On My Own: The Challenge of Freelance Isolation

Trends and Tools | Oct 01, 2015

by Melina Giannelia 

I moved back to my hometown of Toronto in early 2011, after graduating from university in Halifax. As of late 2013, I have been dabbling in freelance work, as a writer, editor, proof-reader, and, most recently, business manager and event planner. I understand freelance work as a refreshing alternative to the labour model of the 9-5 work day: a freelancer can choose their own hours, work according to their own principles, and have the opportunity to work on contracts that are worthy of their own time, energy and skills.

One of the major drawbacks, however, is the fact that most (if not all) of a freelancer’s work is done alone. With many freelancers experiencing the adverse effects of social isolation, many new organizations are looking to provide co-working solutions. From hot desks to meetup groups, it remains to be seen whether these solutions will, in themselves, resolve the feelings of loneliness many freelancers experience.

Social Isolation Among Freelancers

In a society where more and more people are choosing freelancing as their preferred mode of working, the challenges of this type of work are being discussed more openly in news sources and professional organization websites alike. In my own experience, the more objective hurdles of freelancing (e.g. finding your own clients, building your own infrastructure) have paled in comparison to the adjustment of working from home. While being your own boss is empowering, the fact remains that many freelancers are ill equipped to work alone.

There are different factors that contribute to the experience of social isolation faced by freelancers: First, the potentially detrimental effects of having a space that is simultaneously your home and your office; secondly, the absence of colleagues and mentors to support and motivate you; and, thirdly, the (ultimately unsatisfying) stand-in of technology for social contact. (“Technology,” in this case, refers to actual devices, as well as to web-based communication tools, such as Skype, instant chat, and email.)

In my early days of freelancing, I found myself relying on communications technologies in my personal and my professional life as a stand-in for in-person human contact. It was easier, more efficient, to simply send emails and text messages than to actually go out and see others in the world. There are many differences between in-person contact and the communications possible with interfacing screens and technologies, and it is not my intention to go into them here. Instead, I would like to suggest that the devaluation of in-person contact in one’s working life, such as believing that an email will suffice to wrap up a project, easily leads to a devaluation of the same human contact in one’s personal life. As we shift away from the “after-work drinks” model of the 9-5 schedule, it becomes increasingly important to find ways to maintain contact with other people in social settings.

Home-based offices are simultaneously freeing and frustrating: on the one hand, you have the flexibility to wake up and be at your office in less than five minutes, and, on the other, you lose the time of transition or commuting that can help you understand the difference between your home and your office. The transition between home life (which can be nourishing, comforting and pleasant) and office life (which focuses on task-completion) is lost in the freelancing lifestyle—your home becomes less restorative, and your office can become less goal-oriented.

When I first began freelancing, I was faced with another challenge: not only was I trying to separate my home from my office, I also felt like I was “working” for no real purpose or goal. When I was in my “home mode,” I could justify certain tasks like cleaning or preparing meals, or setting up my desk in the perfect way to accomplish my work tasks. When I shifted to “work mode,” however, I felt alone, untethered, and unmotivated. I no longer had colleagues to motivate or challenge me, or mentors to turn to for advice. When I completed projects, I had no one to celebrate with, and I quickly found myself wondering whether any of it mattered.

It isn’t always easy to find ways to separate your home and office within the context of freelancing, and yet the ability to enforce boundaries is central to not only your quality of life, but your ability to interact with others—by respecting your own time and space, you can feel more free to expect that respect from others.

Solutions on the Horizon

In recent years, innovative individuals and organizations have taken on the challenge of social isolation, and a number of them have transformed the obstacle of working alone into viable businesses.

In Toronto, the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) offers office space to freelancers, along with (as the name suggests) socially innovative organizations. Recognizing both the lack of financial capital of many social innovators, as well as the importance of bringing creative people together to share ideas, one of the primary offerings at CSI has always been their hot desk model.

Hot desks, whether at CSI or elsewhere, are unadorned office desks: free of personal effects, this desk will typically have enough space for a computer, a cup of coffee, and some notebooks. For a nominal fee, an individual can rent out one of these desks for a day, or for a certain number of hours per week. When you arrive, you set up your desk, and then you clear it when you leave, to make it available for the next individual who wishes to use it. The hosting organization (CSI, WorkplaceOne, etc.) may also throw in a few perks when you rent a hot desk, such as access to meeting rooms, free coffee, or use of a listserv.

Another popular option among freelancers looking to shake things up is the website Meetup.com, which can be used to co-ordinate group work. This is especially useful for people who may not be able to afford a hot-desk membership to a place like CSI, but are still interested in working with like-minded individuals. Instead of having a pre-set destination, freelancers can gather for work or social time, discuss their projects, and establish a community of mutual support through their work.

Finally, if you have the space to do so in your own home, setting up a separated office can also lead to enormous benefits. One of these benefits might even include feeling comfortable enough to invite others in to share your office. Roommates or family members are an obvious choice, and yet it’s also possible to imagine having friends and other members of the community come in to share the space. A space dedicated to office work can generate its own energy of focussed concentration, which can be amplified and supported by the inclusion of others in the space.

Respecting Yourself First

As with any challenge, it is important to recognize that social isolation doesn’t only stem from the objective conditions of freelancing. There is a personal component to this as well. In choosing freelancing as your way of working in the world, you are choosing a lifestyle that demands self-respect and self-learning. You must be firm enough to set your own boundaries on your time, on your space, and on your efforts, and you must be able to respect yourself enough to acknowledge when those boundaries need to be adjusted. In better understanding your own needs, you can experience the freedom and playfulness that comes with working alone.


About the Author

Melina Giannelia is a freelancer living in Toronto. She has long been interested in the possibilities of finding and nurturing Community, especially within urban environments that enforce structures of social isolation. Most recently, she has been working toward transforming her business, Sage Westley, into a meeting ground to encourage creative collaboration between freelancers, in order to develop a stronger community network. She works as a writer, editor and tutor.