From Freelancers to Telecommuters: Succeeding in the New World of Solitary Work

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As the economy flirts with a double-dip recession and cost-conscious companies hesitate to re-hire, the workplace for many Americans has shifted away from crowded offices to a new world of solitary work. From freelancers to telecommuters to laid-off workers making do with temporary jobs, an increasing number of Americans are reporting to work each day from a corner of their home, a space in the garage, a private office or even a table at the local coffee shop.

For some, it’s a dream come true. But the transition isn’t smooth for everyone.

“It’s easier to get in the mood to work when everybody else around you is working,” says Maurice Schweitzer, a Wharton professor of operations and information management. Without an office, “you have to create that entire structure yourself.”

For solitary workers, re-creating the workplace goes beyond buying a phone and a laptop. Lone workers must also take greater responsibility for their own professional image, networking opportunities, training and daily motivation, experts at Wharton and elsewhere point out. If they don’t, they risk missing out on important social connections and possibly career growth. Companies, too, should mind the gap. Despite the apparent cost savings of offsite workers, remote connections could possibly lead to miscommunication, and threaten productivity in the long run.

It’s unclear how many Americans work in isolation. According to the New York-based Freelancers Union, independent workers make up about 30% of the American workforce, although this figure does not include telecommuters who are part of a company but work from home. Also, many independent workers — including freelancers, part-time workers, consultants, independent contractors, contingent workers, temps and the self-employed — work on job sites with other people.

Being physically apart from co-workers creates challenges both internally and externally, Wharton experts note. One of the most basic: Without a physical office, it can be difficult for some workers to find a balance between work and play. The isolation raises “the whole question of how you manage the boundaries between work and the rest of your life,” according to Wharton management professor Stewart Friedman, who studies how leaders integrate the four domains of work, life, community and self. For those who are independent-minded, working from home can be more productive than working at the office because it frees them from distractions and allows them to work as they please. For others, home life gets in the way. “You have all sorts of other activities that might be a distraction from the work. So how do you focus your attention on the things that matter, when they matter? You need to have a greater sense of discipline about creating those boundaries.”

Some people require more boundaries than others, points out Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, who has studied how people blend or separate their work and personal life. “People actually have different preferences for how they manage these boundaries,” she says. “There are some people who like to blur the boundaries between personal and professional — people who prefer to integrate their work and life domains…. Then there are people on the other end of that spectrum who really strongly want to keep their work and personal lives separate.” For the latter group, working at home would be “a disaster,” Rothbard adds. “It’s going to be very distressing to them. It’s going to be hard for them to manage.”

A New Way to Define Your Career

Monica McGrath, a leadership consultant and adjunct management professor at Wharton, recommends a dedicated space at home or a shared office — not the ubiquitous coffee shop, which is filled with distractions. “If you shift to a home-based business, it is quite easy to assume all you need is a phone and a desk. What you actually need is a new way to define your career,” McGrath notes. Without the structure of the office, solitary workers can succumb to “the distraction of the laundry, the pets, the neighbors, friends looking for company, boredom and other types of demands. While all these things can distract your mind at work, the fact is, you can’t really do the laundry at work.”

For independent contractors and freelancers, work-life boundaries can blur not only in space but time. Since contractors paid by the hour tend to become very focused on how they use each minute, they sometimes end up working more, according to Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell. “It becomes more salient to them if they’re not working,” says Bidwell, who has done extensive research on contract workers in the IT sector. “If they take off an afternoon to do something fun, it is much easier for them to put a dollar figure on how much that costs.”

Money matters also lead to meaning-of-life questions for workers who are on their own. Susan J. Ashford, a professor of management and organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, believes that questions about purpose and meaning come up more easily to workers who have no organization behind them. “Our argument is that your ego is very invested in the work because it’s just you,” she notes. “There’s nobody there to tell you that what you’re doing is great even though profits are going down.”

In a study recently presented at the Academy of Management, Ashford conducted in-depth interviews with solitary workers about how they stay motivated, and discovered that many needed to create a larger narrative of meaning behind their work. For some, such as a rug maker who likened her basement workshop to Picasso’s studio, the stories were strictly imaginary. Others created ego-boosting surroundings, like the financial analyst who set up his office to feel like the cockpit of a jet plane. The narratives helped sustain motivation when money got tight or stress levels rose. “When you are on your own, meaning-making feels much more necessary to your work life than when you’re in an organization,” Ashford says. “The more freedom you have in your work, the more you have to do this.”

Creating Virtual Face Time

Managing personal time, space and motivation is just the first step: Lone workers also have to work to keep themselves on other people’s radars while battling the misperception that they are not really working.

“There’s a sense of illegitimacy about it,” notes Debra Osnowitz, a sociology professor at Clark University and author of Freelancing Expertise — Contract Professionals in the New Economy. Offsite workers have to make extra efforts to communicate that the job is getting done, Osnowitz found from interviews with freelance writers, editors, programmers and engineers. “Their being offsite and out of sight means needing to be accountable and clear,” she says. “You can’t depend on just being there to indicate that you’re attentive to what your client wants.”

Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli agrees. “In many organizations, if not most, there’s still a premium based on face time. The more we see you, the more we think you’re working or are valuable — particularly in jobs that don’t have clear performance measures.”

Indeed, a study released this month by WorldatWork, a nonprofit association that examines workplace issues, found that the number of people who worked from home or a remote location for an entire day at least once a month declined to 26.2 million in 2010, compared to 33.7 million in 2008. A higher rate of unemployment is believed to play a role in those numbers, the association reports; but so is anxiety over job security and the widespread belief that visibility creates awareness of a worker’s value to a particular company. Although the total number of “teleworkers” decreased, the percentage of people who worked remotely more than once per month went up, from 72% in 2008 to 84% in 2010.

Distance can also create gaps in communication and training opportunities, Cappelli notes. “You kind of lose out on the office politics in terms of knowing what’s going on. It’s still true that people who are liked get more opportunities.” And skills can diminish without easy access to training and new projects. “You get hired as a contractor to do the work essentially that you did before,” Cappelli says, “so you could become obsolete pretty quickly … unless you do things to [increase] your skills.”

Lack of face time also makes it more difficult for offsite workers to cultivate professional relationships that can grow a career. “Face-to-face communication allows people to build trust and communicate more completely than they would otherwise,” according to Schweitzer. When it comes to building lasting work relationships, the most important communication is that which is not related to work — the handshake, a pat on the back, jokes and office chitchat that disappears when workers are only remotely connected. “Non-task communication is what goes missing with this distant work,” Schweitzer says. “So in the absence of non-task communication, we don’t build that relationship — that rapport — and ultimately we don’t build that trust.”

Over time, lack of contact could shrink a lone worker’s professional network and the benefits that come with it, Friedman points out. “You lose so much of the benefits of social interaction … the serendipitous contact with other people that might lead you to resources and connections.” With fewer chance encounters in elevators, lunchrooms and daily meetings, it becomes more difficult to build one’s reputation, find mentors or mentor others, or seize the chances to contribute to other people’s welfare and success. “It’s more difficult to effect that building of social capital,” Friedman says. “If you’re working in social isolation, you have to make an extra effort to connect with people.”

Distance creates not only a potential problem for workers, but also for the teams and clients they support. Without face-to-face, in-person contact, important pieces of communication can get lost. “Emotions are information … and emotions influence performance,” notes Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade, who researches emotions, organizational culture and team dynamics. More than half of communication about emotion is transmitted through facial expression; about one-third comes from tone, and less than 10% comes from what is actually said, she points out. That means people who communicate primarily through phone and emails are at a disadvantage because they aren’t getting complete information from each other.

The solution is not to stop telecommuting, but for management to be “hyper-vigilant” about potential communication gaps and take steps to prevent them or compensate, Barsade says. “If you can’t get the full information about people’s emotions, ultimately that will affect your performance, their performance and the performance of the organization.”

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