Navigating Company Culture as a Freelancer

The freelancer's guide to navigating company culture, including what you need to do your job effectively, and how to deal when you can't.

If you’re the type of person who craves variety and enjoys a dynamic atmosphere, being a freelancer seems like the perfect arrangement. Maybe you’ll be on an assignment at an advertising agency for a week or two, then immediately go to a gig in a corporate or in-house situation. It’s not for everyone, but that’s what you love about being a full-time freelancer: You’re never in the same situation twice. However, you’re always the “new kid,” and this can be a source of frustration. How do you figure out how to fit in to the company culture fast enough to create an environment conducive to doing your best work?

What we mean when we talk about company culture

Company culture is more than a set of rules in a handbook: It’s an outlook or a philosophy about the work, the employees, the lifestyle, and even the physical environment that usually trickles down from the top. In short, a company’s culture might be thought of as its personality.

For example, a company might be seen as relaxed and friendly if executives have open-door policies, they emphasize work/life balance, and employees of all levels are shown appreciation for their unique contributions and talents.

On the other hand, some companies have an unspoken rule that you have to be there before the boss gets in and you shouldn’t leave until after they are gone. You absolutely have to stick to the established way of doing things, and employees may even be required to keep their workspaces in a certain order.

And company culture isn’t always what you expect it to be. I worked in a ginormous, Fortune 50 company that was the very definition of corporate, but their in-house advertising department emphasized collaboration, flexible schedules, and jeans and flip-flops whenever. Conversely, plenty of advertising and design firms may have the foosball table and beer keg, but they’re still exceptionally rigid with policies and conduct. A company’s culture can significantly impact the overall satisfaction, efficiency, and effectiveness of its employees, so you’ve got to figure out the lay of the land pretty quickly.

First things first: Learn what you need to do your job effectively

As a freelancer, you’re expected to hit the ground running and work seamlessly with the team. Unfortunately, the regular employees are often in such a hurry that they aren’t always able to give you a proper download. As soon as your assignment starts (if not before), learn what you need to be efficient and effective in your job:

  • The names and roles of others you’ll be in contact with
  • If you should attend meetings/calls and in what capacity
  • If you’re a creative, if you’ll be responsible for presenting your own work and if you’ll receive feedback directly
  • The company’s workflow and process (e.g., how work is routed, who sees it and when?)

Being able to work quickly and independently is the first step to earning your co-workers’ trust, which can, in turn, break the ice and help you see more of what the company is all about.

Take some time to evaluate the lay of the land

Getting to know a company’s culture requires knowing when to be quiet and watch, and when to speak up and ask questions. If you’re unsure of how to act, err on the side of being overly formal (and that includes attire), at least at first. Hang back and try to fit in without seeming like you’re making too much effort to be one of the gang.

Just remember that the rules aren’t always the same for a freelancer. Even if the rest of the employees don’t start trickling in until 10 a.m. or take 90-minute lunches, don’t assume that you can, too. (Unless you literally can’t do any work without them, in which case, you should explain the situation to your on-site contact so you’re not burning hours.) Sometimes it can really suck because you may not get to take advantage of the perks that a normal employee would receive, such as free food, company outings, summer Fridays, access to the beer fridge, and all those other juicy extras. But it’s always better to ask than assume, unless you want the regular employees to shoot you eye-daggers for daring to think you can partake of their free Friday bagels and shmear.

When in doubt, your on-site contact or supervisor is your best resource for how to navigate the workplace.

Stay positive

Don’t allow yourself to get roped into drama, gossip, or petty squabbles. Keep your interactions with others positive.

One thing that I’ve experienced repeatedly as a freelancer is that the company’s most wretched and bitter employees will immediately seek you out. After all, the regular employees just don’t want to hear them complain anymore, and so these sad or angry people see the freelancer as a new pair of ears for their tirades (which are generally presented in the guise of, “Hey, I’m not sure if you knew this about the company, but …”). Don’t engage. Be courteous, but your easy out is that your time is the company’s money; you’d love to stay and chat, but you’ve got work you need to do.

Love the company culture or hate it, you won’t have long to deal with it.

Sadly, many times freelancers and hired guns are treated indifferently. You may not be able to change that, but if you want to get invited back, you should be seen as someone who blends in and is easy to work with. This is doubly important if you’re working with a recruiter, since you are a reflection on them, and they have the power to get you jobs.

But then, that’s what’s great about being a freelancer: If you decide a company or the company culture isn’t for you, you probably won’t have to be there long, anyway. It’s always nice to know that you can return if you want, but you can also quickly move onto the next gig and never look back.

Lisa is a Creative Circle candidate and seasoned advertising copywriter who lives in Los Angeles. Her background includes both in-house and agency work on Fortune 500 and global accounts in the consumer and healthcare/pharmaceutical fields. She excels at words, fashion, and cats. If you want to work with Lisa, contact Creative Circle Los Angeles.