of which used independent contractors (and some of which also used traditional employees). Some key business tactics I believe in include: relying on empirical data to make decisions (whether or not that means using rigorous programming based data analysis techniques); preferring slow incremental growth via low risk bets (versus making high risk decisions that could lead to disaster); keeping cash reserves to protect against disaster; and that trust is critical to successful relationships with colleagues, workers, and clients.

Those practices can be implemented in any company, whether you use independent contractors or traditional employees. But over the years, I’ve compiled a list of operating practices I would adopt if I started a “normal” business with “normal” employees. If you are starting a business with employees, maybe you’ll find you, too, want to adopt some of these practices.

Here’s an overview of 15 business practices to adopt as you start your small business. I could probably write a full post about each of these practices (and for some of these, I already have), so I’ve tried (with limited success ) to keep each section brief:

Whenever possible, reduce the number of choices to customers.

Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More. We’ve all been conditioned to believe that the more options the better. This book’s counter-intuitive premise is that adding options reduces the likelihood that people will select any, whether the decision in question is trivial (which gourmet jam to purchase) or very significant (which health insurance plan to sign-up for). And when most people stop to think about it, they can think of personal examples when more options led to indecision. For me, this often happens at coffee shops — when I see too many different breakfast sandwiches and scones to choose from, I order only coffee. In contrast, I love shopping at Costco and only having a few brands of yogurt to choose from!

Don’t be afraid to turn down customers or clients, or to refer them to your competitors.

It is scary to turn away business. But there are two theories behind my tip. The first is opportunity cost — if you accept “bad” business, you may be losing some “good” business because your time and resources will be tied up with the “bad” client / customer. Bad can be defined in any way you choose — customers who try to negotiate price, customers who threaten to take their business elsewhere, customers who need lots of extra time and attention, etc. The second theory behind this idea is that if you aren’t the best fit for the client (whether that’s because of price, or skills, or other reasons), then referring them to someone who does fit their stated needs helps you to build trust. And when they trust you, they’ll be more likely to recommend you to people who are a good fit for your company. As an added bonus, sometimes, when the issue is price, the clients may learn that you get what you pay for and end up coming back to you. Take a look at The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford and Trust Based Selling: Using Customer Focus and Collaboration to Build Long-Term Relationships by Charles Green to learn more about these ideas.

Create ‘Good jobs.’

The Good Jobs Strategy

MIT professor Zeynop Ton, in her book The Good Jobs Strategy, defines good jobs as fulfilling jobs that pay well. Companies like Southwest Airlines, Trader Joes, Costco, UPS, In-N-Out Burger, use human-centered operational excellence to offer low prices to customers while ensuring good jobs for their employees and exceptional returns for their investors. Ok, that’s a lot of buzzwords. Put another way, make four operational choices — Offer Less, Standardize and Empower, Cross-Train, and Operate with Slack — and you will find that (contrary to popular belief) you can run a successful business and pay your employees a living wage or more. Read this post I wrote in 2016 to learn more.

Subsidize family care.

When people know that their loved ones (young children, elderly parents, and other dependent family members) are being cared for, they can focus on their work at work. I believe in universal high-quality childcare for all, but that’s a post for another time.

Paid family leave.

This is corollary to subsidizing family care and I could write an entire post about the importance of paid family leave. The short version is simply that allowing people to take care of their loved ones: 1) allows them to be more focused at work; and 2) secures loyalty from your employees.

Hire for soft skills.

I’ve always done this when hiring independent contractors, and it carries over to employees as well. It’s better to hire someone eager to learn who works well with people, than someone who has already perfected the skills but lacks emotional intelligence or communication skills. Mastery of content is important, but that loses value if you can’t communicate your thoughts or collaborate with others. Read more about my thoughts on this topic here.

Invest in your people.

Turnover is costly. Provided you’ve invested in creating a relationship of trust with your employees, it is cheaper to train and develop your existing employees, than it is to find, recruit, and onboard new ones. Cultivate your employees.

Encourage vacations.

When people go on vacation, and truly step away from the office, they come back to work happier, more creative, and more productive. More vacation days has been shown to decrease the number of sick days taken off! And when you, or other executives go on vacation, ignore emails unless it’s truly an emergency that only you can fix. Doing so shows your people that you trust them (if you can’t tell, I’m a big believer in trust) and gives people the chance to develop new skills and talents in your absence. And it helps reinforce the company culture that vacations are encouraged.

Additional paid leave between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.

Obviously this isn’t possible for all companies (retail shops, for example), but if at all possible I’d reduce operations during this period. Forcing people to take time off means your employees come back to work rejuvenated. For employees with young children, they often have to take time off anyway and this can be a huge stress reliever. Plus, no one really wants to work during this time anyway (employees and clients) and you save your employees from fighting over who gets to take leave during this time. Lastly, think of it as part of your benefits package, that allows you to hire and retain the best employees. Not convinced, take a look at this post from Inc. (not written by me).

30 hour weeks at full time pay.

The eight-hour workday is a relic of the industrial era; Henry Ford pioneered the five day work week (down from six days), and that’s how we ended up with the 40-hour work week. Most of us can agree that we’ve moved beyond industrialism. Isn’t it time we move on from business practices created for that era? I believe that if you trust people to squeeze all their productivity into 30 hours, instead of 40+, and you’ll have more engaged, happier employees. That sounds too drastic for you? Here are some alternatives: 35-hour work week; a four-day, 10-hours per day schedule; create core hours (say 9:30am to 1:30pm) where employees are required to be working (then trust that they will work from home in the mornings or evenings to work the required number of hours).

Encourage people to be their full selves at work.

Need to take long lunch to recharge? Leaving early to coach your daughter’s baseball team? Coming in late after your son’s school play? Taking your mom to her doctors appointment mid-morning? People are more productive (and loyal) when they don’t need to hide a part of themselves during work hours.

Trust your people with the big picture.

Share your vision, make it a shared vision, and employees will dedicate themselves to your vision. Work becomes more meaningful. Feeling inspired, people are more likely to go above and beyond to help each other and your customers. And when you share the big picture, every employee feels empowered to contribute ideas. Innovation happens more quickly.

Don’t grow for the sake of growth.

Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big by Bo Burlingham is one of my favorite books. It highlights businesses that chose to stay small and true to themselves, instead of growing for the sake of growth. Another book in this vein is Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras. Built to Last has a slightly different message, but the common ground between it and Small Giants is the idea of building a meaningful, enduring business.

Diversity and inclusion strategy.

D&I is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. The business case for a D&I strategy is clear — increasing diversity leads to tangible economic gains. McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2018 study is just one of many studies that have made a clear business case for diversity. There are many resources out there for companies who choose to tackle this issue (and I hope that most will), so I won’t write too much about this here. What I will say though, is that we should (perhaps unintuitively) focus on inclusion (how people are treated) before diversity (the demographics / numbers). Start with inclusion and company culture — what things are said and unsaid, who speaks at meetings, who gets chosen for presentations and projects, etc — and work on overcoming biases. Then, work on diversity.

Commit to pay transparency.

Employees are happier and more motivated when salaries are transparent. They work harder, they’re more productive, and they’re better at collaborating with colleagues. All this leads to greater profit for the employer. But researchers say transparency is also important because keeping salaries secret reinforces discrimination. So back to D&I — committing to pay transparency will help close the pay gap, and increase diversity, all while helping your bottom line.

Whew, you made it through all 15 business practices! 
These practices may seem extravagant, but they’re practices that have worked for successful companies. They might not all be appropriate for yours. But I believe in treating employees with decency and respect, and giving them meaningful work while allowing them to also have lives outside of work. And I believe that doing so will ultimately improve your financial performance.

What are your best practices for operating businesses? Please share them!

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.

‘Good Jobs’ to Create Prosperity Together

I’m fascinated by the Future of Work. So when I read Adam Davidson’s piece for the NYTimes Magazine Future of Work Issue titled “Managed by Q’s ‘Good Jobs’ Gamble”, I had to get a copy of the Zeynop Ton’s The Good Jobs Strategy.

Having worked for a big corporate retailer that recently came out of bankruptcy and having operational experience in small businesses, the ideas in Ton’s book weren’t new to me. But Ton, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, does a phenomenal job of conveying the importance of creating human-centered operations to create fulfilling jobs that pay well, while also improving returns for companies’ investors. Moreover, she illustrates clear examples for putting the Good Jobs Strategy into practice.

Ton boils down the ‘Good Jobs’ operational strategies to four choices:

  • Offer Less: offer fewer products to increase customer satisfaction while streamlining operations
  • Standardize and Empower: use scientific management to examine the work environment to determine which tasks should be standardizes (those which must be done efficiently and consistently) and which tasks to trust to empowered well-trained employees
  • Cross-Train: empower your employees to do many tasks, leading to greater job satisfaction while increasing productivity
  • Operate with Slack: overstaffing costs less than you think, and understaffing comes with many hidden costs

Using these strategies, companies can create ‘Good Jobs.’ Jobs that pay a middle-class salary and create a sense of purpose and empowerment at work, while allowing employees to have a meaningful personal life.

Drawing on more than a decade of research, Ton shows how companies like Southwest Airlines, Trader Joes, Costco, UPS, In-N-Out Burger, use human-centered operational excellence to of­fer low prices to customers while ensuring good jobs for their employees and exceptional returns for their investors.

Ton’s book left me hopeful that we can increase the collective prosperity of all Americans by implementing her research.

Now go out and get yourself a copy, and use the Good Jobs Strategy to build and grow your business.

Yolanda Lau is an experienced entrepreneurship consultant, advisor, and Forbes Contributor. She is also an educator, speaker, writer, and non-profit fundraiser.

Since 2010, she has been focused on preparing knowledge workers, educators, and students for the future of work.

Learn more about Yolanda here.