Onboarding Tips For Your Next Freelance Contract

As a freelancer, you’re not just in the business of providing services or doing work. You’re in the business of selling yourself and making first impressions.  This is especially true when you’re taking on a contract where you’re not just producing a deliverable, but need to integrate successfully as a contributing team member within a greater team, like on an agency, startup or direct client project.

People want to work with those who they know and trust. And they make hiring decisions based on more than just your portfolio of work. They choose to work with people because of their cultural fit with the team, their ability to be reliable, and how well they get along with other people that are part of the project.

Ultimately, being a freelancer is about managing relationships with people.

Onboarding is a critical point in any client relationship, especially when you’re a contract member of a larger team. Learning how to get up to speed quickly, stay organized, and find your place will make all the difference.

In order for onboarding to go as smoothly as possible, you should focus on making a great first impression and showing your client and new team that you’re a capable and professional freelancer who won’t need too much handholding.

Here’s how to make sure you stick the landing.

Get In Where You Fit In

The start of any new client engagement is usually the most stressful. At the beginning the amount you have to absorb can seem insurmountable. Don’t panic! You will absorb it. Give yourself enough time to learn the ropes.

Read everything you can about the project in all the online tools and files areas before you start, or the few days after you start.  Really dig into the project’s documents in whatever project management and ticketing system the client is using.

Be prepared to possibly put in some unpaid overtime in the first two weeks of the contract to get a handle on everything–factor this into your costs as overhead for yourself. It makes you look like a star to everyone around you that you’re up to speed so quickly and makes your life so much easier down the road. This shouldn’t be doing the actual work after hours, just learning everything and getting yourself organized. You don’t have to tell anyone you are doing this, that way you’re not setting a precedent that you will work overtime for no pay.

Try to figure out the answer yourself before you ask team members what to do. Although it’s okay to ask questions, it’s always best to try to find answers first before asking. There will be a lot to learn. The more plug and play you are, the better!

Become Part Of The Team, Don’t Remain an Outsider

Many agencies and startups have small, close-knit teams. They are usually looking for freelancers who fit in with the culture and become like any other member of the team. So, keep in mind that the social aspect of your relationship can be just as important as the work itself.

First off, learn the names of all your team members as quickly as possible – nothing screams “noob” quite like not knowing a team member’s name. And if you haven’t learned them within the first few days, it can create some really awkward encounters.

One great way to become part of the team is to go to lunch with team members. Don’t overthink it – just try to get to get to know the people you’ll be working with. If they eat lunch in the company lunchroom, sit with them rather than going off on your own for lunch.

At the beginning, try to go to every company team fun function you can. Even if it’s after office hours. Teams that play together, stay together. And as a freelancer, this is a great way to get everyone to trust you and work well with you. Later on you can start bowing out of them if they get to be too much, or if you have family obligations.

Use appropriate humour in the workplace and be a fun freelancer to work with! Join some of the fun slack channels not related to your projects and contribute to them.  But remember to keep it relatively politically correct, especially at the start.

Pre-program everyone you deal with into your phone. If they call you, answer the phone by saying their name, it will surprise them that you already know it’s them calling. This works great for clients too if you’re working sub-contract at an agency.

Stay Organized And In Control

One of the quickest ways to sour any freelance relationship is to drop the ball on basic organization or administrative tasks. These details matter and they can create major problems for agencies.

Be a star time tracker, don’t make the HR or your PM chase you to track your time like they have to do with some of the full time staff. This just creates more work for them and won’t make you any friends.

Get your file management in order. Use an online cloud storage system like Dropbox so you never lose any client files. Be sure you have a clear file structure that you can stick to, so you won’t have to spend tons of time searching for documents or files you need.

Another sticking point can be how billing procedures and invoices get handled.

Some general rules of the road when it comes to billing:

  • Get your invoices in on time
  • If you have to ask where your payment is because it’s late, be nice about it
  • Don’t ask for advances
  • Don’t break any unspoken rules

Effective Onboarding Checklist

At the end of the day, agencies want to work with freelancers who not only do good work, but are organized and capable of managing their own time and talents–people who don’t require a lot of handholding.

That’s why it’s important to have a list of things ready to go right away when working with a new client, get the stuff you need, and ask any questions. I recommend following the 7 steps below whenever you onboard with a new client.

1. Ask for a company email before you start

As soon as you sign their contract, ask for a company email address. It sucks when people start emailing you at your personal email address because you don’t have the company one yet. This can create confusion, missed communication, and more.

2. Ask for early access to all the project documents, read them before you start

Learn as much as you can about the project before you ask for an overview–you want to be as knowledgeable as possible going into your first meetings.

3. Ask for early access to the company’s online project tools

Get access to things like Slack, Basecamp, Asana, Trello, Confluence, or Jira as early as possible. Try to familiarize yourself not only with the tool itself (if you’ve never used it before) but also how their team uses it and the workflow that happens.  Set aside some time to look at the system and get comfortable with how the team works together.

4. Get access to all the project files you need right away

Organize your own file system so you know where everything is and don’t have to ask.

5. Ask your direct supervisor for any company hand books, process documents, etc

Get a head start on reviewing all of these materials that might let you see how the company operates and what their expectations are, even if they are unrelated to the project.

6. Organize all of the tools and documents for later

Create a cheat sheet basic HTML homepage where you can put the links to all the company online tools and client areas you need. Add to it as you need to. Make it your browser homepage or save it as a bookmark.

This will save you a ton of time. Get a password service like 1Password or Last Pass so that you don’t need to put your passwords on this page (a security risk).

7. Have your tools in order

Come with your own stack of tools already installed on your own computer or accounts online active just in case you have to use them. (and don’t forget to leverage your LocalSolo freelancer perks too!)

Ultimately, freelancing is about relationships.

And like any relationship, there are many general unspoken rules and expectations that you should know of and stick to at all times.

  • Deliver on time or give fair warning when you are going to miss a deadline. Period. There’s no excuse for poor communication.
  • Focus on the work you need to do and the tasks the company hired you to do. I’ve seen freelancers try and integrate themselves into other areas of the business way too early. It’s annoying and you can easily step on people’s toes that way.  Don’t overstep.
  • Listen and learn and do good work. Don’t gossip! Don’t complain! Don’t play politics! You’re not there to change the company, they hired you temporarily to do a job, that’s it. Do it and do it well.
  • Try not to go over the head of your direct supervisor unless you absolutely have to. Don’t go out of your way to ingratiate yourself with the executive of the company too early. Remember there is always a pecking order and you’ll piss off full-time people if you are too aggressively trying to climb the ladder, especially since you’re a freelancer and not an actual employee.
  • Don’t nickel and dime the company that hired you. Be flexible if they ask you to do a bit of extra work. However, stand firm if it’s a large request outside of the contract you feel you need to get paid for.
  • Try not to take too many sick or work from home days, especially at the start of the contract. Bank this time for when you really really need it. No one likes the freelancer who is constantly making excuses for not being there, coming in late or delivering on time. Don’t be that person.

The tips and guidelines listed above will help you successfully onboard at your nextcontract – whether it is a boutique agency, large corporation or small startup. Stay organized, get to know your new teammates, and most importantly, don’t forget that first impressions do matter.

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