After working for a large software company for many years, I went freelance. And I’ve since specialized as a software development project leader, working with highly-skilled freelancers from a wide variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. The contrast between corporate and freelance work is quite dramatic. It’s human nature to want the benefits of a highly-skilled worker with a lower cost structure combined with the “hands on” and very personal nature of managing office-based employees. But achieving that is often challenging. Here are some key lessons I’ve learned when it comes to managing remote contingents like me:
Keep it focused. There’s a lot of social interaction in an office environment — birthday parties, business lunches, company picnics. In stark contrast, the freelancer is hired to do something and do it well. Unless your client has emphasized the likely conversion of the position to traditional status, contingents will expect to be moving on.
So while civility and respect are all important, personal questions and “getto- know-you” sessions just feel like a waste of time to us. If we’re getting paid by the hour, we’ll do it — and bill for it — but it won’t make us feel better about the work. Such activities simply reduce overall project efficiency. You and your client will get to know us over time. But we’ll never have the same type of relationship as you do with your team in the office. Do, however, make a note of what you learn, as you are sure to want to continue your own relationship with the contractor in order to offer assignments with other clients.
Personalize communication. All the developers I work with communicate in English with some proficiency, but that doesn’t mean you should take native fluency or any kind of cultural affinity for granted. Avoid politics or any other controversial topic. What seems important or obvious to you can look very different from the perspective of someone born and raised in a different country. Also, I’ve found humor rarely works across cultures.
Rather, pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of each individual to ensure that they can fully understand the tasks they have been given. I’ve worked with developers whose written English is excellent but have very strong accents and/or poor understanding of spoken English. Equally, I’ve worked with people who struggle with the written word but whose spoken language is fluent. Staffing firms and their clients need to package their work assignments for each individual in the ways that maximize comprehension. Pictures, screenshots, mock-ups and other graphical tools help a lot here too.
Flexibility. Remote contractors generally set their own hours. That’s not to say there are no structures; some projects have more rigid hours of availability, but the more rules, of course, means there will be fewer interested contractors.
But outside of whatever framework you and the client define, your remote contingents will have their own patterns. Some work late nights; some work over the weekend and less during the week. Assume all communication is somewhat asynchronous (outside of agreed-upon, scheduled status calls you may have).
Tools. There are some tools your remote team will need to be successful. For real-time communications, establish a tool for everyone to use. For audio and screen-sharing, Zoom and Skype are popular tools. If you expect video calls, make it an up-front requirement; most contractors I know find it too intrusive. And for project management, developers in particular need to have an organized structure to the way work is packaged. Atlassian’s JIRA is most common for larger projects, and Trello is otherwise widely used. Either tool will help to keep everyone on the same page across time zones, language proficiency, and role in the project.