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6 Tips for Managing Your Agency's Virtual Team

Ah, freelancers. As an account manager, they are either the light of your life, or the bane of your existence. Freelancers can save your ass when a project scales beyond your team's capacity, or they can cost you dearly when they suddenly decide to go on holiday with your urgent work still sitting unfinished on their desk.

Before coming aboard with WorkflowMax to write awesome articles for all you lovely people, I spent a significant portion of my working life as a freelancer, working both directly with clients and as part of an agency team. So I know a thing or two about working with agency teams, and what makes a great - and a terrible - virtual team environment.

Here are our top tips for creating a successful virtual creative team at your agency.

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Tip #1: Find the Right People

Sourcing freelancers can be tough - they are always hanging around when you don't need them, and become mysteriously scarce when you are desperate.

My best jobs always came through referrals. Someone knew the agency was looking for a freelancer and thought I'd be a good fit. Because I'd been recommended, I was always keen to impress, and the agency felt as if I'd been "pre-screened" by the referrer, so I usually got the job.

Ask your team, as well as family and friends, or other folks working in agencies if they can connect you with punctual, organised freelancers who produce quality creative work. This way, you don't have to worry about putting up job adverts and trawling through submissions to find the right freelancer for the job.

Another aspect of finding the right freelance team is to assess your own needs - what parameters around the role are you comfortable with? Unfortunately, understanding this usually comes from trial and error (more error than trial).You only have to work with one freelancer with 20 other clients on her books to understand that you want a freelancer who will dedicate 100% of their time to your project. Check out more tips on our article: What Agencies Ought to Know about Working with Freelancers.

Tip #2: Confirm the Best Pricing Structure

Many agencies find it easier to pay freelancers based on an hourly rate. This means the freelancer can track time against a job in much the same way an employee can, and you'll have an accurate picture of exactly how long each project takes.

However, the agency environment is fast-paced, and paying freelancers at an hourly rate doesn't exactly encourage speed. For this reason, many agencies prefer to have freelancers quote a flat-fee for a job. This can help with job costing, as you know from the onset exactly what the freelance portion of a job will cost.

Most agency work I did had a fixed fee, which I worked out based on how long I thought a project would take. Most freelancers are flexible with pricing and able to work based on a fixed fee.

Tip #3: A Single Point-of-Contact

Of all the agency-side jobs I did, the ones that ran smoothest were those where a single member of the agency staff was responsible for managing my portion of the job. They might be an account manager, or simply someone from the creative team (usually a designer). All correspondence would go through them, and if I had a question, I knew exactly who I would call to get the answer.

The opposite situation has the freelancer calling the designer to talk about the assignment, emailing the account manager with questions about the brief, chasing up payments at accounts, and getting half of their emails and calls ignored or deleted or passed to the wrong person. The longer the chain of communication stretches, the longer the assignment will take to complete, and the more frustrating it will be for everyone involved.

Tip #4: Make Them Part of the Team

If you intend to employ freelancers regularly, then you should make a real effort to make them feel involved in the company. Many freelancers love the opportunity to come into the office for Friday-night drinks, skype in to brainstorming meetings, and receive news and updates about projects going on at the company. Involving them in the everyday life of the company helps give them ownership for their projects, and basically ensures you'll get a freelancer willing to go above and beyond for you and your company.

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Tip #5: Focus on Building Long-Term Relationships

This is related to the point above. Even if your agency doesn't regularly use freelancers, it pays to keep on good terms with the ones you do work with, especially if you know there are some big jobs coming up in the future. The agency world is really quite small, and a mistreated freelancer will likely be working for your competition in a matter of weeks - so think about that before you decide they are second-class citizens.

At the heart of it, creating a positive relationship with your freelancers comes down to basic human decency - treat them with kindness and respect, and they'll do the same. Don't think of a freelancer as someone who's in the office one week, and then you'll never see them again. You can work with them multiple times, and they may follow your as you move companies, or come in handy when you need some work done for your own personal projects :).

Tip #6: Use the Right Tools

To do their job properly, a freelancer needs the right tools. Usually, your contractor will have a pretty sweet set-up in their home: the right software for the job, plus some basic collaboration tools such as skype or Yammer. This might be all you require to feel confident that they've got everything they need to do the job, or you might need to get them set up on some of your agency's own tools and systems.

For each job, think about what you need each person to do in order to keep the job running smoothly. Will your freelancers need access of WorkflowMax? How will you communicate with them? How will you share documents, track changes and make edits? How will other members of the team collaborate with them? If you're paying hourly, how will you get an accurate picture of time spent on the project?

Just like a builder checking his toolbox before he leaves the house in the morning, before you start a job, decide with your entire team - freelancers and in-house staff - what tools you need, and make sure everyone knows what they'll be expected to do.

A team of competent, enthusiastic freelancers can be a real asset to an agency; they will save your ass when the workload is getting away from you, or provided specialist skills of knowledge where your staff fall short.

What other tips do you have for managing freelancers?

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