It’s a common experience: every freelancer will eventually find themselves talking to someone who’s enduring a difficult work situation. A colleague is a curmudgeon, or insists on fielding personal calls in an open plan workspace, or is so incompetent that they might conceivably be an industrial saboteur. While listening to forlorn descriptions of office politics and flagrant milk robbery, a thought will occur: “I’m so glad that I’m self-employed”. They will usually avoid expressing this sentiment aloud.
Even non-dysfunctional offices can soon grate. In an enclosed space, the small becomes enormous: I once worked with a woman who was infuriating chiefly because she had the temerity to wear a lanyard that jangled. It baffles me now, but back then it seemed completely reasonable to have a noisy ID card for a nemesis. This proximity isn’t wholly negative, however: one of the difficulties in leaving behind company environments is the struggle to maintain working relationships with people you don’t see regularly.
As a freelance writer I work with many people that I have never met before – I remember chatting to a stranger at a press junket and quietly realising that they’d been commissioning me to write articles for two years, including the interview that I was at the junket to conduct. When the person you’re reporting to is a name at the bottom of an e-mail instead of someone down the hall, your interactions narrow to the task at hand. There’s little opportunity for small talk, let alone the release valve of a post-work drink. You’re a contractor, not a colleague, and the explicitly limited nature of this exchange has repercussions not just for how you relate to each other but for the possibility of doing so again.
It was worrying to learn that my career partially depended upon someone I couldn’t identify on sight, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that can be worked on to remotely reinforce working relationships. If your only ongoing interactions take the form of writing things to each other, those messages hold greater significance. You’re not going to lose a gig because you once wrote “Dear Karen” to a client instead of “Dear Carol”, but it certainly doesn’t reflect well. Attention to detail is key, not just to avoid embarrassment but to provide necessary information: in replies, asked questions should be answered and raised issues should be dealt with.
To achieve good communication, the best practice is to operate as considerately as possible. We’ve become conditioned to the idea of an informal writing style being the default form of interaction in daily life, but this is often inappropriate when getting in touch with clients. You don’t need to purchase a starched collar to fire off an epistle, but an e-mail should at least strive to resemble what it is: an electronic letter. It should be addressed to a person, signed off by another person (you), and contain punctuation, proper sentences, paragraphs and hopefully even upper-case letters. This is both a mark of respect and makes a message easier to read and understand. There are obviously degrees of formality within this – an urgent exchange over iPhones is not the same as a scheduled reply to a brief – but the formatting should be clear and the tone of voice should be warm without being linguistically disheveled. You’re not writing to your best friend but you are writing to a human being.
The same amount of attentiveness should apply elsewhere. E-mail signatures shouldn’t be confusingly out of date. If an attachment’s size would be unreasonable, the materials should be sent through a file transfer service or uploaded online instead. E-mails should follow the lead of Labour’s current Brexit policy: as short as possible but as long as necessary. No-one wants to receive a message that could technically be classed as a novella, but equally it’s not ideal to send message after message because you’re trigger-happy and keep forgetting to mention points. You also shouldn’t send an e-mail at 17:20 on a Friday and follow it up with a chase immediately on Monday morning when you inevitably haven’t receive a reply yet. It helps to be clear with a client about when you need to hear from them, but choosing when to send a polite – and genuinely non passive-aggressive – reminder requires intuition. Are you being ignored or have they just not amassed the information they need to be able to reply yet? In every situation there is a correct and useful amount of pestering you should do, and being able to assess this quantity is a precious skill that develops over time.
The most important step in maintaining a healthy working relationship from a distance, of course, is also the most obvious one: to do everything as well as you can. You should deliver the commissioned service by the agreed deadline and it should fulfill the brief. If there are issues, you should be able to respond within a reasonable time. If you know you can’t provide what has been asked you shouldn’t take the job in the first place, and if you find that you’re going to be late you need to be open about it instead of indulging in magical thinking.
It’s not enough for the work to be excellent: the experience must be as straightforward and hassle-free as possible. Sometimes this means choosing your battles, to remember you’re being contracted to do a task, which can mean deferring to a vision that isn’t the one you’d choose. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand behind your professional opinions, but you should endeavour to not be a pain while doing so. It’s sensible to remind yourself that often you’ll be corresponding with someone who doesn’t have the advantages of being self-employed. Their colleague has undone half a week’s work, their lunch keeps disappearing from the fridge and they’re being driven slowly mad by the sound of an errant lanyard. An e-mail from you should be a constructive addition to their day, not another frustration to add to the pile. If you don’t work in claustrophobic adjacency with someone, many of the circumstances that will lead to further collaboration are beyond your control, but the one thing you can do is to present yourself as someone that a client will want to work with again. A quick Google image search might also be a good idea.
Published in IPSE Magazine Issue 63.