Are contractors good for supplementing Agile teams?

Want loyalty? Hire FTEs! Want an expendable workforce? Hire contractors! Want short-term experts to solve problems? Hire consultants (*at a premium price)! But what if you want high performing Agile teams? What type of workers should you look to hire then?

Certainly it’s been proven that high performing Agile teams are formed and work is brought to them. Teams should not be continually formed and deconstructed around project/product needs. If this is the case, teams do not get the chance to go through the forming, norming, storming and performing cycle. It takes time to find a rhythm, velocity, understand other members of the team, and how to work together. So, when forming a team, what type of workers should be hired?

Yes, FTEs will generally stay longer as they should because they are getting benefits and likely have a greater company loyalty. This initially sounds like the best type of employee for the team! They care about company performance (bonus implications), want to form lasting relationships if they enjoy their job, and want to work hard to get raises and other benefits. However, some FTEs may also just be going through the motions and doing the bare minimum for their job. Anyone who has worked with such individuals, or worked with HR at all knows how difficult it can be to get someone fired. Would I choose an entire team of FTEs to work on an Agile project or product? If they’re good, absolutely. If not or if that is not possible, it may be better to supplement with contractors.

Some people have stereotypes about contractors, e.g. they are just temps who don’t invest in their work or cannot get a full-time position. While this may be true with some, I have worked with many contractors where that is the farthest thing from the truth. Some of the best people I’ve worked with are contractors and they simply choose that option because of the flexibility it allows them. Of course I would love those great contractors on my team. But what about loyalty and reliability?

Yes, if a contractor does not like what they are doing it is very easy to break contract and leave with little to no penalty (besides maybe a smoldering bridge left behind). That can be detrimental to teams if they have formed a good rhythm and everyone is up to speed. It’s difficult to get a new contractor on the ground quickly (even harder with a new FTE in my experience). Any team disruption is, well, disruptive. So from that vantage point, we should be trying to keep our contractors happy, too, if they are a valuable part of our team. And teams with an increasing number of contractors seems to be the way the IT industry is trending. I’ve been on teams with all or almost all contractors that are responsible for some very important business products that bring in significant revenue for the company.

Then again, it depends on how the leadership is looking at the contractors. Are they looking for talent or purely a flexible staff augmentation workforce? Yes, it’s cheaper to hire and fire contractors but when it is only used as a cost reduction method, the intrinsic value is often not realized. If a high performing team of contractors is split up and distributed to other teams the results will likely be worse than if you had a lower performing team that was kept together. It’s not always the people on the team, it’s the team as a whole that delivers – together.

This brings me to the topic of long-term contractors. Some contractors essentially have never-ending contracts or are continually renewed each year. This is both good and bad. The good is that they are likely committed to the team and to the organization. They have the knowledge they need to be high performing and the stability they need to stay with the company – usually. The bad is that again, they are still contractors. Their ties are not as strong. They can still be let go easily. They can still easily quit. And they have no necessity to give two weeks notice or any knowledge transfer. Single point(s) of failure anyone? I’ve worked with teams of contractors that if one left, the company would be in big trouble. And the company has tried to convert them to full-time employees, but that’s the not desire of everyone.

So what’s the point? The point is to understand what type of employees you have on your team, what their motivations are, what their skills are, and what they want out of a job. You want to try to keep feeling valued as everyone cannot be happy or satisfied all the time. Make sure that you are not ripping apart teams if at all possible. Make sure that your teams have the opportunity to work together and become high performing. And form the teams first and then start bringing them work. Don’t continually form and re-form teams around work. If you see an email saying person x has 8 hours this week free to work on something…well you probably have a big issue. As always it’s a balance and it depends on the situation, but in general use your head and try to keep your teams stable so they can produce results – together.

04. March 2016 by Natalie Warnert
1 comment

One Comment

  1. Great blog, there are many good points!

    I would like to add one more point: It can be a good thing to bring in new people from time to time, even though the team then has to go through some forming, norming and storming again. Because this will break some habits, and people from the outside often have a different view and can easily spot things that the team doesn’t see anymore. Like the elephant in the room.

    I wrote a little bit about this here: http://davidtanzer.net/about_detailed – But maybe I should write a more detailed explanation about what I mean. When I find some time 🙂

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