Earlier this year, we at ClearVoice found ourselves frequently discussing the concept of teamlancing, or the practice of working together as a team of freelancers. As a very wise man described it, teamlancing is “the practice of collaborating with a networked team (or networked teams) of freelancers to achieve a common goal, whether for a client or as a remote extension of a branded entity.”
As someone who’s not only a long-time freelancer but also a mostly work-from-home independent intrepid source, the idea of working as part of a team didn’t initially thrill me. After all, isn’t freelancing built on the idea of career autonomy and professional self-rule?
If I decided to become part of a team, wouldn’t I be shackling myself to groupthink without any of the benefits? Well, not really. As I gave the concept a bit more thought, I realized that for all intents and purposes, working with clients as a freelance contractor meant that I was already part of their team in some form or another.
Becoming a teamlancer
Something else happened this year that made me rethink the idea of teamlancing. I took the plunge and joined a team of teamlancers working together/apart internationally and went from thinking about a new work paradigm to living it.
Spoiler alert: Despite a sometimes-steep learning curve, I love it. I’m also genuinely excited on a daily basis to see how I can both contribute to the team and also learn from each member. And over the next few weeks, I’ll be chronicling my own career trajectory from hardcore freelancer to sometime teamlancer. I’ll also be writing about some of the best, worst, most confusing or satisfying parts of teamlancing from someone figuring it out as I go.
How I learned to stop worrying and love teamlancing
While I began my career in a traditionally hierarchal corporate environment, I’ve taken some entrepreneurial detours along the way. For the most part though, for the better part of the past decade and a half, I’ve been freelancing. And after years of being my own boss, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to have to answer to someone, much less a bunch of someones I’d never met. But when an opportunity presented itself to start consulting for an agency, my interest was piqued.
From copywriting to product naming to brand strategy, I’ve freelanced for many agencies in various capacities over the years, so I have a basic working knowledge of their processes. And most of them didn’t work for me for anything more permanent than on a project by project basis. In my capacity as a freelance writer, I also receive hundreds of pitches daily on topics ranging from the relevant to the inane. And I started to pay attention to what works and what really doesn’t.
One company that really got it right was digital PR agency The Content Factory (TCF). I already knew that I liked their style, approach, and professionalism. I also was ready to change up my own work routine. Maybe the timing was right, or the stars were aligned, or I was simply ready for a new professional adventure. But it all clicked.
And the most intriguing part of all was the fact that we were creating my position together based on their needs and my talents and expertise. And that’s the secret about teamlancing no one tells you — you can work within one team (or many) and choose which of your talents to highlight. And while there’s a lot of admin work (because there always is) there’s a different level of creative freedom inherent in being part of a team.
Wondering if teamlancing is in your future? You should probably ask yourself these questions:
- How good are you are working with others, even virtually? Do you find that you work better with input from others, or do you only ace it when you’re the only one on a project?
- Is there a company that you already work with in some capacity that you admire or wish you could work with? What’s stopping you from pursuing it?
- Do you want to expand your own professional skillset?
- Is there a company out there that could help you find new ways to use your talents?
Creating a job that works for me… and the team
While I have many (many!) talents, when working in a teamlancing situation, I had to learn to fine-tune the skills that would best serve the team and our clients. Ah, there it is. One of the more interesting aspects of teamlancing is understanding that it works almost as a talent puzzle and best when all the pieces fit together as seamlessly as possible.
If you’ve ever worked as a professional writer — especially a freelance writer — you’re already used to the frequently ego-crushing daily grind of pitching, submitting, and on occasion, editing by committee. You also have probably learned to separate the writing you’re most passionate about from the words that pay the bills. If you’re truly fortunate, you can sometimes combine the two.
When you’re a teamlancer, you have to fine-tune the way you work so that it serves not only your bottom line but also supports your colleagues’ work. It only works if you all understand that while no one is in a cubicle, you’re all answerable to each other.
When Rachel met teamlancing
In this series, I’ll be writing about some of the challenges I faced during the first few months of teamlancing. I’ll be sharing details on what it feels like to be the new kid on the block when you’ve stopped having to prove yourself long ago. Upcoming articles will cover tackling your workflow when, on the one hand, you’re part of a team and the rest of the time you’re chasing deadlines.
I’ll also be writing about figuring out where I fit into the team and also how not to feel insecure. Because it’s really easy to feel insecure when everyone seems to know the routines and you’re still trying to find your way.
I’ll also be interviewing some of my colleagues. Because while it’s normally considered verboten for a journalist to write about or feature clients in stories, in this case, leaving out the team that makes me a teamlancer would be leaving out most of the story.
4 key things to know about teamlancing from a CEO
To that end, when I joined a teamlancing environment I also gained a new boss. One of the things that impressed me most about TCF is founder and CEO Kari DePhillips and her innate ability to be simultaneously fully hands-on while being completely hands-off.
And I think her approach embodies the dichotomy of teamlancing. I asked DePhillips for some tips on how she manages that feat and if she has a few tips for aspiring teamlancers.
1. You can pick and choose from the best.
If you don’t need a full-time staff, you can handpick those who do join your team. “It makes financial sense,” explained DePhillips, who recently celebrated a decade running a fully teamlance staffed agency. “We’ve always had a strong team core team, but over the last several years, I’ve brought on specialists on a contract basis to help advise my team, guide strategy and provide insight that I wouldn’t be able to afford on a full-time basis.” And it’s paying off.
DePhillips said that, as a result of working with specialists and consultants, “our standard operating procedures have gotten a lot better and the team as a whole is better rounded.”
Teamlancing takeaway: You can pick and choose your team in a way that might not be possible if you hired an exclusively full-time group.
2. Focus on competency and culture.
DePhillips started TCF as a remote agency (you can read her blog post on the topic), and while most of the team is full-time employees, “we do have some freelancers and experts on contract to call for help on certain types of projects.”
She advises anyone looking to assemble their own team, “Whether hiring for a full-time employee position or a part-time contract, I hire for competency and culture.”
As to what culture might look like when employees are scattered, she explains that “Culture isn’t something I dictate from the top down but hire for and cultivate as the team grows and changes. The bottom line: we’re all smart, talented people who genuinely care about each other, our work and our clients.”
Teamlancing takeaway: Define your priorities and hire a team that supports them.
3. Process documents are crucial.
When you don’t share a workspace, it can be hard to explain what you do to the new kids on the block. “Tying your shoes is easy and you do it every day, but can you easily explain in writing to another person how to tie those laces?” DePhillips asked.
“It’s a similar situation with workflow and SOP documents. In a remote environment, you can’t just drop by somebody’s desk, take over their computer for a minute and show them how to complete a task. Screensharing helps, but you’re still going to want those process documents.”
Teamlancing takeaway: Newish teamlancing brings with it some old-school work including the documents and instructions you might remember from your first job ever.
4. Feedback is everything.
It’s challenging to hire your teamlancing staff since you not only have to choose a new qualified professional, you also have to figure out how they fit in with the existing team.
“One of the big things I keep an eye out for in the interview/tryout process before hiring is how somebody takes feedback (especially negative feedback),” said DePhillips.
“It’s absolutely imperative that the person take the feedback, implement it in future projects, and do it all without a sour attitude. In the past, I’ve encountered people who got very defensive about various types of content edits, etc., and it negatively impacts the team vibe and working environment.”
Teamlancing takeaway: No teamlancer is an island. Expect to hear follow up from your boss or colleagues or clients and learn how to take input and advice as gracefully as possible.
What to keep in mind before setting up your teamlance
- Can you try it on for size first and then part friends if it doesn’t work out? Be it 3 months or 6 months, set up a time that works for both you and your new employer and prepare to weather some growing pains together as you figure it all out.
- It’s easier now than ever: DePhillips reminds us “the tools have gotten a lot better (Zoom and Slack didn’t even exist back in 2010, and yet we still managed to make it work!).” If setting up team environments isn’t your thing, you can always designate a team member to set up and maintain your group platforms.
- It’s crucial to remember that when you work in a team environment — be it virtual or teamlancing — you’re no longer a solopreneur. And as DePhillips puts it “As a rule you’re going to get feedback — constantly. If a candidate pouts or gets defensive following constructive criticism, they can’t hang with our crew.”