An American Editor

February 12, 2018

On the Basics: Onsite as Opportunity or Headache — The Freelancer’s Occasional Dilemma

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Being a home-based sole proprietor as a freelance editor brings many joys and benefits. We can work to our own preferred schedules, dress as we please, avoid rush-hour traffic aggravation, listen to the music or TV shows that we enjoy without bothering anyone (or being bothered by someone else’s choices) … the list goes on.

Every once in a while, though, some of us receive offers to work onsite as independent contractors. The reaction is often a knee-jerk “no”; as book designer Steve Tiano said recently in a LinkedIn post: “Why on earth would I want to work on-site as an independent contractor? That’s the pain-in-the-ass of getting up in the morning (or evening, depending), dressing up (okay, just a little, at best), traveling to their location — all like an employee, with none of the benefits of being an employee. This is really the most obvious example of a raw deal for a worker.”

As I responded at LinkedIn, Steve has good points. Those are all aspects of working onsite that make staying put in a cozy home office look even more appealing than usual. Add in the discomfort factor for introverts and it makes a lot of sense to avoid onsite assignments. But let’s not rush to judgment — or a decision — too quickly.

Steve’s post addresses the basic logistics. There’s more to the possibility of working onsite.

  • It’s good to be flexible as a freelancer. Doing the occasional onsite assignment is a great way to break out of your established routine and do something different; something that can refresh, rejuvenate, even renew your energy and interest in your work. That change of venue and the time spent with colleagues could provide new tools, approaches, and ideas that will be fuel for your business when you get back home.
  • You might profit from it. It’s possible to negotiate a higher fee for onsite work than what you usually charge — clients often respect onsite “consultants” more than home-based “freelancers,” and pay accordingly. You can use some of that to offset your travel, wardrobe, and meal expenses, and still come out ahead.
  • Working at home can be isolating and insulating; it’s easy to get a little stale. Interacting with people in real life might be intimidating for the introverted, but can be healthy (and even fun). I’m the poster child for extroverts, so this aspect is important to me — while I love the convenience of working from home and can’t imagine ever going back to working in-house, sometimes I miss being around colleagues. I like being able to check something with a human being rather than a computer screen, being asked to help someone in person, and sharing water cooler moments in real life.
  • Working onsite can be good for the ego. Every time I’ve done this, the people in the office have not only been pleased with my contributions, but have said so while I was there. That positive face-to-face feedback felt wonderful. Of course, this doesn’t always happen; some onsite projects can involve difficult supervisors and unpleasant co-workers who resent the “outside expert.” You could even feel isolated in the midst of a busy office — the assignment might mean working in a cubicle or room of your own, only emerging to leave at the end of the day and not getting any direct response to what you’ve done.

(To head off such issues, consider asking the client to introduce you to the staff before you start work, explain why you’re there, and assure them that you aren’t meant to replace anyone — only to help with an overflow situation or handle a technical matter for which you have special skills. Don’t wait for employees to make the first move — force yourself to step out of that cubicle and be visible to them. Ask for their advice on something or offer a compliment to show that you respect them and aren’t some arrogant expert with a superiority complex.)

  • Connecting with a client and its employees can lead to additional work. Once people meet you in person, they’re more likely to remember you when another need for a freelancer comes along (assuming you get along with these colleagues while onsite, of course). It’s also an opportunity to talk about what other kinds of editorial services you could provide, especially if something comes up while you’re there that you would never know about from your home office.
  • If the client’s office is in a building with other companies, working there means learning about those other companies and perhaps creating a bridge to working with them in the future. You could use the time before and after your onsite assignment to introduce yourself to someone at those other companies, or at least leave your business card there.

I do speak from experience: I’ve done onsite conference coverage several times over the years, and recently accepted an onsite assignment with a local client that was great. In terms of Steve’s points and that recent assignment:

  • I didn’t have to be there until between 10 and 11 a.m., and didn’t have to be onsite for more than a couple of hours each day, so it didn’t require an unusually early start to my day or coping with rush hour traffic in either direction. When the client wants you onsite, sometimes you can set the schedule.
  • It was at a creative agency, so I didn’t have to dress up; in fact, I was a little over-dressed for their casual environment. Of course, I like dressing up, so that wasn’t as much of a chore for me as it might be for others.
  • Their office was only about 10 minutes away, and my bank and grocery store are along the route there — where I needed to go even without that assignment. A client office a lot farther from home, and out of my usual loop, might be less tempting and more hassle than it would be worth.
  • They didn’t mind my bringing along my laptop, so I could keep up with e-mail while there, respond to any clients who tried to reach me, and do some other work while waiting for the onsite material to be ready — all while charging for my actual time there, even if I wasn’t working for this client the whole time (I asked about that before invoicing).
  • Their office was amazing. It’s in a renovated manufacturing building that I wasn’t even aware of, so I learned something new about local architecture. The kitchen alone was worth being there: gourmet coffee and snacks!

How do colleagues here feel about working onsite, at least on occasion? Have you tried it? If so, how did it go?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and the new editor-in-chief of An American Editor.



  1. To be fair, Ruth, I should admit that for 25 of the 27 years I’ve been freelancing, I also held a full-time, 9-to-5 job. I was a court clerk, both in and out of the courtroom in a busy non-criminal court in New York’s Unified Court System. So I had all the social interaction I could want for many years. I actually began my court career years before I began freelancing as a book designer, 32 years in total. And it wasn’t as hard as i might sound going, essentially, two full-time jobs for a quarter of a century. Therefore I have to admit that being around people, even for introverts–I was actually somewhat of an introvert at the start of my court career; dealing with the public gradually brought me out of my shell (and also helped me develop a dark sense of humor). I came to call my freelancing “freelancing with a net,” because of the security afforded to me and my wife (who I actually met working in one of the many departments in my courthouse) by 9-to-5 employment. And when the day job occasionally got aggravating–civil service has more than a fair share of office politics–I would think to myself, “Don’t push me too far, I can survive in “the real world”. Likewise if i had a difficult book project or a thorny client on the freelance side of things, I would say, “Hey, I have a secure civil service job with benefits and a union; I don’t need to continue freelancing if it becomes too much.” Just thinking each of those thoughts when the occasion arose gave me such a feeling of freedom that I was able to do both for those many years.


    Comment by Stephen Tiano — February 12, 2018 @ 1:08 am | Reply

  2. Excellent post. I’d welcome the occasional on-site assignment, for all of the good reasons you listed.


    Comment by canadiancopychief — February 12, 2018 @ 1:15 am | Reply

  3. I don’t mind an occasional visit to the client site. As a technical writer, sometimes it’s helpful to talk face-to-face with the subject matter experts or, if the project involves hardware, to be able to take it apart and put it back together or take pictures. But over the last several years, I’ve had full-time contract assignments that were 100% remote. In those cases, the teams were all over and I never once met any of my colleagues in person.

    I really love working at home… it seems to me to be my natural state. I can wear my tshirt sweat pants, and slippers, and the coffee is way better than it’s been in any of the offices I’ve worked in. The only downside is that I have to make sure I close my office door if I’m going to be on a conference call otherwise, Lily, my feline supervisor, wants to join the call. 🙂


    Comment by Mike Starr — February 12, 2018 @ 2:28 am | Reply

  4. I’m interested in going to client sites now and then as a change of scene, but the working arrangement has to be just right to compensate for the downsides. I spent too much of my early career as an office temp, which was the definition of boredom, being set up to fail, and not getting paid enough for the difficulties. An aversion to being in that position still lingers in my subconscious, so I avoid going into offices as much as possible. Would rather meet clients at neutral sites or conferences.


    Comment by Carolyn — February 12, 2018 @ 7:00 am | Reply

  5. My rule always was that the client had to pay a premium for me to travel to its offices, regardless of the reason. I had a minimum fee for my time plus expenses. With rare exception, the minimum fee discouraged the client from pursuing the matter. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing we couldn’t resolve by telephone and, eventually, Skype, at minimal interruption of my day.

    I started my business to make money, not to give it to clients. I remember when Lippincott required editors to travel to its NYC offices to take a test and then again for an interview. I refused unless they paid my fee. If there had been a guaranteed amount of work in exchange for the travel and if the amount was sufficient, I might have made the trip, but there never were any guarantees.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by americaneditor — February 12, 2018 @ 10:47 am | Reply

  6. I worked on contract as an on-site consultant for 24 to 30 hours per week for 2-1/2 years on a project. The pros and cons you point out are accurate, at least in terms of my experience. I found that the ED started to perceive me as “staff,” even though I wasn’t, and there was definite scope creep. For example, I was expected to participate in (lengthy) staff meetings each week, even though 98 percent of what was discussed had nothing to do with my function. I also found the office politics difficult to tolerate–that’s one of the reasons I chose to go out on my own! All in all, it was a mostly positive experience, but I would be loath to do it again, especially for such a long time.


    Comment by vmcgowan2015 — February 12, 2018 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  7. Great article!! There are substantial pros and cons. It all depends on your lifestyle, personality and working mode. After working 9 to 5, driving to work 5 days a week for a non-profit organization, I am now anxious to start proofreading from home and taking my ipad with me as I travel. I think it will be a nice change.


    Comment by Lona Raye Bigelow — February 14, 2018 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

  8. One advantage of an onsite gig is that it can provide regular income, or long-term income. You just have to be careful of what you sign up for or agree to.


    Comment by Ruth Thaler-Carter — February 22, 2018 @ 11:47 am | Reply

  9. Another dimension of the on-site gig, in my experience in two major cities, is that even though you are a freelance contractor, you are treated like a temporary employee. That means you receive a W-2 form at the end of the tax year, have your Social Security (self-employment tax) matched, which is a benefit to freelancers, and may even be eligible for benefits such as 401-K matching while you are in house. The company wants to shield itself from conflicts with the government if you are using their facilities and appear more like a traditional employee.


    Comment by Lisa Smith — May 15, 2018 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

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