What, ‘Can Work Independently’ Means

Last post I looked at teamwork and what it translates into on the job. Today, it only makes sense to look at the other trait which so often falls on the same line in a job posting; the capability to work independently. Pretty straight forward? Easily understood? No need for a lengthy discussion on the subject? Let’s see.

Allow me to dispel one thing upfront; the myth that working independently means you’re a lone wolf; a cast out or the one who chooses to forge their own way and shuns human contact. It also doesn’t mean you run rogue and do your own thing while being paid by a company. I’ve met many people in the past who have told me they aren’t really a people person; they tolerate out of necessity interacting with others, but do so at bare minimum and therefore work better when working independently. A few even look for jobs solely based on this quality and then as a secondary thing actually look at what the job is.

Working independently does mean there’s some work apart from others, but it doesn’t mean you work in complete isolation from human contact. In fact, it could actually mean you interact with the same volume of people.

Working independently, or rather, working well independently, means you’re accountable and productive. Your high personal work ethic and personal accountability means you can be trusted to get things done when circumstances arise where you’re working apart from others. Sometimes it’s a project, where you have to conduct research, compile information into an orderly format and then in some future situation, present what you’ve been working on independently to the team or someone in management. In this scenario, you can expect to have questions directed at you to answer, have to explain what you’ve worked on and come up with, defend your recommendations, perhaps even incorporate some changes. So that business of working productively while you were apart from the team gave you some independent time, but working well independently doesn’t mean you always work independently.

There are occupations of course where you spend a great deal of time on your own. A long haul Truck Driver may travel thousands of kilometers in his cab, but he’s still in regular contact with his Dispatcher and still has to meet up and go over his inventory with folks at both ends of his runs. It’s in those long stretches of paved highways that he’s happiest if he longs for the company of his thoughts and shuns the conversation chatter that he imagines when working in close proximity to others. To be clear though, some Truck Driver’s are extremely social people, excellent communicators, friendly, personable and they are only to happy to break up the solitude with someone they come into contact with along the road. They can get on well with Transport officials, other Driver’s, truck stop dining staff, Mechanics  and yes, that voice across the airwaves that keeps them on schedule and tracking their cargo.

I’ve met more than one person who has such a distaste for working with or rather, for others, that they set their sights on working for themselves in a self-employment capacity. It’s one thing to want to answer to yourself and work with the vision you’ve got, to be in full control of the risks and the rewards. But if you think being self-employed means you work independently without having to interact with people, you’re dead wrong. If anything, you typically have to go out of your way to interact with more people and do it all the time. You have to drum up your own business, and that often means initiating contact, being friendly and personable, nurturing those budding relationships with consistent interaction. There’s customers, Suppliers, Vendors, Accountants, City Officials, Government Regulators, Lawyers, Couriers, Banks, Investors, perhaps Partners and Shareholders. Work without any people contact? Perhaps, but highly unlikely.

So can you work diligently and be productive when no one is watching? If so, you’re probably pretty skilled at working independently. It also implies you are self-disciplined, you have the ability to focus without distraction, you have the knowledge and resources to accomplish the goal or task assigned to you and come back having accomplished in a timeframe what was expected of you. Now if you understand this and this describes you well, doesn’t it just make sense to communicate this in your resume or cover letter rather than just saying, “can work independently”? Just saying this alone doesn’t separate you from the countless others who will say the same thing without communicating that they truly have the understanding of what working independently means.

By the way, don’t say you work well independently if you don’t. It might seem like the best thing to say to squeeze through the interview stage and start a job. However, once you start working, if you constantly drift back from your work area in need of that conversation mix to fulfill your social needs, your ability to work with the focus required in the confines of your own work area might trip you up. Maybe in the end you just need the kind of job where there’s a mix of independent work (self-accountability and working solo) and teamwork (interpersonal communication skills, negotiating and recognizing others contributions to an end).

So, do you work productively when working independently? Be prepared to prove it.