What I have learned about working with freelancers and virtual teams

My consulting business has nearly doubled in the past two years, and this is thanks to working with freelancers and virtual teams. What freelancers and virtual teams do is give boutique outfits like mine the possibility of taking on much bigger jobs, but they require a different level of management.

Part of what makes a boutique consulting agency work is the ability to look after customers and tailor our offerings to their specific needs. Freelancers and virtual teams allow for that flexibility. However, compared to working with full or even part-time employees, I have found I need to use different management skills. My last project had a team of 28 over 10 weeks, of which 23 were freelancers. Here are my learnings:

  1. Pick your management style and adjust per project/individual. I like to say there are three kinds of management styles in working with freelancers.

    Inspiration is when you inspire rather than manage. My last project was like this: we did seven regional summits and a 2-day symposium on entrepreneurship with the City of Johannesburg and it was exciting – people loved being part of it. Most of my team was inspired and didn’t need me much. You can’t let go in inspiration, but it makes life easier.

    Guidance is when you provide some vision, thinking and guidelines for how to make it happen. Guidance is for those times when the team is younger, less experienced or doesn’t have a 100% skillset match for what you are doing. I like working with younger teams, and lack of experience doesn’t bother me when there’s passion. But you need to think more about their needs, anticipate their shortfalls, and ensure they stay on track. It requires a more intuitive response to people.

    Management is old-school stuff but still essential. When the team is inexperienced, has never done the kind of project before or lacks confidence, managing the process is essential.

    Most consulting projects with freelancers require a mix of all three styles, and knowing when to employ each comes with experience. When I’m aware of the three styles and conscious about how and when to employ them, chances of successful relationships are better.

  2. Know yourself. This is a big one – you need to look after your health, schedule, sleep and manage your own clients and expectations, or you can’t look after a team. During this last project, sleep was an issue, and I had to find ways to energize myself, to make up for lost sleep. Doing projects as a consulting agency is a continuous learning experience. You have to constantly be flexible, adjust, re-adjust, learning something new each time. Get comfortable with the new reality – a constant state of flux.

  3. Create processes and routines. Each one of my projects starts with the end goal and works backwards. We take the end goal, ask ourselves what we need to do to get there and set up our teams, processes, and routines around this. It sounds simple, but is often neglected. Clarifying the end goal, the mid-level goals and deliverables to each freelancer is critical, as well as ‘checking in’ and making sure they understand what’s required.

  4. Managing frustrations and sidelines. I’m not always good at this, but a key part is not passing on junk. Maybe the client isn’t happy or another team member complained? It’s not your team’s fault, and freelancers need to be kept clear of anything that distracts them. Since they aren’t your employees, your job is to keep them focused on the project and completing their part. Our job as project leaders is to manage the dialogue, sometimes to dig deep and handle the junk. It’s difficult, but necessary.

  5. Ongoing communication. The bigger the team, the tougher this is. It’s easy to forget to acknowledge that star who is working hard, and focus on problem children, but they all need equal time. I have to look around regularly and see who is ok, who isn’t?

  6. Appreciate what they bring to the table. It is predicted that by 2020 60% of the US workforce will be freelancers, and in many parts of the world, freelancing is becoming a way of life. Enjoy it – working with lots of different people from varied experiences, walks of life and ways of doing things can refresh and teach you. I learn an enormous amount from those who work with me. To them, I say thank you!

    For more information about what we do, please visit 
    www.zazenconsulting.com/ or contact us on info@zazenconsulting.com.

Written by:
Tamiko Sher
Managing Director | Z.A.ZEN Consulting