Does collaboration change when you’re freelance?

A photo of Emma at a workshop. The photo is taken from behind as she sits on a table writing with a sharpie on a piece of paper. Overlaid is a speech bubble that says ‘Does collaoboration change when you’re freelance?
Photo credit: Nexer Digital

I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration recently and how it differs when you’re working freelance to when you’re working with colleagues. I’ve been thinking about how the dynamic changes when two or more people work together that are not united under a company banner.

There are logistical things you have to work out like who owns the contract with the client, what days/hours you work etc but what is most interesting to me is how those more tangible things have an impact on the way you work with someone. One person holding the contract will automatically create a power dynamic as one person has more at stake reputationally.

Freelancers are also, by the nature of the job, more used to working solo and leading the process using their own approaches and ways of working. Collaborating with other freelancers means it might be more challenging to find a rhythm with the way you work as you’re not aligned to a company way of working. Then there are the times and ways people like to work and how they will differ — because we’re all humans.

I think there is also a temptation to start working with people you know and go on reputation alone with very little discussion upfront about whether it will be a good fit or not. Freelancers don’t interview each other but should there be more rigor around initiating collaborations?

All this pondering got me thinking about my user manual of me. This is a tool I’ve always loved but have got slack at using over the last year. I used it when we kicked off The Cancer Awareness Trust project with Think Public but since then I haven’t touched it and I regret that. Next year I’m going to be better at initiating these conversations at the start of every project and I’d like to use it with clients too.

One thing I have been wondering is if my manual has changed since I’ve gone freelance. I have a strong suspicion that it has, so here goes. This is my current manual and some reflections on how this has changed to the one I produced at the start of my time at NHS Digital.

Conditions I like to work in

Collaboration is important for me. I need people to bounce ideas off. I like to be challenged but also like to challenge others. Sometimes I need time to think about something first — I get nervous having to answer on the spot. I like quiet time for thinking and writing, I rarely work with music on.

The times/hours I like to work

Despite being a freelancer I still largely work 9–5, Monday-Friday. I feel naughty altering this even though I’m my own boss now but I am trying to make my hours work better for me. For example I’m a late riser so I prefer to start at 10am and work a bit later. If I exercise I am better at making time for that before work. However I’m always thinking about work, I find it difficult to switch my brain off.

The best ways to communicate with me

It depends what about! If it’s something difficult I’d prefer face-to-face (2D or 3D). If it’s day-to-day about work I use slack, Twitter and LinkedIn a lot and prefer quick message exchanges to long email threads. Voice notes freak me out!

The ways I like to receive feedback

I do like feedback but I’m still learning how not to fixate on criticism so I’d prefer if you’re not really direct and explain your reasons for the feedback. Verbal feedback is better for me so we can have a discussion about it. I spend a lot of time worrying about how my actions affect others so please don’t leave me thinking I’ve upset you if I haven’t.

Things I need

I’m a short term planner. I need my week to be planned a week ahead of time. I need control of my own diary to ensure I get the thinking time I need to get work done alongside meetings. I need people to be responsive when I’m working with them so that I can bounce ideas around. I’m sure there are many other things I need but these are the main things that have risen to the surface as a freelancer and I know this is the area that has changed most for me since I was in permanent employment.

Things I struggle with

Unexpected plans or changes to my day or week. This really stresses me out. I struggle working alone on complex subject matters as I question my own thinking. I need people to stress test things with. Despite working in and around it for almost a decade I still struggle with uncertainty.

Things I love

I love making things, bringing things into the world. I love creative thinking and ideas. But I also love order and logic. I like complex problems I can figure out and find the simplicity in. I love people and building relationships (despite being an introvert). I love making people’s lives easier/better with the work that I do. I love ethnographic research and the surprises it always throws up. I love the psychology behind human behavior. I also love to write, travel, knit and hike (not all at the same time).

Other things to know about me

That I hate answering super open ended questions like this? I think this says a lot about why I became a designer and not an artist!

Now, looking back on the user manual of me I did before starting NHS Digital there is certainly a lot of synergy. I am still happy to work any time of the day and love to sleep for example.

Two of the biggest changes are in the ‘things I need’ and ‘things I struggle’ with areas. Obviously this is partly due to the nature of my day-to-day changing. One thing I knew would have changed was my desire for control over my week and the way I struggle with unexpected changes to my schedule. I’ve really noticed how important to me that is as a freelancer — maybe because I now have that ability to have full control over my time and I don’t want someone stealing that from me!

The second change, and this was one I didn’t expect. On ‘things I struggle with’ the first thing I wrote in my older manual was ‘self confidence’. This was stated quite boldly as if it was the first and most important thing that came into my mind at the time. I’m heartened to see that after a year of freelancing, and 15 years of battling with my confidence at work, it didn’t enter my head this time round.

So this weeks note has been a bit of a meandering tour of my thoughts on collaboration and how I work. If you’re still reading, well done for following my spaghetti of thoughts.

Have a good week.

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Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. designforjoy.co.uk Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.