As a freelancer, I have two clients on a retainer of a few thousand dollars a month. We routinely reflect on how to make operations more efficient.
My company, Sixty, is made up of hundreds of freelancers serving thousands of clients. Our "internal" team is 100% made up of freelancers and agencies on retainer (I’m legally the only employee). We do the same reflections.
I bring up these two roles I'm in because after years of working as a freelancer, hiring freelancers, and managing freelancers, I've noticed a few general principles that increase project efficiency.
Today we’ll address how you as the client can make your freelance team more effective. You probably influence the project more than you realize. If you apply the following principles, you’ll see output increase as much as 3x.
How to Manage Freelancers 101: General Principles
Teja Yenamandra of the freelance engineer marketplace Gun.io is a phenomenal communicator. He says, “Communicate clearly, concisely, and with conviction.” Here’s how do this with your remote freelance team.
- Plan 2-4 weeks out - Scope larger features and initiatives. Then add milestones (shoot for one per week). Then review it with your freelancer to see if the deadlines are realistic. Now you’re leveraging their ability to plan around their own schedule. If you delegate all work within a day or two of when the task needs to be executed, you’ll lose the planning efficiency.
- Scope thoughtfully - When you assign a task for your freelancer on Trello, spend the extra time defining a clear “Done” state. If you find yourself saying anything like “Hey, start working [in this direction]...” without comprehensively scoping the task, accept that you’ll have efficiency loss.
- Don’t repeat yourself - You should only have to give an instruction once. Use a project management tool. I recommend Trello. Write clear and concise instructions of each task there.
- Use visual reference - Use the screenshot-to-clipboard feature which makes copy/pasting screenshots as easy as copy/pasting text. Command-Control-Shift-4 on Mac. Alt+Print Screen on PC. Then just paste it in. For quick video clips I recommend Loom. Drop these in your Trello cards.
- Be available to unblock - Your freelancer will need more clarity on some tasks, or they’ll need quick feedback on something unexpected. This is called a “blocker”. Your goal is to unblock them within 20 minutes. If you don’t, they’ll have to switch tasks or stop work completed. Understand switching cost inefficiency. The best way to quickly unblock is to use an informal chat tool. I recommend Slack. You could use text. Avoid email.
- Communicate in threads - If you have a comment about Task C, then keep communication about it in the Task C card in Trello (or whichever project management software you’re using). This way, when your freelancer goes to execute on the task, they’re not digging through emails or Slack conversation to reacclimate themselves with the issue. It’s all right there.
- Leverage video conferencing - For more complex blockers, jump on a quick video conference. I recommend Zoom. Use the screenshare feature for added clarity. If you have your freelancer on a retainer, consider setting up routine 5-10 minute check in calls before they start work. If you do this, be concise.
- Smaller tasks - Try to make each Trello card a few hours to a day of work. Resist the urge to create long checklists. The more complex the task, the more the comments section will get cluttered. Then you’ll find yourself repeating yourself in Slack.
- Stay disciplined - You’ll adopt these principles with your freelancers and stray from them at times. You’ll notice communication starts to get cluttered again and you’re repeating yourself. This is part of the process. The important thing is not to get frustrated and simply go back to baseline. If you meditate, it’s just like re-focusing on your breath.
That’s it! If you can adopt these principles, you can 2-3x your productivity.
If you want added pressure in adopting them, try asking your freelancer to help hold each other accountable as well. Good freelancers are used to managing clients and other stakeholders. Chances are they have a similar system to this already.
Good luck with your next project! If you have more questions about managing freelancers, feel free to leave a comment below.