by Peter Economy
Occasional Free Lunch
Up Is Hard to Do
of Peter's columns
in a Strange Land
Not every IP
works out of his home, or has a cute little space in a new high-tech
office park. Believe it or not, Ripley, many freelancers operate out
of their client's offices -- often alongside the client's employees
-- for days, weeks, or months at a time.
As any freelancer who has ever worked on site will tell you, there
can be a lot of friction between an invading IP and the natives. Not
only may the IP find himself ignored or shunned by pissed-off employees
("Who the hell is this guy?"), but in a worst-case scenario,
the IP's work may even be actively sabotaged.
What causes all the corporate commotion? It's usually a combination
of three things:
- Fear. Sure, few employees are going to worry about that gal
who comes in every once in a while to help write press releases for
the communications department (except, perhaps, for the kid whose
job that is!), but the hairy-knuckled management consultant -- the
one who recommended the big downsizing last year -- is going to make
a lot of employees very nervous. "The last time he
did a staffing survey, Fredo and Bertha lost their jobs."
- Envy. Many employees have to follow strict work schedules
-- at their desks at 8:00 a.m., two 15-minute breaks, an hour for
lunch, and off at 5:00 p.m. -- and they don't like seeing an IP who
is, as Lynryd Skynyrd might put it, free as a bird. He may seemingly
drop in whenever he likes, hang around for a few meetings, and then
disappear for lunches that are far longer than any break these poor,
malnourished wage slaves would ever dare take. An IP's freedom can
be a real threat, and it can generate tons of good-old-fashioned envy
in employees. "Why does he get to leave at 3:00 when we've got
to stay until 5:00?"
- Hurt. Sometimes IPs are brought into an organization because
employee efforts at solving a problem have failed, or because management
is concerned that employees don't have the necessary skills to deal
with it. This can cause a lot of hurt for the employees who have been
"passed over," and this hurt can blossom into resentment. "My boss
listens to that jackass, but he doesn't listen to me?"
The net result of this trio of negative vibes? A situation that can
make it difficult for an IP to do his job. And if a project is made
more difficult, it's bound to cost more to do it, and that's sure to
annoy the client.
Can you do something to avoid such on-site discord? You can. In fact,
there are numerous ways to minimize the problems that come with being
a stranger in a strange land. Based on my experience working both sides
of the IP fence, here are a few that I've found work best:
- Negotiate terms of engagement in advance.Which employees
will you need to work with? What information will you need to dig
up? How will you be given access to these coworkers and data, and
how does your client plan to inform his people of your upcoming visit?
Before you start your project, be sure to clarify the terms of engagement
and make them a part of your agreement. And make sure that your client
gets the word out about your visit (not just when, but why
you're coming) before you show up -- not belatedly, weeks after
- Build bridges, don't burn them. It's a helluva lot easier
to get a job done when you have the cooperation of client employees
rather than their animosity. From the first minute you walk in the
door, focus on reaching out to your (potentially anxious) "coworkers."
Be friendly, be helpful, cultivate relationships, and avoid doing
things that will piss them off or cause them to actively work against
you. (Of course, if it's your job to trim the personnel list, making
pals on site is always going to be a challenge.)
- Stay alert for negative employee vibes and cut them off at the
pass. No matter what a great person you are, and no matter how
hard you try to work with your client's employees, there are always
going to be some individuals who hate your guts anyway, just as a
matter of principle. Keep your own personal IP radar screen up at
all times. Be alert for emotions that can lead client employees to
do their very best to screw up your gig. If your client's employees
decide to work against you or your project, don't give in to the temptation
to just let it slide. If you've got a minor disturbance, you might
be able to handle it yourself; if it's something more serious, then
get your client involved.
As an IP, you'll probably always be different in the eyes of your client's
employees and, in fact, that's probably just fine. If you can still
do your job, then it really doesn't matter one way or the other. But
when the fact that you're an IP gets in the way, then it's time to take
action. Remember: the project you save may be your own.