I have been a freelancer for most of my life. I have worked extensively with local clients — those well within the 10-mile radius — as well as those who are based in other countries. And while it is easy to assume that in this day and age of hyperconnectivity communication and any sort of collaboration is a breeze — it isn’t, even with a client who is only an hour’s drive away.
The biggest problem I faced in my stint as an individual contributor had more to do with job clarity (or the lack of, honestly) and then, perhaps, collaboration with other folks. When you work in/with a small organization, everybody is constantly in a rush to get a lot of things done. They all wear multiple hats and, at any given point, can be found juggling between different kinds of tasks. And because you are only limited to your job and that alone, it is not easy to get the in-house team to collaborate according to your timelines. It would feel like I was intruding in their professional lives, at times, and that’s not a healthy way to work.
On the client side of things, I have worked with freelancers for many of my projects. While the perks are many — these are people with really diverse backgrounds and enriching experiences to their credits — the issues aren’t less. For one, most work in different time zones. Replying to emails takes twice as long and delay is imminent. And because I, too, don one too many hats, it’s easy for outsourced tasks to get pushed to the side. Imagine having to take a call from the UK at 9 in the night after a long, tiring day’s work when all you really want to do is call it a night.
Over the years I have developed a system of sorts to work with remote team members and it has turned out to be rather effective. Here’s how I go about it all:
The easiest way to build productivity into any organization is to establish certain email ground rules — what qualifies as important and urgent, for what matters are ‘emails essential’ and some such. No company trains you in this, but it is important to make clear what reaches your inbox and that of others. This way you tune out most of the noise and save a lot of time trying to scan through it all.
For remote teams, make clear email timelines — if an email is sent between so-and-so time, it will be answered by so-and-so time. This erases much of the ambiguity and anxiety surrounding inbox-led communications. Plus, I really hate the idea that somebody is waiting for a reply when it is clearly not going to happen till the next day. I am a firm believer in protocols and sound sleep, you see.
It helps immensely when you know how to best reach a concerned person. I once worked with someone who hated the idea of phone calls — maybe because he is more a type-B personality, and I completely get it — and would insist we talk via chat. And my partially dyslexic-self detests chat. Plus, I don’t have that kind of patience — to wait around for a reply, staring blankly at my smartphone. But then, I am not someone who would insist on protocols my team isn’t comfortable with. We settled on communicating over emails. Every other morning, he’d share snippets on the progress of the task and by evening, he’d have a reply from me. It was a slow process, but it worked for us both.
As far as meetings are concerned, it is far more easy to use Hangouts or Skype, even with somebody who lives 10 blocks away. Save on commute and use that time to actually address the subject matter calmly and comfortably and in full clarity, let me add. It is best to share an agenda for the meeting, at least a day prior to the event so the interactions are relevant, wholesome, time-efficient and not time consuming.
Working with just one or two freelancers is easy. Working with any number of people in the double-digit ball-park requires a lot more effort and a system, preferably.
To avoid task overlap or task ignorance, it is best to employ the services of a project management app or a workflow management system. It is an investment you make, the dividends of which you get to reap almost immediately. For one, everybody can track what everybody else is working on. With the right tools you should be able to see the progress as work happens, and there goes the need for exchanging five emails in the morning. The greatest benefit of a project management tool is that all tasks are clear and everyone can acknowledge who is driving what. For a small organization, especially, it is vital to make clear who owns which steps of a project, so that everybody understands the critical activities and timelines for their set of deliverables. Plus I find that when every day can see, with full clearness, what others are working on, it drives a certain healthy competitive spirit and that’s always a good vibe to surround yourself with.
Personally, I try to give my organization skills an extra bit of push and make sure I do not over-function or under-function in any way using to-do lists and calendar reminders. Post-it notes can almost always be found on my work station. In fact, I used to enjoy being organized with Timeful — a time-blocking app that would prompt a message if an event conflicted with another, even suggesting alternatives dates and time slots — but after its acquisition by Google, I have tuned into calendar-ized routines with the same effect.
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