Fitting in face time: The Born Freelancer on the benefits of meeting IRL

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer will share personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

In a previous post, I wrote about the creative and health benefits of solitary walking. Today I want to talk about the opposite—the need to balance the often isolated lifestyle imposed by freelancing with being professionally sociable. In other words, why you should be booking more face time rather than just spending time on Facebook.

I’ve worked for years for a variety of people I’ve never actually met face to face because of geographical distance. Although there was no way around it, I felt then (as I do now) that the work relationship suffered somehow as a result. I know we don’t actually need to meet face to face in this fast-paced electronic media world of ours, but I think that’s a shame both personally and professionally.

We humans are social creatures after all. (Yes, even the most hermit like freelance writers amongst us!) Hiding behind a laptop screen all year is not the best way to preserve your mental health. I would argue especially in the long, depressing Canadian winter months ahead (read: most of the year in this country) actual personal contact is essential for the freelancer. We’re often isolated otherwise , working alone in our home office or at our kitchen tables, without the benefits of a water cooler to gather around with our peers.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to recognize that too much isolation is dangerous to our physical and mental well being. The freelancing life can lead to greater isolation than most professions, which I posit can put many of us in harm’s way.  Psychology Today concluded that we’re “built for social contact. There are serious—life threatening—consequences when we don’t get enough.” Goal One of any freelancer should be to maintain and elevate your quality of health. As I’ve talked about in a past post, if he or she is not well, a freelancer cannot work. And most of us have no financial fallback aside from limited savings in situations like that. So every time you get out from behind your screen, think of it not as a frivolous waste of time that should be spent on more productive activities. Think of it as an added investment in your number-one asset: your health. The fact that it can also be great fun—and who has too much of that in their lives today?—is all a bonus.

On a more directly work-related theme, I would argue personal contact can also have significant professional advantages for the freelancer.

It can help in maintaining ongoing work relationships. Setting up a regular meeting over coffee or lunch with an employer (when time and distance permit) offers numerous benefits.

  •  First and foremost, you are no longer just a name on an email or a voice on the cellphone. Appearing now and then in person should make you more readily remembered as a member of their creative team. And it is harder to just casually dump a freelancer you know face to face (although it still happens) than someone you’ve never met in person.
  • Equally, it can help put you further ahead in the freelance assignment lineup if you present yourself well in person. It helps to be likable—or at least be able to fake it—because who doesn’t want to work with someone they like if they have a choice?
  • It can help you get into your employer’s mind set. What new projects are coming up that you as a freelancer could help with? What problems are ongoing that you might help solve? Where have past work efforts failed to achieve the desired goals and how can you ensure success in future work assignments? It’s often much easier to assess and respond to such matters in a relaxed face-to-face setting.

I had an ongoing work relationship for years with an overseas media organization. My contact was purely digital—emails and long-distance phone calls—but the work was beginning to taper off. Was I doing something wrong? Was there a new direction that I was not privy to? I made the effort to contact my producer and arrange lunch during a working vacation. We hit it off well in person, and during this time I learned it was not at all about my work but about her growing disenchantment with her own work. I was able to offer what positive feedback I could now that I no longer had to focus on my own job performance. When she left her position a few months later it came as less of a shock since I’d been one of the few freelancers with advance warning.

It can be a useful experience having face time with former employers.

You never know when a dried-up revenue stream may come back to life. Keeping a list of former satisfied employers and making a point of seeing them again for coffee or lunch whenever I am in their part of the world has often proven to be a useful experience. At the very least, you may glean strategic information about other freelance jobs elsewhere and in some cases you may find an unexpected job arising out of their current crises.

An editor I once worked for had no new work for me but was very good at his own networking on the side and was an invaluable source of contacts and leads. Over the phone or online there never seemed time in his busy schedule, but when we’d meet up for an after-work drink he could unwind, talk more freely than he could to his regular workers (what was I going to say against him? I wanted more work!), which frequently led to promising leads elsewhere.

Having face time with future or prospective employers can be the trickiest, but it can also be the most unexpectedly rewarding.

After making cold calls you get rejected and think that’s that. But sometimes your patented spidey-sense tells you there might be something there—so you must play the long game. I’ve got on well in a formal meeting or in digital forum with a prospective employer, but the job in question has fizzled out or went to someone else. Time spent in research is never wasted. Whenever possible, I try to keep in touch with any prospective employers I’ve contacted and got along with and if possible arrange face time whenever I am in their city or country. Again, it is about building a relationship. It is about building trust. It is about looking forward, perhaps years ahead, and playing the long game.

I once interviewed a foreign cult celebrity for broadcast and the interview went well. He was looking for new written material and I made several suggestions, which were all turned down as being not quite right. Whenever I was in his city I would call him up and we’d have lunch, maybe once or twice a year. (This was in addition to our ongoing digital communications). I’d pitch him a few more ideas, but they never sold. One day he called me out of the blue. He was starting up a new media project and wanted to know if I’d like to be a part of it. My ongoing contact—but especially my face time with him over the years—had put me at the top of his list when he had a new project that required more freelancers.

Making face time with your peers or colleagues (not just employers) can also be extremely beneficial.

Who better than a colleague knows the stress and strain of the freelancers’ isolated world? You can share horror stories, compare pay offers, and pool knowledge when there is mutual benefit involved. I’m not speaking here about hanging with actual friends (which is unconditional and totally personal and really outside of the scope of this post) but professional colleagues who you would characterize as being friendly. But be warned: there has to be a quid pro quo or else these relationships can easily sour.

Being professionally sociable for the freelancer also can have financial benefits; if you are meeting regarding work or possible work, keep your receipts and check with your respective tax agency. You should be able to write off some portion of the expenses. (This itself is a topic for another post.)

So, will the majority of my work relationships still be in digital form? Sadly, yes. It’s the reality of freelance work today. But, whenever I can, I will try to inject a little more face-to-face sociability into my freelance work life. And I know that the deepest, coldest, most depressing part of winter, when I just can’t be bothered to venture outside, will be the time to really make an extra effort—for my own well-being as well as for my work.

Posted on September 9, 2011 at 11:57 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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