I’m a remote freelancer. You’ve booked me for a project. I have, in many ways, been transported into your world, like a visiting alien from another planet. But, remaining securely ensconced in my atmosphere controlled space-explorer vehicle, I view you all from afar.
I need to learn your ways and customs, your cultural rules and behaviour patterns; observing you through a screen, via headphones, deciphering the flow of communication.
I studied the information I had received, prior to my visit. Yet you speak in a strange foreign tongue. Recognisable, yet frequently indecipherable.
But I’m not an alien. I’m an editor. Don’t we all speak more or less the same language?
Don’t speak in jargon and code
Acronyms and other similar codes tend not to help ‘outsiders’ understand their role or task. Especially when there are different acronyms for the same things used by different departments in the whole project set up.
There may be acronyms for teams, job titles, tasks, documents, meetings, platforms, content, digital activities, book components and assets.
“So, as part of the SP1 task, I need to look at the EPN to find the SB2 to determine if the D42 is the correct DCF for the TMP. Bearing in mind that it’s the DK part, not the MK.”
The use of specific in-house jargon, in general, can lead to confusion, miscommunication and a feeling of separation until the ‘outsider’ has got to grips with things.
Remember that it’s not hard to unintentionally increase a remote freelancer’s feelings of separation. We’re ARE physically and geographically separate. We ARE remote.
“Demonstrating empathy for your colleagues is the glue that holds a remote company dynamic together. Whether it’s their life circumstance, their work experience, or their feelings of inclusion (or lack thereof) in the company, it all starts with listening to remote folks and being empathetic to their situation.”
Hopefully, this gives a little insight into what it’s like to be a remote freelancer. But this is just one communication issue.
Communication is key
Part of the key to organising a successful remote team is to make sure that all participants feel valued, understood, well-informed and sufficiently well briefed. This is all done using one form of communication or another.
I think freelancers are very aware of this, in-house staff who have spent time as freelancers or as remote workers also get it. Other staff, I think, often have no reference point for what it’s like.
Thoughtful, well-prepared, good quality communication can overcome a lot of the issues.
“I will communicate as much as possible because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.”
Reflect and empathise
Project team management and membership require an understanding of the position of each of the team members. If asked to think about it, I don’t think this is too much of a challenge. However, many in-house teams seemingly fail to reflect on and recognise the difference between their physical and geographical proximity, their knowledge of familiar professional behaviours, the exclusive language of their ‘inner circle’ and the potential sensitivity of the freelancer’s position.
It may not be something that occurs to an in-house team, but why not try to at least have some team meetings in which everyone attends from their computer, like the freelancers?
Attending a meeting as a lone outsider ‘on the line’ while an in-house team are together in a room immediately establishes separation. And the audio can be terrible: people sitting further away from the microphone can’t be heard, some people mumble or talk quietly and when various people talk at the same time it does not make for easily understandable communication.
Here are 12 things that I appreciate myself and try to pay attention to when managing or participating in a geographically distributed team:
- At the start of the project, try to have a video conference call, where you can see each other. Don’t just talk about the project, try to get an idea of the other people’s life and work situation. If it’s a long project, maybe schedule some less formal meetings or a ‘virtual water cooler‘ space.
- Make regular contact, even if it’s just to ask ‘How’s it going today / this week?’. Ask if someone needs any support or further information and don’t let too much time go by without checking that information has been received; sometimes spam filters are over-zealous!
- Watch out for the pitfalls of written communication. Even if you’re in a rush, be careful not to appear blunt or dismissive. Always read messages back before sending and consider whether they will be understood or could be misinterpreted; particularly if some of the team are not native speakers of the team’s main language.
- Organise and create guidelines for communication channels to make everything as clear and efficient as possible. Misunderstandings will waste time and effort. Try not to rely only on email – consider other communication options See here for more of my thoughts on this!
- Not everyone works at the same time. Don’t expect instant responses. Be aware of people’s time differences and work schedules.
- Create an online space for task management, such as a Trello board, where everyone can access the most important information about what they are doing at any given time. This can help make sure there’s an easy method in place to track and report progress. What’s coming up? What’s in progress? And what’s the status of each task?
- Use cloud storage, such as Google Drive or Dropbox for important files, so that updating a document just means amending and communicating the amendments, not emailing out another version.
- Be able to connect and communicate in multiple ways. If not Skype, use FaceTime, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, or maybe a phone call! If you’re in-house, be prepared to be flexible and be prepared to use alternative platforms to the company favourite.
- During a web conference, such as on Skype or GoToMeeting, actually use and pay attention to the chat function. For people not in the room, a backchannel such as this offers the opportunity to inform the presenter of audio issues, or to post questions, without interrupting the flow of conversation.
- If you’re using platforms on which there is a profile image feature where you can add a photo, use it. Google Drive, Trello, Smartsheet, JIRA, even Dropbox and Office365 accounts now have a profile image feature. If you’re a real person and not an anonymous aardvark or a grey blob, it does actually help.
- Celebrate important milestones with the team: Level 4 is done, dusted and in production! Wahoo! Nice work everyone!
- Taking things a little bit further (OK, this is fairly out there for anyone who knows academic publishing, but…), why not try automating some tasks and making time to understand how apps and tools can be integrated to automatically update? This can be used with calendars, to do list apps, project management tools – pretty much everything. In turn, this could reduce the need for email updates and those horrible group email chains. What could work to save time and effort? Perhaps an AI automation tool like IFTTT or Zapier could help improve information sharing.
There are probably some important things I could have included, but have forgotten or haven’t thought of. Do you have any suggestions? Feel free to comment below to start or join a discussion.