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.

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