After working in a corporate office for many years, one of the questions I am consistently asked by both professional contacts, as well as family members and friends, is what working as an independent contractor is really like. And while there are many perks that come with the opportunity to work independently, there are also a number of realities that many people, including myself when I first started in the profession, find surprising.
The greatest surprise for me initially was just how much I missed the daily routine and frenetic buzz of the corporate world. And most importantly, the face-to-face interactions that come from working with and getting to know colleagues and business partners on a deeper level.
As independent contractors, we are limited in our ability, by nature of the job, to really dig into our partners’ worlds as we often work off-site, with limited exposure to the cultural and the political realities our clients experience. Our job is often to provide a consultative solution or solve a need through the creation of an end product; at the completion of which, we move on, while our clients remain in their world, carrying forward the work we brought to them.
For longer-standing partnerships, the work may have greater duration, but the obstacles to relationship building remain. Email or other short, e-based communications with clients tend to lose the nuance that can occur in the day –to-day, face-to-face environment of hallway conversations, a causal stop by a coworker’s desk, or the general banter that occurs as you work side by side with individuals and teams over weeks, months and years.
For a people-oriented person such as myself, while these challenges were initially surprising, the benefit is that they have caused me to grow in (at times painful!) ways that I did not expect – forcing me to step out of my comfort zone and create new ways of connecting and learning.
The late technology adopter in me (a remnant of the true liberal arts side of my personality that still believes in pen and paper ) has learned how to use (and embrace) social media, cloud computing, video conferencing and Web-based desktop sharing services. The “40-something me” who sometimes feels not quite as academically nimble as my 20-something colleagues, has returned to the classroom and learned to delve into new cultures by experiencing and learning new business patterns and languages, such as Mandarin, as my contracting has taken me into working with individuals and teams across Asia.
Most surprising of all, through this process of outside-in relationship building as an independent contractor, I have discovered that while my current professional life may be less the daily pace of the in-house world, it provides an even greater sense of energy and connection through an outlet for the most integral parts of who I am – someone who loves to learn, meet new people, and take on great challenges; an opportunity, I tell others, I wouldn’t trade for anything.