In working freelance for a little over a year, I discovered that working freelance with an employee mindset does not work well. Communication problems develop that don’t occur in the normal employee/employer setting. Yes, freelancers are hired to do a job, similar to that of an employee, but different communication problems occur.
First, let’s define communications. Some may think that isn’t necessary because we communication daily in many different ways. Yet, communications breakdown in many situations.
The purpose of all communication is to encode and transmit information in such a manner that the receiver perceives the information meaningfully and in the way the sender intended. 1
A full understanding between the sender and the receiver is the desired objective. Therefore, a full understanding of a message is one-half sender and one-half receiver. Both parties must be actively involved.
Again, some may think reviewing the communication process is redundant, yet, it never hurts to review, especially in an age with more electronic than face to face communication occurs.
Communication occurs with the transference of an idea from one person to another. We encode the idea or message with words, pictures, and behavior.
Transmission of the idea or message then occurs through speaking, writing, and acting.
The medium of transfer for the idea or message can be paper, behavior, telephone, snail mail, text messaging, email, fax or the spoken word.
The objective of sending the message is for the receiver to attribute the same meaning to the message as intended by the sender.
Non-verbal communication makes up 80% of the communication process.
- Facial Expressions
- Tone of Voice
- Body Position and Movement
- Listening Skills
This is where the problem develops with remote freelance work. In most cases, the two parties cannot see each other’s non-verbal communication.
An employee must clock in with a set schedule for lunch, breaks, and clock out. Some jobs are more flexible than others, but there’s usually some type of schedule.
A freelancer does not have a firm schedule unless it is predetermined. Some jobs may dictate a schedule of job completion, but for the most part, the freelancer sets his/her own schedule. Also, many freelancers work for several different companies at the same time, more like a consultant.
Normally, freelancers have the right and power to set their own work schedules, the rate of pay, or the price of service.
The employer still maintains the right to set the deadline for completion or set a list of functions to be completed and maintained.
The first thing that causes communication to break down between the freelancer and employer is the time difference. Many times, the two even live in different countries.
In my freelance positions, the employers lived in different time zones from me. The second employer expected to be able to call at her convenience, even if it was midnight my time. With a three-hour difference in time, it often became difficult to connect when both were available.
Since 80% of our communication is non-verbal, the biggest breakdown comes with not being able to visually see the other person.
Skype or Face Time
In my first freelance position, we would Skype on a regular basis, every week or two. The remainder of the time we communicated over Slack or email.
With Slack, a messaging app, we tended to use more shorthand, rarely typing out complete sentences. When deeply involved in a project, the receiver often didn’t interpret the message completely.
On another job we messaged, emailed, with occasional phone calls. The employer worked another job. While on the job she would often text. On those occasions, her texts conveyed annoyance, sarcasm, with pointed jabs.
Viewing Body Language
For example, after emailing my latest invoice I received a text, “So I see you’re charging me for fixing your errors.” That did not sit well with me at all. Then during the next phone conversation, I received the question, “Why are you so frustrated?” I wasn’t frustrated. My anger, at being accused of double-billing, hovered just under the surface, being controlled, as well as possible.
If this had been an employee/employer situation, I would need to verify the charges on my expense account, let’s say, in the boss’s office. I would see the emotion on the boss’s face – furrowed brow, tight jaw muscles, eye’s flashing anger – his body language may be stiff sitting up straight, not relaxed.
Likewise, he could see my body language and facial expression that might have indicated a misunderstanding. Upon explaining the charges and why they were on my account, I could see the tension relax from his face and body as a pleasant expression returned.
Consequently, 80% of my and my employer’s communication was missing. When I tried to explain, she appeared to be elsewhere during the conversation. During my attempts to explain she would talk over me or just not listen.
Instead of taking responsibility for sending incomplete or pointed text messages, the blame game resulted.
Here is a list of things that usually end or stall communication, sometimes causing irreparable damage:
- Saying nothing
- Expressing what you don’t want
- Asking questions (“grilling”)
- Accusing, criticizing, and negative innuendos
- “Me too” listening
Ways to Improve Communications
If it’s possible, use Skype or Face Time as much as possible. Even though you aren’t in the same room, at least, you can see the other person’s facial expressions and detect some of their body language.
If you communicate in writing, make it email where you can use complete sentences that convey the full meaning intended and verify the message received at a later time. Complete sentences provide a better opportunity for good communication.
We as a society, now have “fast-food” communication where abbreviations are text instead of spelling out the words, such as LOL, “Laugh Out Loud”.
As a freelancer, set good boundaries for communication, work hours, and anything that could be foreseen so there are no surprises down the road.
1 Total Life Coaching, A Compendium of Resources Patrick Williams and Lloyd J. Thomas, 2005, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.