Key to a Successful Freelancer Career

Life as a freelancer is difficult. If you are lucky, you will block a few solid customers who pay reliably. But even the most seasoned freelancer will inevitably find that work dries up for (hopefully short) periods of time.

A recent study by UpWork (pre-COVID) that surveyed more than 6,000 freelancers in the United States highlights what workers already know: Freelance work has become a long-term career choice for many. “Qualified services” such as programming, consulting and IT made up 45 percent of freelancers.

Around 77 percent of UpWork respondents said the technology made it easier for them to find work. Knowing how to write code or spot a bug, however, wasn’t the only skill valued among freelancers: 78 percent of them said that “soft skills are at least as important as technical skills in order to be successful at their jobs.” (That doesn’t seem to be changing whether or not there’s a virus pandemic that’s changing the nature of work.)

Combine that with 81 percent of respondents who say they need additional training, especially on networking and advancing their careers, and it is clear that knowing how to interact with people in a business context is of paramount importance to a freelancer Despite all the jokes about how freelancing is work that you can do in isolation, from your couch, pants is optional.

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“Office” soft skills vs. “Freelancer” soft skills

Using your “soft skills” (such as empathy and communication) in a freelance context is obviously a little different than in an office environment (or at least for the time being in a virtual office environment). For starters, freelancing – especially the remote version where you may never step into an office environment – doesn’t involve the same type of office politics that full-time workers face on a daily basis.

Just because many freelancers never have to negotiate a corporate hierarchy in the same way as full-time workers does not mean that some of the top soft skills tips don’t apply to both groups. Whether you are a freelance or full-time job, when applying for new jobs, it is important that you use teamwork and collaborative aptitude, as even the most isolated, homebound freelancer will likely have to work with others at some point.

Similarly, freelancers must strive to showcase their excellent communication and collaboration skills. Office workers are often given a bit of flexibility when it comes to responding to emails, delivering work products, etc. In the worst case scenario, a manager or colleague can simply go to a worker’s desk for a response or an update.

However, freelancers don’t have a desk 20 feet from the person managing them. So the game is a little different. Put simply, many teams will freak out instantly if a freelancer doesn’t immediately respond to an email or phone call. Many managers also suspect that freelancers cannot collaborate with the same closeness as full-time employees.

With this in mind, it is important that freelancers work closely together, “check-in” frequently, and ensure that all communications are returned as quickly as possible. These types of soft skills are essential if you want the client to extend your professional contract for one more term.

Observation and listening are also crucial for freelancers, especially since much of their communication with a client may be asynchronous and done through quick phone calls and one-line emails. When you’re far from an office, it’s easy to lose track of how you fit into a company’s strategic roadmap. It pays to regularly ask yourself (and your manager) how your work fits into this broader context.

The further you are from office politics and hierarchy, the more effort you should make to get to know the people you work with. Communicate often, empathize with their issues, and make sure to respond to feedback as quickly as possible. One of the keys to a successful freelance career is building a long-term relationship with your clients, and soft skills are perhaps the largest part of that.

April 11, 2021