Watercooler chat is part-and-parcel of our working days. But for freelancers, this doesn’t happen as naturally. Although freelancers benefit from more autonomy over their working patterns and the flexibility of working from anywhere, there is a big downside. It can be lonely.

Freelancers don’t have office colleagues, so they have to work harder to build a community around them. Although they may meet people through the course of their work, these interactions may be sporadic and short-lived. Especially if the freelancer works on month-by-month projects.

Why communities matter

Our need for community is a psychological one. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, feelings of belonging and love are critical to motivating human behaviour. Constant loneliness can cause a host of physical and mental conditions including depression, insomnia and impaired immune and cardiovascular functioning.

By necessity, humans evolved to become dependant on each other for survival. Although we’re far from our caveman days, the need to affiliate with others still exists. Studies have shown that technology hasn’t lessened this need. No matter how sophisticated we become (through social media, for example), we still have to create emotional connections with others.

Companies should foster freelance communities

For companies that work with freelancers, there is a great opportunity to build a freelance community. This benefits each freelancer in helping to tackle loneliness and boost networking. For organisations, it increases freelance worker loyalty, making it more likely that they will be available to work on projects.

Even when a freelancer isn’t actively working on a project, they will still remain part of a company when they are engaged in its community. This improves the organisation’s employer brand. Freelance workers will view the company more positively because it’s putting the effort into connecting with them and making their working lives better.

Indeed, professional services firm EY has taken this a step further by offering its freelancer workers access to all of the learning and development material that its full-time employees have. EY’s GigNow platform also communicates work opportunities to its freelancers and keeps them immersed in its company culture. This approach will become more pertinent in the future, as more organisations jostle for the best talent.

With freelancers expected to make up the majority of the workforce within the next decade, savvy companies are quickly jumping on the community bandwagon. Freelancer platform UpWork offers regular meet-ups for ‘UpWorkers’ that are organised by the company itself or by its ‘Top-Rated Upworkers’. Engineering firm AECOM has a network called AECOM Link, set up for contractors to help it fulfil urgent roles. PwC has a Talent Exchange where it keeps all of its freelancers up-to-date with available opportunities that match their profiles.

Different kinds of community

Freelance communities can take many forms, from virtual networks to coworking spaces. In a full-time work environment, a worker builds a community of colleagues for advice, friendship, collaboration, socialising, expertise and training. Freelancers may pick and choose from different community formats to fulfil each of these areas.

Coworking spaces can provide an office-esque community where freelancers can build their networks and meet other professionals. Private virtual networks between freelancers and employers (or only freelancers) can foster collaboration and brainstorming. Closed Facebook groups can provide a space to unwind and chat about the working day. Freelancer collectives can be set-up to fulfil specific projects or to help a freelancer feel like they are a part of something. The Hoxby Collective is an example of this: as well as providing work for freelancers, it has a Slack group for its thousands of freelancers to chat online and arrange physical meet-ups.

Unions such as IPSE and the Freelance Union are on hand to offer legal assistance and advice. IPSE also arranges an annual conference for freelancers to meet in-person, attend industry-specific training and get up-to-date advice on freelance issues such as IR35.

Niche communities

In more specific groups, catering to digital nomads, for instance, the advice becomes more tailored towards that specific audience. The Facebook group Digital Nomad Girls regularly sees members exchanging tips on the best coworking spaces, travel safety and how to work on-the-road.

The Copywriter Club is an online space for writers to share their work for feedback, ask how to price certain jobs and vent about difficult situations. For businesses that need to engage with a specific set of freelancers, setting up a niche community that directly addresses their needs and concerns can be a winning tactic.

Why freelancers seek out communities

Ultimately, all the perks of freelance communities boil down to a simple theme: not feeling so alone. Oliver Rees, the co-founder of freelancer support group Forge, put it well when he explained, “I was really surprised, when leaving a company, how little support there was.”

However, by being part of a community, he no longer felt alone, “It can make you feel like you’re not the only one going through the struggles you are.” Look at any freelancer group chat and you’ll likely see this reflected. Many of the day-to-day discussions happening are around client troubles, pricing, taxes or freelancer admin.

Any successful freelancer community, therefore, should be built on providing support. Whether that’s emotional, practical, in-person or virtual.

Using communities to gain an edge

Tapping into our human instinct to gather and connect is an effective strategy for any business leader who plans to work with freelancers. Organisations that seek out emotional connections with their freelancers will be first-in-line when a freelancer is deciding who to work for. By building a community where freelancers can share their successes and pains, your organisation also builds its future.

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