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How to Manage an Entire Agency and Still Get Work Done

This post is part of a series called Evolve From Freelancer to Agency.
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Time management is a topic that often comes up in conversations among freelancers. That’s because each of us has to take responsibility for getting everything on her plate done, without someone else nagging us about the work.

But when you establish an agency, the situation becomes harder: on top of getting the creative work done that you need to keep clients happy, you also need to assign work to everyone else at the agency, if not keep checking to ensure everything get's done.

For some freelancers, it’s a fast way to go crazy. For others, it’s just a matter of making sure that there’s a good system in place and that you know what your priorities are. Provided you feel comfortable with a little management responsibility, getting everyone organized is very doable.

Choose a Project Management Tool

Even if you’ve made it this far relying on a spreadsheet or some handwritten notes, the transition to running an agency means that you’re going to have to go high tech. It’s time to choose a project management tool that will let you assign work to your team. It’s just too inefficient to manage the work any other way. In particular, you’re going to want a tool that your team can update without you ticking every box for them — you want to have all their updates about their work in just one spot.

It’s always important to make sure that your tools are easy to work with — no one wants to spend hours struggling with a project management tool before they can even get started on the actual project.

Best practices include choosing a tool that will let you place all of the creative assets associated with a given project in one place. It doesn’t need to be within the same tool that you’re using to manage project details (although there are plenty of apps that do both), but it does need to be clearly organized, with a way to track different versions of each project.

You’ll need to decide if you want your clients to have access to your project management tools, as well. It’s an option that many clients seem to like, even if getting them to actually make use of those tools is a hassle. However, there’s a certain value in being able to discuss a project away from the client’s attention.

Exactly what other features you may want available in a project management tool can depend on what type of work your agency takes on and the workflow you follow. It’s always important to make sure that your tools are easy to work with — no one wants to spend hours struggling with a project management tool before they can even get started on the actual project. It’s also useful to look for opportunities to streamline projects. If, for instance, you take on very similar projects over and over again, choosing a tool that allows you to start new projects from templates is the logical move.

It’s generally worthwhile to consider a web-based app for your project management tool these days, so that your team has access to the software no matter where they are. There are certain alternatives that you can run on your own server, but unless that’s something you already know how to do and that you can troubleshoot for, it’s probably more practical to pay for an alternative.

Standardize the Division of Labor

With an agency, it’s always best to make tasks as standardized and easily repeatable as possible. You don’t want to have to keep teaching new people how to do the same work over and over again, so it’s ideal to set things up so you have the same person doing the same task over and over again. It may be a little less fun than letting everyone grab the parts of a particular project that they find interesting, but it’s a lot more manageable.

If you have one or two people that handle a specific task — and already know what to do — you may be able to get them started on a new project with little more than a quick mention. Of course, you’ll want a more robust system of managing work than those quick mentions, but being able to get the ball rolling quickly is invaluable in an agency, particularly if you’re willing to take on rush jobs.

The hardest part of standardizing how you divvy up projects comes in if you rely on contractors rather than employees. When you’re first starting out, you’re unlikely to have full-time employees, but if you can’t be sure that a given freelancer you work with will have spare time for each project you take on, it’s harder to be certain that you can just hand a given part of your project off to the same person over and over again.

You may wind up with a few names on your list for different types of work. It is possible, though you may need to put some effort into being able to onboard a new freelancer quickly if your preferred contractors aren’t available.

Create Your Own Training Materials

Even if you have a huge full-time team you can rely on to do exactly what you say for each project, consider putting together training materials for your agency. On the broadest level, codifying your expectations for all freelancers in a manual will save you time on telling everyone what you need on an invoice every single month.

Hopefully, you’ve chosen a project management tool that is already familiar to your team and is commonly used enough that there are already tutorials available online that you can just point to.

That includes providing training for any project management tools you rely on. As a freelancer, you may have been frustrated when a client insisted that you use their internal tools — but it’s always worse when you don't know how to use the tool or if the client organizes information in an unusual way within the tool.

Hopefully, you’ve chosen a project management tool that is already familiar to your team and is commonly used enough that there are already tutorials available online that you can just point to. If not, however, don’t be surprised if you wind up writing those tutorials yourself.

The process of writing your training manual doesn’t have to be too exhausting: it can be as simple as creating a shared document and adding notes every time you send a request to someone on your team or you have to answer a question. This approach will get you a searchable document that will help you hold things together for quite a while. You may want to eventually edit it into an easier-to-follow format, but it’s not a requirement to get up and running.

Keep Communication Channels Open

One of the benefits of working online is that you can stay in constant contact with members of your team, even if they’re located three states away. Take advantage of that fact by being available to talk if someone needs you. Even if you just set up an IRC channel for your team, you’ll be able to head potential issues off before they grow into something bigger. Sometimes your team just needs a decision made one way or the other and you’re the only one who can make it. You don’t want to be the reason everyone else had to stop working.

It’s also important to check in with your team on a regular schedule. You don’t need to make a phone call every day, but do ping them for status reports as often as you need to feel comfortable that the work is getting done on schedule. When you’re not all in the same office, touching base is the only way to know little details, like if your developer is moving slowly this week because he caught the flu. When you’re dealing with a lot of moving parts, it’s up to you to maintain communications.

That said, you also need to balance your own workload. Constant interruptions to talk with your team aren’t really good for productivity. You need to manage expectations about when you’re available to chat, in order to ensure that you’ve got as much quiet time as you need to finish your work.

That might mean blocking out certain hours when you won’t be available for work (which, in turn might mean that you need a shared calendar) or it can mean working some hours when the rest of your team is off. Time zones can make it easier to choose times when your team, and perhaps your clients, won’t need you.

The key to communication is consistency. Be available on the same communication channels at the same times and it will be a lot easier to stay in contact with your team.

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