If you’re a self-employed consultant or contractor, you probably do some of your work alone in your own office or out of your home. And you’ve probably already experienced the three stages of working on your own: elation, boredom, and then isolation.
Feelings of professional isolation come as a big surprise for many of the newly self-employed. Even if you thought you couldn’t wait to get away from long-winded meetings, hallway chatter, and office gossips, you might find yourself longing for the sound of voices—any voices—even the ones that used to grate on your nerves.
Not having colleagues at hand to discuss new ideas with and learn from can also be a huge obstacle to a consultant’s success. In this article, I’ll discuss what independent consultants can do to help alleviate the isolation of working alone, and I’ll relate some examples from my three years of working from a home office.
Number one: Join a professional organization
Get more involved with professional organizations in your field and commit to attending their meetings regularly. Consider becoming an officer in one of those organizations. You’ll not only have greater contact with people in your field, opening yourself to the exchange of ideas you no longer get from the workplace—but you may also find your client base expanding through referrals.
The Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA), for instance, has 12 chapters that meet face-to-face on a monthly basis. The "At Large" chapter meets online monthly and consists mostly of those who don’t live close enough to another chapter to physically attend monthly meetings. The entire organization meets annually to offer members a chance to network and have face-to-face encounters with members from other chapters. "I joined primarily to be with and around other computer consultants,” said 10-year member Howard Eichenwald. “We all do different things, but the same theme applies to all of us: We are in a small business in the computer field; therefore, we all have some of the same concerns and problems.”
Members use ICCA’s Forums to connect as well. Member Tim Silk recently posted a call for 15 independent network administration contractors and consultants living in the San Francisco Bay Area who wish to collaborate in the creation of a co-op.
Number two: Spend time on-site
Depending on the work you’re doing, a quick and easy solution to relieve your feelings of isolation may be to spend more time at your client’s site. This arrangement will depend on whether your client can accommodate you, of course, but you can make it easier by bringing your own laptop and network card. This way, you can work on their site with no resource drain on their part except finding you a desk and having the network folks set up an account for you.
You may find that you actually can work faster once you have ready, face-to-face access to your client’s staff. In fact, tell your client that this is why you want to establish on-site office hours—to not only facilitate your work but also to give your client the chance to review your work on the project more closely.
My technical writing projects, for example, require me to be at the client’s offices in the beginning while I gather information from the software itself or from the employees who implemented or designed it. That can be followed by long periods when I do the actual writing at my home office, making phone calls or short interviews as necessary to answer questions that arise. Although at first I relished all this time alone, now I often do some work on-site that I could accomplish off-site. I not only have easier access to the people who provide information I need, but I also get involved in conversations about new technologies or other professional subjects that just wouldn’t happen otherwise.
In fact, you may find an unexpected side benefit from working on-site: It will reassure nervous clients that you are in fact working on their project. The client may be more likely to think of you for future contracts when you’re “in sight and in mind.”
I’ve found that a good balance is to be at a client’s site two to three days a week and work off-site the rest of the time, even if I could get all the work done at my own office. This schedule allows me to both have time away from my office and to establish a greater professional rapport with the folks from whom I will need information. Working those days on-site also helps me appreciate the days I can work quietly in my own office.
Number three: Rent an office away from home
If you implement those measures and still find yourself going stir crazy, consider renting office space. Even though you’re still by yourself during the day, it can make a huge difference to simply be alone somewhere else.
Having off-site space also creates a dividing line between work and downtime—a difficult line for many starting consultants to observe. In my first full year of self-employment, my appointment books attest to the fact that between May and August, I worked both weekdays and weekends, almost without exception. For five months, there were only six days that I didn’t do some work.
Although part of the problem was being too willing to accommodate a demanding client with a huge and constantly shifting project, another part was that I made it too easy to work. To put in a half-day on a Saturday or Sunday or both, all I had to do was walk to the front of my house. If I’d had to get in my car and drive to an office, I probably wouldn’t have worked so much on the weekends.
On a long-term basis, renting an office off-site may not be enough to curb your isolation, especially if you still go home to an empty house or apartment at the end of the day. If that’s the case, consider getting several self-employed colleagues together to share office space. You can split the expenses and share in the camaraderie.
Although having office mates who do similar work would increase the exchange of professional ideas, potential office mates don’t necessarily have to be in the same field. There’s no reason a programmer, a real-estate agent, and a writer couldn’t share office space.
Have you ever experienced professional isolation? What was your remedy? Post a comment below or send us a note.