Managing Dispersed Freelance Teams

If you thought the only role freelancers had to play in online business was graphic design, content creation, and website building, you're not really seeing the full potential that running a business online can offer you.

Freelancers can help you with almost any business need you may have.  Do you live in Greenland but you need a sales rep in California?  No problem, you can get one, and at a fraction of the cost and trouble involved in hiring a dedicated employee to work for you.  Need all your blog posts translated faithfully into Cantonese?  You can do that too.  As stated, any business need can be handled by freelancers.  It's quite a wonder that traditional employment still exists for most jobs, since there are few upsides for either the employer or the employee.

One thing that is crucial if you are building your business empire on the backs of freelancers is that you need to manage their efforts systematically.  Don't worry if that sounds like a lot of work, because you can hire a freelancer to do that too.  Still, it doesn't hurt to understand how they should be doing their job, so here is the simple guide to managing dispersed freelance teams.

1. Respect your freelancers

This is important.  If you want to get the best work from your team and you want them to remain loyal to you, you have to respect them.  You can't go in acting like a boss, for the simple reason that they are freelancers because they don't want a boss.  If they wanted a boss, they'd go for the easy option of having a 9-to-5 job that is much more reliable and secure than freelancing.

The key difference between being a freelancer and being an employee is that you're not necessarily working exclusively for one particular client, and you typically have much more freedom.  Employees sacrifice that freedom for the illusory feeling of security.  From an employer's point-of-view, it's a lot less expensive to work with freelancers and there's a lot less paperwork involved.  You don't have any responsibility to the worker beyond paying their fee.  You don't pay a salary, so you're not responsible for their taxes.  You don't need to provide insurance, health care, sick leave, paid vacations, or any of the other things that employees feel entitled to.  Because freelancers have given up their right to expect these things, you should at least give them your respect in return.

As the customer, you have the right to expect that your freelance workers will give their best efforts, will perform their tasks within a reasonable time, and that they will perform the tasks in line with the goals of your business.  What you shouldn't feel you can dictate is when and where the freelancer performs the tasks unless you have a very good reason for doing so.

If you really need work returned at a very specific time and date, without exception, you should be prepared to justify the reasons why that is necessary.  Otherwise you should expect your deadline to be viewed more as a guideline.  If you need the freelancer not to change geographic locations, you again should be able to provide very good reasons for your demand.

Some employers have an incorrect view that freelancers do what they do because they can't get a real job.  Don't let yourself be one of those employers.  The truth is most freelancers become freelance in order to escape the kind of controls that employers typically try to impose, which include setting specific working hours at a specific place, having strict deadlines, pay that is not correctly aligned to effort, and all that kind of thing.

Freelancers typically only make enough money to live on if they accept many clients, and sometimes the needs of those clients will be in conflict with one another.  What your goal should be is to have the freelancer give priority to your needs over the needs of other clients, and that will only happen if you win their respect.  The really important thing to know about this is you can only gain their respect if you give respect first.

On the other hand, don't accept very clear disrespect from your freelancers.  You need to be sure they really care about supporting your business efforts as much as you do.

2. Make sure your freelance team can communicate easily

Freelance teams tend to be widely dispersed, sometimes in several different countries.  If their work requires them to be able to collaborate, you need to make this easy for them to do.

Systems like Trello are a good innovation.  You should also try to ensure that all members have access to the same messaging systems (not Skype, it's not suitable for these kinds of communications, which need to be strongly encrypted by a non-proprietary system if you don't want outsiders stealing all your business information).  Your workers also shouldn't collaborate by unencrypted emails, either, unless the sorts of things they communicate about are really trivial.

3. Make sure dispersed teams working on the same task understand the goal

The old proverb that “many hands make light work” is directly opposed by another proverb which states “too many cooks spoil the broth”.  You want your team to work more in line with the first of these sayings and not so much like the other one implies will happen. 

To achieve this kind of harmony, you have to be certain that everyone working on a particular task is aware of what needs to be accomplished and that they are in agreement on how it should be accomplished.  The last thing you should want is for everyone to approach the task in their own individual way, ending up with a mess of different ideas that somehow needs to be cobbled into a coherent whole.

4. Assemble appropriate teams of experts

When you run an online business, you need the right people doing the right things for you, and they should all be very knowledgeable and capable at what they do.

For example if you run an online store that sells brand-name electronics products, you would want to have a team that includes:

Try-Shopify
  • Product sourcing experts
  • Supply negotiators
  • Expert product reviewers
  • Bloggers and/or vloggers
  • Social media experts
  • Customer support experts

Depending on the scale of your business, you may want to have even more than this, but doing well in the world of consumer electronics is a tough gig, and it's even tougher when your business operates entirely in an online environment.  Without having at least these people on your team, it will be difficult for your business to reach its full potential.

5. Review results regularly

At the core of a successful freelancing relationship, there is a requirement for clients to act in good faith with respect to payments and other such things, and a requirement for the freelancers to do whatever it is they are supposed to be doing with an acceptable degree of competence.

If the people working for you are seriously under-performing and you can't remedy it, you'll need to seriously consider replacing them.  Fortunately this is a lot easier to do with freelancers than with employees, but it's a double-edged sword because the new hire may be even worse than the person they're replacing.

Sourcing talented freelancers is the toughest part of the whole business, then once you've found them, you'll want to do everything you can to keep them.  Just don't carry dead weight if you don't need to.

6. Source your freelancers appropriately

Ironically the worst place to find good freelancers tends to be those freelance pools where millions of low quality freelancers compete against each other to secure a gig from a miserly client who wants to pay bottom dollar.  You will rarely find good workers in these places because they tend to avoid them.  They avoid them because the money they can earn there is simply too low because of all the amateurs so desperate for work that they'll accept any price.  Always remember that you want expert professionals working for you.

Finding good freelancers usually means advertising on professional job boards and making your business seem like an attractive one for a high quality freelance professional to want to work with.  Don't expect to have instant success with this.  Freelance hiring is very much hit-and-miss.  Eventually you will get the perfect team assembled, though, and once you've managed that, you just have to manage them, as described in all of the previous steps.

header image courtesy of Andrew McKay

Emma Grant

Emma Grant is a professional freelance content writer from Ireland. Over the past three years she has travelled the world while running her business from her laptop. You find her at www.florencewritinggale.com