Transitioning work relationships from colleague to community can be challenging in a traditional work environment. Relationships take time to mature and it can be a difficult process along the way, but freelancers have an additional hurdle to jump in the race towards a healthy professional community. Many of us are working independently (translation: alone in our apartments). How are we supposed to foster a sense of community when we’re on our own most days?
I, like a reported 54 million Americans, am a freelancer. What that means is that my office is wherever I lay my computer (assuming I can connect to WiFi), and most days that happens in my apartment. My office might look a little different, but my reality isn’t. Just like everyone else, I have a to-do list that grows faster than I can check things off, and too few hours in the day.
When Chicago’s chilly winds are blowing, it can be very tempting to hunker down, start crossing tasks off the list, and never leave my apartment. Social media even allows me to chat with other people so I don’t feel too disconnected, and while that pattern of behavior might be great for my productivity, it’s murder on my sense of well-being. Humans are wired for community, and collaboration stokes creativity. We need actual human connection and interactions longer than 140 characters.
I started collecting 1099s four years ago. Back then my work environment was slightly unusual, but not anymore. Reports suggest that if trends continue, 40% of the American workforce will be freelance by 2020. This could lead to problems if we all make the choice to stay isolated at home, working in our pajamas.*
Fostering Community While Working Alone
Constant isolation is not the answer. And though our pets are excellent company, they’re likely not fonts of wisdom when it comes to professional development-for that, we need people. We need conversation, connection, and inspiration to grow and improve. We need community.
If you aren’t surrounded by people on a daily basis in a traditional office setting, it just means you need to be intentional about seeking them out. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started.
Get a few routine appointments on the calendar
Block some time each week for a few key conversations. Schedule them ahead of time and make them a priority. If you carve out a specific time on your calendar in advance, you’re covered, regardless of what other daily emergencies pop up.
I have a standing coffee date with my girlfriend in Berlin once a week. We chat online for an hour every Wednesday, catching up on our lives and our work. We’re not irrationally inflexible about it — sometimes things come up, and we cancel — but for the most part, that hour is sacred. It’s on my calendar, and nothing else gets booked in that slot. Not every week is a deep conversation; sometimes we just chat about the little stuff in life. But because we talk so regularly, when the big stuff happens we’re ready to dig in.
Volunteer Your Time
One way to establish and deepen relationships is to serve together. Block out some time each month to volunteer at an organization that aligns with your personal or professional purpose (in a perfect world these are similar), and jump in.
Chicago is a theater town. With more 200 independent theaters around the city and minimal funding for the arts, many companies struggle to stay afloat. As a member of The Saints, I serve as part of a community of volunteer ushers who assist several theaters around the city. By giving our time, we help to save the theaters money on staffing (and occasionally even clean-up).
Over the years, I have gotten to see some fantastic (and a few not-so-fantastic) shows with my fellow ushers. We’ve gotten to know one another and developed relationships; shared experiences like these deepen the feeling of community. When I joined, I didn’t think the Saints would help me professionally, I was just looking for a way to volunteer and meet people. But I am continuously awed by the advice and support these generous men and women offer me as we’re serving side-by-side.
Plan a work date
With one in three Americans working freelance, there’s a pretty good chance you know at least one other person in a similar situation as you. Set aside a day to work separately, but together. Find a coffee shop or a gorgeous hotel lobby and set up camp for the day.
From personal experience, co-working days are never my most productive. But what I lose in productivity, I gain in laughter, camaraderie, and enjoyment.
Take a Class
Many of us form some of our closest and deepest friendships during our years in school. There is often an instant connection that develops between students who are learning together.
Take a class and make it a point to graduate with more than just new information or a new skill. Make it your goal to be intentional about meeting and connecting with someone in your class. It won’t be a difficult goal to achieve.
One of the first things I did after moving to Chicago was apply for the Docent program at the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF). Once accepted into the program, I attended a five-month-long training to prepare me for my volunteer position, and I met some of my closest friends in Chicago during those classes. In the years since, we’ve learned tours together, sat on committees together, taken trips together, and planned events. Our relationships have evolved beyond our common commitment to CAF, but the class is what brought us together in the first place.
At first blush, it might seem to be harder to be part of a community as a freelancer, but maybe it actually isn’t. After all, our flexible schedules, dogged determination, and ability to manage time make us ideally suited to the task of intentionally cultivating community. It may require a bit more effort to nurture that community when you don’t have to punch a time clock side-by-side, but it’s effort that is well worth it.
What are some other ways you’ve beaten isolation and built community as a freelancer?
*I do not suggest that working from home in your pajamas is a bad thing. In fact, speaking from experience, it is a very, very good thing. We just can’t do it everyday.