Project Management Institute

External Influence

Freelance Project Managers Have an Opportunity to Embrace—And Elevate—The Team Culture



By Priya Patra

In the gig economy, freelance workers are everywhere—and they're not going away. Nearly 80 percent of executives expect that freelance and other contingent workers will substantially replace full-time employees in the coming years, according to a 2019 global survey by Mercer. But for short-term and external project professionals, it can be difficult to quickly assimilate, because the culture on project teams is often already firmly established.

Yet seamless integration is possible. I first worked with a freelance project manager a couple of years ago on a multi-vendor project to implement a procure-to-pay system in multiple countries. And he helped me realize there are concrete steps freelancers can take to accelerate the transition and earn the trust of the team.


The best way freelancers can learn about the team culture is to start by analyzing small, targeted tasks. For example, you can review the delivery process—reviews, testing and quality checks. This helps an outsider gain an insider's view of team morale and culture in the context of actual project tasks. By experiencing the high and low points within the team on a given task, you immediately gain empathy—and are able to show it in your engagement with team members.


It's easy for an outsider to default to email as the go-to form of communication for daily standups or even brainstorms, particularly if that project manager is working off-site. But face-to-face engagement is necessary to strengthen your bond with the team. When I worked with a freelance project manager the first time, we met in person every two months and had regularly scheduled video calls to foster strong interaction. At the very least, freelance project managers should meet team members in person for every major milestone, such as system integration testing or user acceptance testing.


The first freelance project manager I worked with became a mentor to some team members and engaged with them on social media so he could see beyond their work lives. This approach had a mutual payoff. During a critical user-acceptance testing phase, the freelance project manager gave a team member time off to celebrate an anniversary. In return, the team member worked extra hours during another critical phase on short notice. The rest of the team noticed the gestures—and respected the freelance project manager even more.

In this sharing economy, there's no doubt teams will see more freelance project managers. Those who take the time and effort to truly integrate themselves within the team will leave a lasting impression. PM

img Priya Patra, PMP, is a regular contributor to and a program manager in the IT sector who lives in Mumbai, India.
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