Communicating Effectively with Freelancers
Working with freelancers is reasonably similar to working with in-house employees but it does have its differences. Lack of communication is a frequent problem that I’m sure you’ve had ruin a project or two.
If you want to get the work done, you need to make sure that both you and your freelance workforce are on the same page. Here are some communication fundamentals to make it easier to work effectively with freelancers.
1. Develop Communication Rules
If you have been working with a particular freelancer for some time, you more or less have an idea about their communication skills and habits. However, if you’re working with somebody new, you can save yourself lots of problems if you develop some communication rules.
State your availability. Nobody expects you to be available 24/7 but if you haven’t set any expectations then you’ll run into trouble.
This is why it’s best to agree on hours when you both will be available online/on the phone. This way both of you know when the other party is available.
Time difference is something important to take into account. For instance, I am in Europe, while most of my clients are in the States. Most my clients know I am available in the morning their time, while for me, depending on which state they are, they are available in the afternoon/evening.
Before that there had been a few cases of “Why don’t you answer my calls/emails?!?!?! I’ve been waiting!” because when clients don’t know I am in Europe, not in California, they presume I am available during their business hours.
You also need to agree on acceptable delay in answering emails – i.e. 12 hours, 24 hours, etc. In the example above I simply explained to the clients that I can’t answer immediately even if I am not sleeping at the moment. Fortunately, no lives were lost due to my delay but I do agree it’s unpleasant when you sit by the phone/computer waiting for an answer.
2. Communicate in Writing as Much as Possible
Years of working as a freelancer and with freelancers have taught me that written communication rules. Yes, it takes a lot of time to put everything in writing but at least for the major decisions regarding a project, it’s a must.
It’s much faster when you speak but the advantages of oral communication end here. Often there will be a language barrier and you can never be sure if what you try to communicate is being received by the other party the way that you intended it. With oral communication, misunderstandings are very easy!
While you are chatting over the phone, everything can seem very clear. The moment you hang up, you just forget what you have discussed over the phone. Also, if the other party is dishonest, they can easily sneak away with the excuse that you didn’t say this and this. When you have it in writing, these problems are gone.
3. No Need for Total Control
If you have worked with employees that need total control all the time in order to get some work done, you might try this approach with freelancers as well. Basically, this approach doesn’t work in any situation – you are wasting too much time and effort on control – but with freelancers especially, this is absolutely doomed.
Freelancers usually love having more freedom, so be prepared to give them their task and hear from them once a day or so. If you feel that you need to exercise total control over an employee — a freelancer or an in-house one — then you have either hired the wrong person, or your managerial skills need some work.
Of course, if the project demands it, you may need to work closely. For instance, the freelancer might have project-specific questions that only you can answer, and then you will have to touch base quite regularly.
4. Don’t Waste Time with Meaningless Communication
When I say that communication is vital, what I mean to say is that meaningful communication is vital. We all know that project communication can be time-consuming, so don’t go to the extreme and communicate when there is no need.
Don’t make long Skype calls just for the sake of it. Freelancers are usually efficiency-oriented; they are not corporate slaves who will stand a multiple-hour meeting just because their boss feels like having such a meeting. These long meaningless calls are pure waste of time.
For a freelancer time really is money. On one project I spent much more time on Skype in fruitless talks than on designing the site itself. I didn’t bill all this time but maybe I should have — this would have cut the talkativeness of the client big time :)
5. Establish Milestones and Progress Reporting Rules
Milestones and progress reporting are common sense in project management. These prevent unpleasant surprises just before the deadline.
If it’s your project is small then you might not need them but for large projects it’s too risky to get started without milestones and rules for progress reporting. Before you start, establish milestones – these should be logical breakdowns of tasks, such as the completion of a module.
As for progress reporting rules, you can set them at any interval that works for you and the project — e.g. at the end of every day, week or fortnight. Try not to make the period so short that it slows progress but not too long that you lose track of what’s going on. It’s a fine balance so you may want to adjust it as you go. Properly set progress reporting rules eliminate many delays and help to early diagnose potential problems.
6. Plan Well
When you are going to be working with freelancers you need be well prepared to get started on the project before you hire. When you hire freelancers and don’t provide them work, this is unpaid downtime for them and you shouldn’t be surprised if they leave.
Also, have in mind that a freelancer might not always be available right when you need them, so plan for this. Communicating effectively with a potential freelancer about your expectations for deadlines and asking about availability can solve availability issues from the start.
Working with freelancers can be very rewarding if you know how to do it and if you find the right people. Unfortunately, it can also be a total disaster and it’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they never want to work with freelancers again.
In order to avoid frustration, lost time, and lost money, you need to know how to communicate effectively with freelancers. The tips that I’ve provided aren’t rocket science and once you get on the right track, you will see the true advantages of working with freelancers.