Soft Skills: Key to a Successful Freelancer Career

The freelancer life is a hard one. If you’re lucky, you lock down a couple of solid clients who pay reliably; but even the most experienced freelancer will inevitably find work drying up for (hopefully short) periods.

A recent (pre-COVID) study by UpWork, which surveyed more than 6,000 freelancers in the U.S., emphasizes what workers already know: Freelancing has become a long-term career choice for many. “Skilled services” such as programming, consulting, and IT made up 45 percent of freelancers.

Some 77 percent of UpWork’s respondents said that technology had made it easier for them to find work. But knowing how to write code or hunt down a bug wasn’t the only valued skill among freelancers: Some 78 percent of them said that “soft skills are at least equally as important as technical skills to succeed in their work.” (That seems like something that wouldn’t change, whether or not there’s a viral pandemic shifting the very nature of work.)

Combine that with 81 percent of respondents saying that they need additional training, specifically in networking and growing their career, and it’s clear that knowing how to interact with people in a business context is paramount for freelancers, despite all the jokes about how freelancing is a job you can do in isolation, from your couch, pants optional.

‘Office’ Soft Skills vs. ‘Freelancer’ Soft Skills

Deploying your “soft skills” (such as empathy and communication) in a freelancer context is obviously a little bit different than in an office environment (or a virtual office environment, at least for the time being). For starters, freelancing—particularly the remote variety, where you may never walk into any kind of office environment—doesn’t involve the same kinds of office politics that full-time employees face on a daily basis.

But just because many freelancers will never have to negotiate a company hierarchy in the same way as full-time employees doesn’t mean that some of the top soft skills tips won’t apply to both groups. Whether freelance or full-time, when applying for new jobs, it’s important to emphasize your use of teamwork and aptitude for collaboration, because even the most isolated, homebound freelancer will likely need to work with others at some point.

In a similar vein, freelancers must take pains to underscore their sterling communication and collaboration skills. Office workers are often given a bit of flexibility when it comes to responding to emails, delivering work product, and so on; if worst comes to worst, a manager or colleague can simply walk over to a worker’s desk for an answer or update.

But freelancers don’t have a desk twenty feet away from the person managing them, so the game is a little bit different. Simply put, many teams will freak right out if a freelancer doesn’t respond promptly to an email or phone call; there’s also the suspicion on the part of many managers that freelancers can’t collaborate with the same degree of closeness as full-time employees.

In light of that, it’s important for freelancers to collaborate tightly, “check in” often, and make sure that all communications are returned as quickly as possible. These kinds of soft skills are absolutely essential if you want the client to renew your freelancing contract for another term.

Observation and listening are also key for freelancers, especially since much of their communication with a client might be asynchronous and conducted by quick phone calls and one-line emails. When you’re far away from an office, it’s easy to lose sight of how you fit into a company’s strategic roadmap; it’s worth asking yourself (and your manager) periodically how your work fits into that broader context.

The further away you are from office politics and hierarchy, in other words, the more effort you should devote to getting to know the people you work with. Communicate frequently, empathize with their issues, and make sure to respond to feedback as quickly as possible. One of the keys to a successful freelancing career is a long-term relationship with your clients, and soft skills are perhaps the biggest part of that.