Friday, March 07, 2014

Working for yourself

Playing on daddy's office chair by PhylB
Playing on daddy's office chair, a photo by PhylB on Flickr.

I spent 17 years as and employee, followed by five as a freelance/self-employed person. When I was an employee I thought I knew all there was to know about the freelance life - I dealt with freelance staff every day after all - but I now know I hadn't really begun to understand that life until I had lived it. I'm not saying either is all good or all bad but I often feel the two worlds are actually more like two separate universes. You can never understand the other until you've walked in both sets of shoes...

I remember in my early days in publishing I used to stress about being on a two year contract, now a two month one makes me float with joy because it means I can plan my life, even if just a little bit. A two year contract now would be an unimaginable delight!

Of course working for yourself gives you greater flexibility. If the sun is shining (not that that happens often!), you can, of course, take your kids to the park after school and fit those four hours of work in after the kids are in bed. You do not feel stressed to breaking point on the morning your kid is sent home from school with chicken pox. Yes, the thought of a week of work with a sobbing child on your lap is stressful but you know you can be there rather than wondering where on earth to take them when you have no childcare available, without wondering whether you still have annual leave left and how mad your boss is going to be when you tell him or her you need a week off with no notice (and probably and second week off two weeks later when someone else comes down with it!) 

On top of that, you can attend any meeting your kid's school throws at you, and any hospital appointment or similar. Those are a few of the pluses, if you can call them that. 

When a relative is in hospital, you can hold their hand at visiting hour and catch up with work on your own time - there's no price you can put on that. I am unimaginably grateful that I was self-employed during my dad's cancer.

But it's not all as rosy... Firstly, you commit to projects and deadlines and no one else is responsible for them, so when your child is sick, you can't take that annual leave, you just have to work all night once they are in bed and you have to do it better than if you'd been inhouse because it cannot be allowed to affect the quality of your work. If you get sick yourself, you can't take a day off either. There's no sick leave so you work whatever is wrong with you. In loo with your laptop isn't the most fun...

Visibility is another absolute nightmare. When you are an employee, being given as much notice as possible of something helps. As a real example, we were told roughly four months before a family christening that is was going to take place. Had I still been an employee, I'd have booked the necessary four days off to go back to Denmark and not thought another thing about it, but as a self-employed person, the best I could do was say to clients that I'd rather have as little work on that week as possible. Of course, sod's law meant the week of the christening came and a customer's emergency left me with two weeks of work to fit in over the four days I had been trying to schedule no work for, followed ironically by two weeks of nothing when I could have attended the christening except I was too late. I could have refused, of course, but then that customer would have been inconvenienced and would have had to find and use a different freelancer with the same skill set - not the wisest move, so work had to come first. The other issue, of course, is that by not having the visibility to book months in advance travel always costs a premium. Travel for seven booked within a week of departure would make your eyes water! Booking non-refundable tickets for seven in advance on Ryanair and then being unable to use them is equally upsetting.

Often I'm asked what my plans are for the school's summer or autumn break - I don't even know what my plans are for the Easter one (in three weeks)! I may (or may not) be told that next week! So I'm in that difficult situation of being unable to book childcare in case I am working but being unable to refuse work should it materialize! And as for working out if I can pay a five year car loan or similar - that's a dream long rooted in my past.

On the last week before my five kids started their summer holiday last year, I was asked to work every day of the summer holiday for two different clients. So I did one during the week, and the other on weekends! It may only have amounted to a few hours each day but while looking after five kids??? Would you volunteer for that job? 

And when you don't have any work on, you don't enjoy the break because you wonder if you'll get any work again soon. Salaries have to be paid out of something, so you stress away every break trying to find work. It is great for the client because you always know you have to do better than your best to secure future jobs, so you give it your all, you spend extra time unpaid and you do a much better job than you would have done, had you not been freelance.

Then there's payment. I often see Facebook statuses mentioning 'X' days to payday! I fondly remember those! Now I wonder if clients are going to pay me on time so my salary can go through, or maybe just one month after I have completed a job, or sometimes if the client is international, I try not to invoice until I have done several jobs, simply because international transfer fees eat up so much of my fee. I can wait months to be paid.

Bereavement leave isn't something I ever had to use as an employee, but at least it existed. When my dad died in 2012, it felt wrong to discuss his funeral in the morning and work in the afternoon, but you don't get time off when you work for yourself. If I don't work, I don't get paid and losing my house would not have brought my dad back. It felt surreal to need to do translation work in those circumstances and my clients were lovely - they offered not to send me work for a couple of weeks till I felt like working again, but of course, no work, no pay, no mortgage payment, no house... Freelancing has its inhumane sides.

I think the thing I really never grasped before opting for this life was the lack of escape. When you work from home, you are always at work. You aren't just checking your email from home or finishing a wee thing - I did that as an employee. You are in your day-time office, eating, sleeping, living... You don't think 'It's Saturday, I'll go to the park', you think 'It's Saturday but if I get ahead with the stuff I need to send in next week then I'll be able to meet the deadline even if a kid is sick and my client deserves that I do my best' and so you work while stirring the dinner, you work in bed at night, you work when the baby's at nursery or when she falls asleep, you work in ten minute bursts 24/7 and when you aren't working you are working in your head and that way you meet all your week time deadlines and remain the model worker, at the expense only of your sanity, but who needs that anyway?

Do I prefer one or the other? I don't even know any more to be honest. I hate not knowing when I can book a holiday. I hate never having a day off, I hate the lack of visibility. I love being home when my kids come in from school, I love hugging them better when they are sick, I love working all day with my best friend, my lover, my husband... I don't know. Maybe working from home, on a contract as an employee would suit me best but for now, while my kids need me, working from home is the only way, for better or worse.



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