As a freelancer who works primarily from home, I am no stranger to the ups and downs of a gig economy life. When I left the 9-5 (or 8-6) grind to pursue my long-held goals of being a writer and editor, I brushed aside concerns from my family and friends about missing my office companions. I wasn’t worried: I lean heavily toward introversion on the social scale and as an only child, I know how to be alone.
One is (sometimes) the loneliest number
A year later I am still happy with my decision to work for myself. However, as the much-repeated saying goes, "you don't know what you got 'til it's gone." The what in this instance is regular interactions with other human beings. I still meet with clients in person, but most of my meetings are virtual. There are no colleagues to turn to with a question or simply to bounce ideas back and forth. I can talk things out, but the empty office doesn't offer much consolation or advice.
The ever elusive office space
I may be alone, but I'm not alone in my work set-up. According to Gallup research, the number of American workers who telecommute is up to 37 percent. This is only for employees who are employed at a company and then have the choice or option to work remotely for a certain period of time. The number of freelancers (or gig workers), who work for themselves is also increasing. And the benefits are not small. Research conducted by the Freelancers Union and Upwork found that more than half of freelancers who left traditional jobs say they are now making more money. Of that group, 54 percent say they were making more money within a year. Those are great numbers to throw at anyone who warns about the financial instability of the gig worker.
Part of this is thanks to social media and digital job sites that freelancers say make it easier to find work. "While the search for gigs is still dominated by real-world connections, the top two sources for finding work are word of mouth (53%) and personal contacts (51%)," said the "Freelancing in America" report. "The vast majority of freelancers (69%) said social networking has ‘drastically changed the dynamics of networking.’”
But with these benefits come the removal of a built-in knowledge-share system—fellow coworkers. The network that is built over years of working at a company or in an industry is an important resource for anyone's professional life; it helps us grow professionally and sometimes personally. Through knowledge-share among coworkers, managers, and industry leaders we can see problems from different perspectives and gain access to data and research that can improve performance.
Building my virtual office through Twitter
I know that networking is vitally important for someone like me who relies on getting work through connections and referrals. So when I first broke out on my own, I put in the time attending in-person networking events, conferences, and professional development courses. Personal marketing takes up lots of time, money, and patience. And for the introverted among us, parties and events are not our first choice.
Personal marketing takes up lots of time, money, and patience. And for the introverted among us, parties and events are not our first choice.
I desperately needed something that was low cost, less intrusive, and that didn't require travel which broke up my writing day.
Enter social media. While Facebook and LinkedIn are great at connections and long-form communication, Twitter is arguably the strongest for rapid communication and building a network. Twitter chats, especially, are a digestible way to receive information on a specific topic within a certain timeframe. CareerAddict says, “With Twitter, you have the ability to keep in touch with professionals and share information back and forth. It is extremely fast paced, making Twitter Chats a key component of building larger networks.”
It was for reasons like this I decided to participate in my first Twitter chat with the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). I'll admit, at the onset, I had no idea how Twitter chats worked; I figured I was a competent person and could figure out the ropes. Luckily I was right. The etiquette of a Twitter chat was easy to pick up. Question order was designate using the format, “Q1, Q2” and participants could answer each by prefacing their tweeted answers with “A1 and A2.” For those who arrived late, so to speak, the running transcript was easily searchable through #EFACHAT.
I found that the experience is similar to social interactions amongst colleagues, but the brevity of tweets means that respondents have to stick to the point. This practice allows multiple people to respond to a question, and the information is easily consumable. No diatribes allowed.
My social media alter-persona
I surprised myself by being one of the most engaged people in the Twitter chat. The removal of face-to-face contact and body language makes it easier to be bold. An embarrassing moment or comment can easily be shuttered down to the bottom of a list of responses. In short, Twitter chats remove the often-stilted communications that arise during real-life business networking. Plus, social media, "makes the interaction less demanding and enables us to do other things concurrently—for example, browse other websites or communicate with other people at the same time without causing offense."
I surprised myself by being one of the most engaged people in the Twitter chat. The removal of face-to-face contact and body language makes it easier to be bold.
By regularly "showing up" it becomes easier to learn industry jargon, social shorthand, and identify who the influencers are in your area. The regular attendees become your network and as certain names keep popping up, you can garner followers and eventually a pool of resources to tap when you run across a work problem.
Oh, the information overload
Admittedly, it can be hard to organize all the information the internet has to offer without feeling like you're wading through a sea of words.
The Harvard Business Review recommends to, “Follow smart industry leaders on LinkedIn and Twitter to see what they’re reading and what they’re thinking about. From that you can learn key industry hashtags on Twitter to discover great new resources.”
This was an important thing for me. One of the downsides of social media is that there is so much out there. Often it’s impossible to know where to start. What the EFA chat gave me was not only a sifted channel of information but a list of hashtags that were trending in my industry. From there I collected the hashtags into a Twitter list. This tool works for both the personal and professional: as a professional, it helps me find content that is useful for clients or yourself and personally it’s a good way to organize my often out of control collection of food bloggers.
I'm still not a Twitter power user, but Twitter chats help with the sense of isolation felt working from home. I have more regular knowledge exchanges with bright people, and I've built a powerful network of influencers and friends.
Even if I am alone, there are people easily accessible within the click of a button.
Rachel Henry is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. She's a firm believer in having chocolate every day and is an avid reader of just about anything. Find her on LinkedIn.
Original illustration by Andrea Mongia.