When most of us thought about career development in the not-so-distant past, it generally involved a fairly similar path: improve what you know, improve what you do and then expand your network. After you’d completed those steps, the idea was to tell your expanded network just how much you’d improved, and what you now knew and how you accomplished it.
If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that everything we once thought we knew about doing business has changed. Which leads us to the concept of teamlancing.
Teamlancing — when team members and freelancers fit the bill
There were once two classic structures involved in the creative or corporate worlds. You were either part of a team or you were a freelancer. Being part of a team meant you generally followed a more rigid corporate system and rule-set.
Being a freelancer meant you still did the best work possible; you just did it on a more independent basis. We’ve been talking a lot about teamlancing lately and the fact that the idea of combining freelancers in a structured team is not only practical in our expanded mobile workspace, but in many cases actually preferable.
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But back to freelancing for a moment. Aside from the flexibility factor, for many freelancers, freedom and independence are some of biggest draws to the work style. In fact, while researching this series of articles on teamlancing, I spoke with numerous freelancers currently working within teams who initially panicked at the thought of having to work as part of a more organized team. More intriguing though was the fact that, through the course of our conversations, these hardcore independent folks discovered that they’d already been working a teamlancing structure all along, even if they didn’t have a formal name for it.
On some level, I’m one of those freelancers. While I work with many agencies, there’s often a learning curve when I have to figure out how to adapt my best practices to their playbook. But there are also benefits to the process, hence the segue to ongoing teamlancing.
Then again, for some people, teamlancing is almost second nature, and the rest of us can all learn a lot from their inherent ability to simultaneously embrace both the individuality and the group ethos.
5 teamlancing tips for finding success
“I have had my own PR firm for 22 years and have been partnering with other publicists on client accounts since 2007 when I formed TO Media Co.,” shared Allison Spragins Olmstead, who describes herself as the “OG of teamlancing” and represents brands including Laura Ashley and Rugs.com.
Spragins shared a list of five things that will help you become a better teamlancer:
1. Create a clear vision for the account or project.
“Make sure everyone on the team understands the short-term and long-term goals for the account,” Spragins recommends. She further explains that “It is critical for the success of the team that you are on the same page and headed in the same direction even if everyone is working remotely.”
2. Divide responsibilities.
No one wants to waste time and double up on efforts only to discover a project element has already been completed by someone else. Spragins said to “be sure to communicate each person’s role and responsibilities.” What this also does is “allows each person to be in charge of their own to-do list and take ownership of their tasks.” For Spragins, that also means having a monthly report with everyone’s projects detailed “so everyone on the team knows what the other person is working on and there are no surprises.”
3. Keep the communication channels open.
Since many teamlancers don’t actually meet in person that often (if at all!), Spragins recommends setting up a regular call, Zoom or email update. But don’t limit all communications to arranged meetings. “Don’t wait for the monthly call or report to give an update or get feedback though. Make it a point to be open if there needs to be a quick call or even a text exchange since many times there is a tight deadline and items need immediate action.”
4. Create a shared system for all work.
Many freelancers complain about the multitude of apps required by their clients. When you’re working in a team environment, it’s crucial to connect consistently and regularly. “Work on a platform like Google Drive so you can share documents in real-time,” Spragins advised. One of the many reasons she favors Google Drive is “there is no more discussion about which document is the most current draft, no one is confused, and there is no more emailing documents to make sure everyone has the most up-to-date version.” I also use Google Drive to create a monthly report where team members input their own updates for the client.
5. Don’t be afraid to try something new.
The best part of teamlancing according to Spragins, “is the collective energy.” She advises the rest of us to “Be open to new ideas, new ways of working, streamlining, or even expanding.” And differing perspectives can help as well. “Often times a new perspective from your team opens up new opportunities, Spragins said.” She also loves brainstorming with her team on new story ideas and to get feedback on her ideas as well. “No one knows my business or clients better than they do!”
Maximizing the benefits of a teamlancing structure
Some teamlancers aren’t new to the game but have been fine-tuning their approach for decades. That includes maximizing the benefits of the teamlance structure — most especially in better managing clients and deliverables.
Bob Schiers, president and co-founder of Unified Strategies Public Relations Network (USPR), explained how he and partner Susan Hamburg formed their international network of independent PR firms and marketing communications professionals:
“Each member is an independent business and we work closely together on projects for clients — each member acting somewhat as a freelance business to meet the PR and marketing communication needs of clients from a wide range of business sectors.”
He also expanded on the reach of their individual and shared businesses. “Susan and I both own small PR firms but we happen to serve a number of large clients.” Clients that might be far from their home turf. “We each have the need for a network to extend our business reach, well beyond our home territories of Orlando for Hamburg and Philadelphia for Schiers.”
About five years ago, Schiers and Hamburg decided to build and launch a virtual PR network comprised of PR and marketing communication professionals from around the nation and ultimately Canada, the UK, and Poland. To keep things organized, Schiers said that “each member has their own exclusive territory.”
There’s also a team of in-house resident experts “whose expertise is available to all members on an as-needed basis.” Schiers said member agencies are listed under the MEMBER tab while the in-house specialists are under the TEAM tab on the company website. In this way, not only are the experts presented well to clients, their roles are clearly delineated to avoid complications.
Now about those clients…
To keep project-flow running smoothly, Schiers explained the structure of client engagements:
“If a project is generated directly through USPR Network, Susan and I are the project leads,” he said. “Such projects can come by way of our advertising, clients who visit our website, word of mouth or client referrals.”
As the project leads, the co-founders work directly with the client to “determine their specific needs and then we engage various members of the network on an as-needed basis that is determined by their specific expertise, the various markets where the client needs the work to be done, and we also loop in our resident experts as needed,” Schiers elaborated.
More than that, “If a member has a client or project that needs network support, they are the project lead and they determine who would be involved in the project,” Schiers said. And there’s no worries about becoming possessive. “Each member of the network has territorial exclusivity,” Schiers said. If a member of the group has a project and needs help in a particular market, they’re required to first offer the work to group members.
Building your team of teamlancers
Before you assemble your own team, it’s important to pay attention to the core values of those you invite to share your collective brand. “The key value I look for is whether the person thinks of a project as a one-off transaction or as one iteration in a long-term relationship,” said Will Bachman of Umbrex, a global community of consultants.
Bachman has a specific roadmap for work relationships as well; “In business, I seek to adopt a five-decade time horizon regarding the investments I make in my own skills, knowledge, and relationships,” he said. “I want to work with team members who take a similar long-term view because they have more incentive to do extraordinary work.”
4 things to ask before kicking off a project
At the beginning of any project with a new team, Bachman said “it is a worthwhile investment of time to conduct a team learning. This is a common practice at McKinsey and other consulting firms where projects often include team members who have not worked together before.”
In a team learning session, each team member shares answers to these questions:
- What do I hope to learn on this project?
- What would make this project a win for me?
- What’s the best way to communicate with me?
- What are my constraints? (e.g., calls early morning are fine but nothing after 8 p.m.)
It’s all about balance.
If you’re already a working freelancer, chances are excellent that you’ll be even better in a teamlance situation. As Bachman explains it, “I’ve found that professionals who have mastered the core consulting skills tend to work well together on projects.”
Depending on your project, you’ll have to evaluate the skill set of your team and participants. Bachman offered two ways that he accomplishes that:
“To evaluate the professional’s written communication skills, I ask to see a sanitized sample of one of their recent client reports. It is far more powerful to show rather than tell.”
Seeing a sample work product also helps Bachman elicit a clear understanding of the “individual’s skill at structuring problems.”
To evaluate the professional’s interpersonal skills, Bachman said that he pays close attention to their interaction when he interviews them for the project. For example, “do they ask thoughtful, probing questions or do they try to impress me with a litany of their past accomplishments?”
Teamlancing productivity tip and follow-up
Bachman said that asking every team member to send a weekly recap email to the rest of the team can cut down on the duration of meetings while also enhancing accountability.
He shared a simple four-section format for this recap email:
- The activities I planned to complete this week
- The activities I actually completed this week
- The activities I have planned for next week
- Roadblocks and areas where I need help
One thing none of the expert teamlancers mentioned was figuring out how to work with people who don’t fit into their more structured team. We’ll try to delve into that in the next article in this series.