The way we work is rapidly changing. Technology has enabled the rise of the freelancer — moving professionals into the on-demand shared economy and giving talent new ways to engage with the workforce.

The trend shows no signs of slowing and according to Freelancers Union, one in three Americans today is an independent worker and many predict that by 2020, freelancers will represent 50 per cent of the U.S. labor force.

Yet as powerful as this shift has been, new insights are emerging on the impact that independent, online work can have on the individual. (See our Q&A with the co-founder of The Solo Project for more on this idea.)

Working for a marketing agency whose entire business model is based on leveraging this growing population of freelancers, I’ve learned that without real human connection, a freelance professional never feels fully invested in their work.

It seems like an obvious conclusion, but technology has made it incredibly easy to feel isolated. Think about it — why pick up the phone or meet in person when an e-mail is more efficient? Yet the more freelancers we work with, the more requests we receive to improve social interactions.

Even experienced freelancers recognize the important place socialization plays in the ebb and flow of work. This might partly explain why so many freelancers choose to work in shared or co-op office spaces even though it is usually more economical to work from home.

The Digital High-Five

The need to feel connected is most prevalent when it comes to recognizing and celebrating success. However in a virtual world where team members may be literally spread across the globe, a pat on the back or raised glass simply isn’t possible.

To overcome geographical restrictions, we’ve tried all sorts of fun and goofy things in an effort to make our virtual team members feel they belong. Some work and others…not so much. In one case of best intentions gone wrong, we threw an office party and decided to invite our online team members. We had them join via Skype by propping laptops on tables while everyone partied around them. Not only was it impossible to hear anything they said, people eventually ignored the laptops or forgot them altogether. Thankfully, our online team gave us props for trying. (We’ve had much greater success through small personalized human gestures like birthday care packages, or inviting the team to share their Spotify playlists.)

It’s always better to go personal if you can. If you’re thinking about sending an email, get on the phone. If you’re thinking about making a phone call, see if a video chat is possible. But whenever possible, we make it a point to visit team members when we travel for business or pleasure. And we always try to capture our interactions on film because we find it has an amazing way of bringing people together. As much as digital collaboration has created incredible opportunities for businesses and freelancers to work independently, it doesn’t negate the very basic human need to feel connected.