The Way We Work
September 20, 2010 by Brian McDonough

A remote contractor needs to be able to hit the ground running.  Though in-house hires are often given multiple days of orientation briefings, a remote contractor is expected to take an assignment and get to work right away.  Unless they’ve read our blog lately, your managers might not have thought through what you need from them to do the job, and days-long delays or endless, seemingly random questions won’t endear you to them.

Larry Stone, a user interface designer who joined oDesk after years as an independent contractor, says employers often forget to give you key details up front.  “As a web designer, you might find out the client has some other system in place, like a shopping cart, that your work has to accommodate,” he says.  “So you need to know what it is and where the help documentation is for it.”

To that end, here’s a checklist that any remote worker should be able to take and adapt to the specifics of your own job or skill set.  It covers five areas and is thorough enough to get you up to full speed right away, but concise enough to be handled quickly.  You can download the full checklist here, and this overview should help you customize it to fit your own specialized skill set.

1.  Job Specifications:  The job posting and interview process cover most of this, but you should tick off the information you know to figure out what details have been missed, so that you don’t have to redo work to make it conform to the employer’s expectations.  For a writer, it can mean grasping the client’s core messaging and getting a copy of the in-house style guide.

2.  Communications:  Who do you talk to, and for what issues?  Often the hiring manager isn’t the person to go to with technical questions. In some cases, the hiring manager might be a contractor, too.  The employer may have one person to talk to about getting your hourly limit increased, and another for more technical questions about the work.  Make sure you know who, how and when to reach out, and what kind of turnaround you can expect.

3.  Collaboration:  In addition to the chain of command, there may be colleagues to coordinate with — fellow developers, a product manager, a graphic designer.  Your work may need to closely coordinate with theirs.  They may be waiting for you to deliver something, or you may end up waiting for them.  Understanding who you’re working with and how the team fits together lets you stay on top of your work and makes you a more integral part of the team.

4.  Technology & Access:  Do you need administrative privileges on a client’s server?  Do you need a login to post directly to the company’s blog?  Are you set up on their Dropbox account?  Are you sharing the right Google Docs?  Do you have the right code repository or FTP access?  Do you need VPN access?  If you’ll be using any of the employer’s proprietary software, make sure to asked for logins and training materials.

5.  Crisis Management:  We’ve been talking lately about getting ready for inevitable disasters, whether you’re a contractor or an employer.

Don’t be afraid to discuss how to handle major problems, such as their corporate server crashing or your entire neighborhood suffering a power outage.

Julie Ladd, whose A La Carte Business Services has been working through oDesk since 2009, says she’s particularly detailed when it comes to writing and marketing assignments.  Her checklist reads more like an interview, asking the client to detail the company’s elevator pitch, the core value it’s offering, the nature of its customers—the kind of things that let you really do a professional, top-notch job.  But she notes that clients sometimes find a full questionnaire to be daunting.

“I’ve learned to get the information I need in the way the employer wants to give it to me, whether piecemeal as questions come up or all at once up front,” she says.  “In the end, it’s less important how I get the information than that I get it, so rather than trying to force employers to do things my way, I work within their preferences to get what I need.”

The first step is knowing what information you need to know, and it’s an important one.  After all, Julie says, “It’s much easier to keep an existing client happy than to get a new one.”

Take a look at our checklist, and let us know in the comments whether it’s useful to you, and what changes you’d make to customize the list for yourself.


Brian McDonough

Freelance Writer

Brian McDonough has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years, and has managed teams of in-house and freelance writers for newspapers, magazines and web sites.