Isolation—even the word sounds lonely. It’s one of the major obstacles for consultants and independent contractors who work from a home office. Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t like to work around others, and we’ve all encountered them. But the rest of us are somewhere in the middle, sometimes preferring to work alone and other times wanting some degree of interaction. According to Teaming Up: The Small Business Guide to Collaborating with Others to Boost Your Earnings and Expand Your Horizons by Paul Edwards, Sarah Edwards, and Rick Benzel (J.P. Tarcher, 1997), 70 percent of self-employed individuals say they team up with others more than they did five years ago because they’ve learned that it’s the best way to build real professional alliances and maintain a feeling of excitement for working at home.
Experts agree that even when it means taking time away from your office and work, it’s imperative to stay in contact with business groups and individuals who are a part of your community and industry. Here are some tips for staying connected.
Forming a support system
It’s important to first analyze the type of work you do and determine how much networking time you can schedule. Once you do this, set up a support system or your own “board of directors” by asking other professionals you respect to join you for an informal meeting every few months. According to Ronna Lichtenberg, author of Work Would Be Great If It Weren’t for the People (Hyperion Books, 1999), “Your board should consist of people with skill sets different from your own, or those you want to attain to advise you.” Also think about how you can make these relationships mutually beneficial by sharing and referring work among your board.
If you already have a few people in mind, evaluate what you want. Do you want to learn something new? Do you want to network? Do you want someone who will give you an honest opinion about business questions? Do you want to socialize? Then evaluate each person and find out where they fit into your overall plan.
Connect with a goal
Take these steps to connect with individuals who have similar interests:
- Find something in common with your prospective board member. Create a list of characteristics that you want in a board member. Make a point to stay in touch with people whom you are interested in by scheduling lunches or meetings on a regular basis. Then make your decision to ask them.
- Be active in your community. Be sure to attend meetings of your own professional organizations and those in other fields. It’s a good idea to attend meetings in a particular area where you might have an interest. Pursue your interests, and you will meet people with the same goals and interests.
- Share your expertise with others through joint ventures. When you work with other people, you avoid isolation and you also build lasting partnerships that will serve you well for the future.
- Use the Web to your advantage. You can even create a “cyber support system” if this is all you need to feel connected to others. There is a plethora of sites for the self-employed on the Web, from those offering information on how to get paid on time to chat rooms. Remember, this still doesn’t solve the person-to-person issue.
- Set up a mission statement and share it with your board or support group and regularly discuss your goals. If necessary, revise it on a semi-regular basis to keep up with the changes in your business and your client base.
Your board of directors can also become the team that you call together when you need help on large projects. “Increasingly, today’s workforce operates more like a Hollywood studio making a movie than a factory assembling automobiles or executives climbing a corporate ladder,” according to the authors of Teaming Up. “Just as movie producers assemble a team of professionals to work on their movie projects, today’s organization pulls together teams of corporate employees, small businesses, and self-employed individuals to work on a project-by-project basis.”
Obviously, every day of a consultant’s life is different. It’s during the slow times that you really see the benefits of staying connected—when the phone rings or you get an e-mail from a trusted colleague, it’s a constant reminder to keep yourself on task. Hopefully, that message or phone call is also about work, because by passing off projects to one another, down time is also avoided along with the isolation it can create.
When that feeling of isolation does hit, here are a few suggestions to combat it:
- Turn on a favorite CD or turn the television on, but keep the volume low.
- Change your setting. Take your laptop to the park at lunch and watch the people.
- Find a “phone buddy” and connect with one another when you’re going stir crazy.
- Call a friend, your significant other, or go to your child’s school for a lunch date.
- Go to the health club for an hour. The added benefit of exercise will help you refocus and give you more energy to get back on track.
The brand called “You”
You don’t need a lot of cash to team up with others in a business alliance; all you need is to be pragmatic. Tom Peters, in his article "The Brand Called You” in Fast Company magazine, noted, “Your network of friends, colleagues, clients, and customers is the most important marketing vehicle you’ve got; what they say about you and your contributions is what the market will ultimately gauge as the value of your brand. So the big trick to building your brand is to find ways to nurture your network of colleagues—consciously.”
If done successfully, you might find yourself on the other end of the equation and looking for some time to actually be alone.
Do you spend a lot of your time flying solo? What do you do when the loneliness sets in? To share your thoughts, post a comment below or send us a note.