3 things freelancing can teach you about teamwork

Making the transition from freelancing to being a full-time team member can be a challenge: the hours may be less flexible, you can’t fire your boss, and projects can have much longer lifespans. But leaving the freelance world behind can also open the door to developing long-term relationships with teammates, empower you to have a bigger impact with your work, and give you the time and space to iterate on projects you would have otherwise moved on from.

Freelancing builds some invaluable skills that can, and should, be easily transferred to a team environment. If you’re considering making a transition from freelancing to full-time work, write these skills on your resume or cover letter, use them to answer the hard questions in an interview, and reframe your experience to fit an office setting where you’re bound to succeed.

Reframe your experience to fit an office setting where you’re bound to succeed.

1. Document everything

When you’re a contractor, you plan for the day when, eventually, you’ll leave the project. As a result, you tend to be better at documenting your work. Knowing that part of your responsibility is often educating the client on how to use what you’ve made, use your considerable experience writing up tutorials and documentation alongside the work so the value you deliver lives on long after your contract ends.

When you present a final product to your team, don’t just deliver a set of mockups, a code repo, or a user experience, but the whole process involved in creating that experience — just as you did when you worked with a client.

3 freelancer skills you should bring to your new job

  • Make note-taking a habit, not a chore. You’re already a pro at documenting as you create; don’t stop just because you move in-house. Your instincts to save templates, write how-to’s, and leave detailed comments and documentation make you an excellent teammate both to work with and to work after. Everything you touch, from small projects to teammate on-boarding, will be the better for your meticulous notes and independent perspective.
  • Keep teammates informed about and enabled to contribute to what you’re working on. Just like you’ve done for your clients, give your teammates self-service tools and processes so you don’t always have to be ‘on call’ for small changes or updates that others can make themselves. By giving teammates visibility into your work, your contributions will be valued across the team. You’re already used to doing this with clients; continue to do this with your teammates.
  • Don’t just rely on a project manager; help them out. Every successful freelancer is also a project manager. You’ve had to juggle your own projects, deadlines, client communications, feedback, invoicing, taxes, and more. You can bring value to your team even if it already includes a project manager. Recognize things that span areas of ownership and scale, follow up on questions and ambiguity, and provide feedback on scope and timeline. Don’t replace your freelance-hardened resourcefulness with petty blame-shifting and passing responsibilities or tasks you are capable of taking on yourself. Mike Monteiro famously challenged freelancers in Design is a Job and his post on Medium, ways designers can screw up client presentations, by suggesting that anything that helps you do your job is part of your job.

Maintain a high bar around all these efforts and your teammates will identify you as a great collaborator and someone they can trust.

2. Rethink how you approach time management

You’re hyper-aware of how much time it takes you to complete even the smallest task. You have experience giving faithful estimates to clients and are held accountable to those estimates. When you make the transition to in-house, your day will look pretty different — a full day of work can include meetings and coffee, not just 8 solid hours of prime focus time.

You can use your superior time management skills in-house, to bring even more value to your new employer:

  • Continue to afford yourself ‘non-billable’ time. You’re incredibly conscious of any time you spend not ‘working.’ You already know how valuable it is maintain your own business through marketing, communications, referrals, leads, invoicing and billing, etc. Now that you work in-house, there are still non-billable hours, but of a different nature. Give yourself permission to spend time dealing with one off-requests, meeting with teammates, staying current with standards in your industry, or even getting coffee with a mentor. Your awareness of the difference between billable “focus” time and personal or business development is one of your strengths, so make the most of all the hours in your workday.
  • Leverage your proactive instincts. Good freelancers have learned to be proactive and have the deliverable in mind even at the kickoff; bring this foresight into your new job. Offer to fix problems when you see them looming on the horizon, introduce new ideas early, rather than passively wait for more direction, and establish processes where you see opportunities to create more efficiency.

3. Treat everyone like a customer

When things go wrong with a contract relationship, there’s usually no one to blame but yourself. You and the client have scoped the project, agreed to the timeline and deliverables, and have to live up to the promises you’ve made if you want to maintain your good name in the industry (and get paid!).

This experience is invaluable for building on interpersonal skills which will help you far beyond your freelance career. When you’re working with a client, you can’t throw blame or be disrespectful; the same is true for a teammate or another department in your organization.

Great freelancers are excellent at recognizing that clients and fellow teammates are experts in their respective fields and they’re highly cognizant of the need to have everyone they work with enjoy their working relationship.

When you join a new team, bring these soft skills with you:

  • Think about every person you come into contact with as though they’re a client. Even mentally reframing their communication with you can help remember to respond in a helpful, considerate way, and remind you that you have something to learn from them, too.
  • Make it a priority to ensure they like working with you. Taking responsibility for a customer’s satisfaction is a sign of a mature service provider. When you do have disagreements, the effort you’ve spent earning your teammate’s trust will pay off when you ask them to trust you on some tough decisions or have your back when you need their support. It doesn’t mean you never disagree, but when you do, you won’t burn any bridges. A freelancer anticipates wanting to work effectively with their clients or teammates on a longterm basis; continue to prioritize working relationships over small victories.
  • ABP: Always be polite. Take time to format your intra-company communications like requests, as you would with a client. Try phrasings such as “Let’s consider whether we should revisit the A/B test goals before launch” or asking “Who can help me add the suggested changes to this mock?” instead of “Get this mock done.” If you find yourself thinking “I can’t get to that project this week,” remember how you communicate with clients and give a helpful, polite follow-up. Offering potential solutions helps both of you, as your teammate is less likely to make additional requests if you’ve already volunteered a viable option.

Jealousy and competition are toxic in many work environments, but you can use your experience mitigating confusion and drama by treating peers as experts rather than obstacles or threats.

Joining a team can help you grow your career in a measurable and objective way, and allow you to build even further upon skills you already have. At the same time, you may find that teamwork grants you the ownership and long-term accountability you might be missing as a contractor. But don’t let the impressive skills you’ve amassed go to waste — bring them with you into your new role.

Do you have any advice for freelancers making the move to a full-time role (or considering one)? We’d love to discuss in the comments.

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