The War on Freelancers; or, Why Freelancers Need a Strong Work Ethic

p18-writers-fightI spent the past seven years working mainly as a freelance/contract writer. I chose the freelance lifestyle, in part, because I was a student and needed flexible hours. I also had no work experience as a writer when I started out, and thought that freelancing would be a good way to build up my portfolio.

As I have been in the process of moving away from freelance and into a more permanent position, I’ve had to deal with a significant amount of prejudice against freelancers. In nearly every interview I have been to over the past year, I’ve heard some version of the following statement:

“So I see you’re a freelancer. Why do you want to give that up? Don’t you like being your own boss and going to work in your PJs?”

The moment I hear this phrase, I realize that I am no longer just selling myself to a potential employer. From that moment on, I am selling myself while fighting an uphill battle to convince this person that freelancers are good workers.

There are many myths about freelancers, and these myths have led to some unbelievable prejudice against us. I thought I would take the time to dispel the top four myths and let you all know the truth about how hard freelancers work.

Myth #1 We go to work in our PJs.

Psychologists have proven that clothing can have a significant effect over how individuals act. Employers even enforce certain dress codes as a form of behavioral control. Freelancers do most of their work out of their own home offices, but that does not mean we dress like slobs. We work around the clock, and we need to feel professional while we work, which is why many dedicated freelancers wear business casual clothes.

In addition, not all freelancers stay in their home offices. Some of us have to interview professionals or speak face-to-face with clients, so for those meetings we would have to wear business clothes to be taken seriously. Many of us also video-chat with clients, and when we do so we have to portray ourselves as the sort of professionals who clients can trust. To do that, we have to wear the appropriate clothing.

Myth #2 Freelancers are laid-back and make their own hours.

There is some assumption that because I do not punch in a time-card or have a boss breathing down my neck that I must have a relaxed work environment with flexible hours.

  • Fact: every client I have is my boss, so instead of one boss breathing down my neck, I can have any number of bosses calling or emailing me in a panic about their individual projects.
  • Fact: people who punch time-cards are paid hourly. They are paid by the hour whether they complete their duties or not. I get paid by the hour too, but I only get paid when and if I complete the project, and even then I have had a few clients skip-out on the bill. When I’m waiting to be paid or freaking out about not being paid, I am anything but laid-back!
  • Fact: my hours are only flexible in the sense that I can work during all hours of the day from any location I choose. Nevertheless, my deadlines are paramount. If I don’t finish my clients’ work by the designated deadlines, I don’t get paid.

no-schedule-2Myth #3 Freelancers work whenever and wherever they want. They have no real schedule.

As long as I get my clients’ work done, it doesn’t really matter what time of day I work on their projects; however, keeping no set hours is a horrible work ethic. You have to have dedicated hours that you designate as your productivity time every day, otherwise nothing will get done. Personally, I try to keep my work hours in sync with the rest of the business world, which is Monday-Friday, 8 AM-5 PM. I do occasionally work after hours, and I do sometimes work on the weekends, but so does everyone else.

As someone who has successfully been a freelancer for over seven years, I know that if I don’t designate certain hours as my “work time” that other things will pop-up and get in my way. For instance, friends will stop over to hang out or they’ll call you out of the blue, because they believe all the myths about freelancers. If you want to be a dedicated worker, you have to tell people that you are working from home and that you will be done after five.

As to the myth about working from wherever you want, that’s also a bit of a misnomer. I have been fortunate throughout my freelance career to have always had a home office space separated from the rest of the house. Unfortunately, many freelancers don’t have that luxury, and most have to put up with constant interruptions, since their home office space is in the middle of the kitchen with screaming family members all around them. If they are lucky, they can go to a coffee shop or library to get work done, but even these places are not distraction-free environments. So, while freelancers can technically work from anywhere, the fact is they have to find a suitable space to work from, and they don’t have an employer to provide that space.

Myth #4 Freelancers have no experience working face-to-face with clients or co-workers.

I admit that most of my client relationships have been built completely through emails and phone calls, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have customer relations skills. In fact, to maintain long-term relationships completely through email correspondence is a feat in and of itself. It takes far more energy to write out conversations compared to speaking face-to-face with people. Plus, email conversations can be just as personal and intense as spoken conversations. I’ve developed some great professional relationships with people I have never met in real life, and I’ve done so because I put out the extra effort to take care of my clients by writing them thoughtful and professional letters.

Also, I have had a lot of face-to-face experience with local clients. Just because I work freelance doesn’t mean I don’t work near my clients. All it means is that I make my own contracts and negotiate deals. Sometimes I do those completely online, but occasionally I do meet with clients and negotiate contracts in-person.

There is some truth to having limited experience with co-workers, but it really depends on what type of freelancer you are. If you take on-site contract positions, you work with different co-workers at every location. Some freelance positions also require freelancers to communicate with other team members, especially for multi-part projects. It is also not uncommon for freelancers to have to work with third-party vendors or other freelancers, depending on the project. Therefore, you do have to develop interpersonal skills as a freelancer to deal with clients and everyone else.

Why Do Freelancers Get Such a Bad Rep?

image{0}Unfortunately, anyone and everyone can say they are a freelancer. There is no certification to earn. No standards to meet. If you want to say you’re a freelancer – BAM – you’re a freelancer. Since there are no standards, that means there are no regulations, and that’s bad news for dedicated freelancers like myself.

Most people start out being a freelancer, because they buy into the romance of being their own boss, working their own hours, and making tons of money. After a while, they realize that freelancing requires putting in long hours just to find work, and those are hours where you DON’T get paid. When you do find clients, you don’t get a paycheck until you deliver the goods, and that’s not an easy financial lifestyle to live, especially if you are supporting yourself.

To compensate their incomes, a lot of young freelancers take on too many clients, so they either do a piss-poor job or they flake completely. Other novice freelancers may limit their workload, but they don’t have the time management skills to complete their projects on time, which makes customers angry and even more prejudice toward freelancers. Some newbie freelancers are great at selling themselves and their services, but they don’t have the skill to back it up. When they can’t deliver what they promise, clients chalk it up to yet another flaky freelancer.

In the end – yes – there are a lot of horrible, unskilled posers out there who call themselves freelancers. However, there are just as many “regular workers” out there who have no real work ethic and very few viable skills , so why don’t they get the same mistreatment during job interviews?

The fact is that you don’t know someone’s work ethic if you don’t know the person. Just because a person has worked at the same employer for the past ten years doesn’t mean that individual is loyal, skilled, or a good worker. Likewise, just because someone has worked freelance for the better part of a decade doesn’t mean that that person is any less talented or dedicated than anyone else.

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