There are a ton of reasons to go freelance—time off whenever you want it, the freedom to pick and choose your projects, and the ability to see your work through from start to finish. In some ways, working for yourself can be more fulfilling than office life. On the other hand, lots of people wonder how they’ll move forward in their career after several years of flying solo. Usually, freelancers have built themselves up to a certain level in order to be qualified to go out on their own, but it’s natural to wonder: After freelancing, what exactly are you qualified to do, and how do you find a new position that fits your unique skill set? Even more importantly, how do you get used to going back to the daily office grind when you’ve been enjoying a life of total freedom? We talked to career and job search consultants to find out.
1. Evaluate the pros and cons of your current setup.
If you’ve decided to leave your freelance career behind, at least for now, there are probably some pretty specific reasons you want to go back to a full-time gig.“Given that the dynamics between working for yourself and working full-time for someone else are quite stark, take careful stock of which aspects of your freelance life have and have not served you well,” suggests Joseph Liu, career consultant and host of the Career Relaunch podcast. Then, look for a job that has the best elements of your current setup, while leaving behind the worst ones. “For example, if you love the flexibility of freelancing, focus on companies that have cultures that embrace flexible working arrangements, and be wary of environments that feel too traditional,” he says. Similarly, if you have had a hard time working alone during your freelance time, seek out a collaborative team environment in your next position. Looking ahead, during your interview is a great time to parse out how well your wish list stacks up to the realities of the jobs you are being considered for.
2. Figure out your “unfair advantage.”
The first step to marketing yourself post-freelance life is to consider what you can do better than those who have been working in offices exclusively. “I always recommend freelancers consider their ‘unfair advantage,’” says Liu. “In other words, the skills you’ve amassed as a freelancer that other non-freelancers would have a hard time replicating. Honing in on these specific skills will form the foundation of your unique selling proposition as a way of differentiating you and helping you stand out from others who may have only worked full-time.” In other words, what do you have that traditional office workers don’t? Experience working on a super tight budget, relying on only yourself under pressure to problem solve, and marketing yourself organically are all great examples of things you probably have gained from being a freelancer. Many of these unique-to-freelancing skills are incredibly valuable in an office environment. “Try to hone in on three to five skills that freelancers uniquely possess,” suggests Liu, and in your discussions with potential employers, “ensure you capture specific examples of how those skills have driven results in a way that could also be relevant to your target company.”
3. Target the right gigs.
Anyone can tell you that job hunting can be a tedious and exhausting process, but one of your skills as a freelancer is likely finding work. Good news: You can use that freelance hustle to find yourself a permanent job and make the process as painless as possible. As for what types of jobs to start with, “look for something that is similar in field or function to a freelance engagement you did,” advises Nancy Halpern, Principal at KNH Associates, a talent management firm. If you’re comfortable, “maybe even pitch yourself to a client if you see that they have a repeating need,” she adds. If you’re not sure where to start, Halpern recommends looking to skill sets you’ve received the best feedback on as a great place to start. Make sure to highlight these competencies on your resume in a "representative engagements" section. “Showcase the companies you did freelance work for, what problems you solved, and which clients gave you repeat engagements” in this section, she suggests. Also, keep in mind that “demonstrating that you had diverse clients but a focused area of work makes you a more readable ‘brand’ to employers.”
4. Prioritize your salary considerations.
When it comes to salary, you’ve got to figure out what types of compensation are most important to you, according to Rebecca Zucker, Partner and head of Career Transition Services at Next Step Partners, a leadership development firm based in SF, NY and LA. “Are you looking for a job at a company because you want more income security and health insurance? Then you may be willing to take a discount to your peak income years,” she points out. Similarly, you might want to have proper vacation time built in (after all, freelancers are always on call), so you may be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for proper vacation days so you can take some real time off for a change. On the other hand, “you may require a large premium to make up for the loss of independence you’d experience,” Zucker says. “Regardless, you should do your due diligence and know what the market rates are for the contribution you’d be making to the organization.” Of course, Glassdoor’s Know Your Worth feature can also help you figure out your target compensation range.
5. Prepare yourself for the inevitable mental adjustments.
As you probably know, things will be different when you leave the gig economy, for better or worse. “Especially during transitions, you need to be very clear about what tradeoffs you’re willing to make,” says Liu. “Understanding you will likely need to give up certain things to get these other things is half the battle.” So what should you be prepared to let go of? According to Liu:
- Control: Being able to control which projects you work on and how you execute them may get replaced by projects being assigned to you with clear project management plans already in place.
- Flexibility: Working whenever and wherever you want may get swapped out with working Monday through Friday, eight straight hours a day, in a physical office in a fixed location.
- Autonomy: “Being your own boss will certainly get replaced by reporting to someone,” says Liu. That going to entail feedback, performance evaluations, and being held accountable by someone other than a client.
- Some freedom: Technically, freelancers can take “vacation” whenever they want. Now, you’ll have to get any days you want to take off approved by the higher ups. Freelancers have the luxury of being able to take “vacation” when and for however long they wish. It’s also possible you’ll have less flexible free time to spend with your family and friends.
Importantly, Liu points out that it’s a good idea to be vocal about the fact that you understand how different your working life will be once you’re full-time again. “Being comfortable and clear on these tradeoffs yourself is critical to convincing the hiring manager you know what you’re getting into.”