One of the big benefits of freelancing is that you don’t have to go into the office. There’s no office politics, no gossip around the watercooler, and no boss looking over your shoulder. But there’s also no camaraderie, no daily contacts and no friendly chats. Working from home, day after day, can be a pretty lonely affair, a situation that can have a strong effect on both happiness and productivity. According to Professor Stephen Humphrey of Florida State University, a “socially supportive workplace” contributes to greater job satisfaction, lower feelings of exhaustion, and a reduced likelihood of wanting to quit. People whose work depends on others also perform better and have lower stress. So what can freelancers do to beat the loneliness of working from home without the losing the benefits of freelance freedom?
Some steps are relatively easy. An active social media presence can go some way towards making up for the lack of human contact. Facebook provides a simple way to keep up to date with the gossip you might otherwise miss and an active Twitter stream can provide at least a sense that there are people out there, chatting and thinking about the same things that interest you. But the power of a virtual social life is limited, and using Facebook’s instant messaging service can take too much attention away from a project.
Working in an office part-time might help. If you could combine a regular day job for one or two days a week with freelance work, you might be able to put together the best of both worlds: you’d get a regular injection of company (and one regular source of income) while still retaining your freedom during the rest of the week. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 8.5 million people — about one in sixteen workers — now hold part-time jobs. Not all of those people are working short hours willingly but reduced hours have been a popular way for employers to cut costs during the downturn without losing skilled staff. Keep in touch with your former colleagues, keep an eye on local businesses in your field and let people know that you’d be willing to work eight to sixteen hours a week if they need the help. You might just be able to give your freelance business a new balance.
Even if you don’t want to go into the office at all though, there are still a few more ways you can win the benefits of sociability without saying goodbye to freelance life.
- Build a Joint Project
Freelancers don’t just work alone, we also tend to work independently. The projects we complete might be stand-alone, such as an e-book or a website, or they’ll be inserted later into a product over which we’ve had no influence at all. A logo designer doesn’t need to talk to the company’s copywriter to do her work; the client’s guidelines are enough.
Work on a project as part of a team though, and the interaction comes as a bonus.
Those kinds of projects are rare on freelance job sites but we can create them ourselves. Etsy’s Teams look a lot like groups and forums on other sites but they’re actually platforms for different artists to work together.
Larissa Liberato, for example, makes party favors but has created a team on Etsy to help “all brides find the custom wedding decor of their dreams.” Her dream, she says, would be for the team to work as one to pull off a wedding. “We could recommend brides to our team and have brainstorm sessions with them, show them our items that best match their needs or they can request custom items.”
It’s a step beyond swapping advice and raising issues towards co-operation in serving clients. And for some freelancers, it can be a useful way to work with someone on a paying project.
- Take a Course
Even if we have to work alone, we don’t have to learn alone — and we should always be learning. Whether you’re a designer who needs to keep up to date with the latest software tools, a developer who needs to know a new language, or a writer who can brush up on editing or technical writing skills, there’s always more to know and more ways to broaden your professional services.
Most towns have adult education centers whose courses are often subsidized. (This is one at Santa Barbara City College.) You should be able to find a class there that can boost your business or even just give you a fun education. And if you can’t, you could try teaching. That will give you some income and interaction with both students and teachers.
- Attend a Conference
A class is likely to be regular and relatively cheap. Professional conferences are occasional and can be expensive. The HOW Design Live Creative Freelancer Conference to be held in June 2012 costs $545 (or $595 if you book after March 30th.) Develop in Brighton, a conference held in the UK earlier this year, was a lot cheaper with special day rates for independent workers of just £50 – £75.
Like a course, a conference can provide an education but more importantly, it delivers contacts that can stay with you throughout the year, helping a freelancer to feel less like a lone worker and more like a team member.
And between classes and conferences, there’s always co-working. Cafes might give you some conversation with other digital nomads, and you can chat with the waiters and baristas, but for a real sense that you have colleagues, there’s only the shared space of co-working. Rates vary. New Work City, a space in New York, charges $300 a month for full membership, but also provides some access for as little as $25 per month. Creative Density Coworking in Denver offers plans from $75 to $300 but also provides a free day trial.
The site also likes to point out that a survey of its users found that 42 percent saw an increase in income, 88 percent interact better with people and 60 percent said that they were more relaxed at home — even when they weren’t working there.