Somewhere between the start of the Great Recession of 2007 and the Age of the Unicorn, America ushered in the era of the freelance economy.

Today, the workers powering our most innovative companies are increasingly likely to be independent contractors, rather than W2 employees. Last year, the number of freelancers in the United States grew by 700,000 people, and comprised a full 34 percent of the workforce.

As you work to scale your own business, you'll find that freelancers can be an essential, integral part of that process. Having a flexible, agile workforce allows you to scale up more quickly--without taking on the risk of hiring full-time staffers right away.

What's not so obvious is that freelancers need (and yes, crave!) great leadership to inspire, motivate, and challenge them.

At Masthead Media (where a large percentage of our team members are 1099 contributors) we've learned that proactively managing freelancers in an empowering, mutually beneficial way can pay off in spades--not just in increased productivity, but in the quality of the product produced and the overwhelmingly positive feedback we receive from our clients.

To fully tap the incredible potential of your freelance workforce, start with these six steps.

Create a collaborative environment.

Freelancing, particularly for those who work remotely, can be a lonely pursuit. Make your contract employees feel a part of the team by including them on project kickoff calls, and connecting for brief check-ins to find out how they feel the project is going.

Be available--or have a point person at your company who is--to talk through any project challenges they are facing. If you're in the same city, and have been working together for a while, invite them to lunch, coffee, or the office happy hour. A little face time goes a long way towards creating excellent working relationships.

Avoid the "one quick favor" ask.

Before you send your freelancer an e-mail asking for "one quick favor," consider how far this ask falls outside her scope of services, and how "quick" this favor really is. Nothing saps motivation faster than introducing new tasks that require unpaid hours, or completely changing a project once your freelancer has started it.

If you need to change the nature of the project, schedule a call to discuss what compensation you both feel is fair for the additional time and effort required. Most contractors can be flexible, particularly if you acknowledge the changes together instead of assuming unconditional flexibility.

Put in the prep time.

When you're busy enough that you need to hand over work to contract employees, it can be tempting to consider the project handled and move on. Instead of just handing off a project and walking away, though, take the time to give your freelancer a detailed project background and rundown of company resources they can access for this project.

To streamline this onboarding process, create a general freelancer handbook to educate new contractors on your brand's guidelines, points of contact, and preferred vendors.

Give praise where it's due.

Positive reinforcement won't cost you a cent--but giving kudos to your contractors for hitting certain milestones or exceeding expectations is hugely appreciated, and often a powerful motivator to keep achieving. Stay tuned in to your freelancer's progress so you know when they are going the extra mile for your company.

Provide better feedback.

Remote freelancers do not have the same day-to-day exposure to your brand as full-time employees, and may therefore face a steeper learning curve on how to best represent your company with their work.

Build in time for revisions in freelancer project schedules, and hone your own feedback skills. Don't just communicate that something's not working, communicate why it's not working. Giving specific notes will not only improve a current project, but also produce better work on future projects.

Pay invoices on time (every time!)

Nothing inspires greater loyalty among freelancers than the respect you give by compensating them efficiently. In fact, so many companies do not pay on time, that laws are being developed to prevent late and non-payment.

Masthead Media pledges to pay our contractors within 30 days of receipt of a freelancer's invoice for completed work--regardless of whether we've received a check from our own clients.