Drawing the Line Between Personal and Business Life
A topic that affects freelancers, especially those new to the freelance world, is separating your personal life and ‘me time’ from work. After all, if you’re sitting at home in your underwear working on a design for a client – it doesn’t really feel much like work.
To better understand why freelancers have this problem, let’s look at why workers of the typical 9-5 office job don’t have to deal with this as much as us work-at-home types. When you take on a typical job, you’re given: your hours to be at work, a work email, and typically a phone number (or extension number), which your boss, and depending on the type of work, possibly your clients know this.
If you work for a small marketing agency and a client needs to get in touch with you at the end of the day, a quick glance at the watch to see that it’s 4:30pm means that the client needs to ring you quickly, as you’ll soon be getting ready to leave. If it’s after your 5pm finish, or an out of hours time such as the weekend, then the contact mediums are obvious; send an email or leave a voicemail. Since your hours are 9-5 on Monday-Friday, it’s easy to work out approximately when you’ll get the all important message.
The problem freelancers face is many of us don’t work set hours. For example, I try and keep my working hours between 9am and 4pm, but sometimes I’ll work into the evenings, or if I’m not busy one weekend then I might work a Saturday to get on top of my workload. Not all clients know this – because often I don’t know this either. That’s one of the things about freelancing – hours can be decided there and then if they need to be.
When an office worker leaves the office, he or she will leave behind their phone and probably their work computer, which they use to check emails. Essentially they are now ‘unplugged’ from work and free to go and do whatever they please. The only phone call they’ll receive from work will most likely be from their boss in the case of an emergency.
Because of this, my work life is already bordering on my personal life.
Similar to a lot of freelancers who can’t afford the luxury of multiple machines, the laptop I use to surf YouTube, read blogs and occasionally check Facebook is also the laptop I use to communicate with my clients, write design briefs and so on. Likewise, the application I use to read my personal mail is also the application that I use to read my work email. Because of this, my work life is already bordering on my personal life.
Not all new freelancers offer the opportunity to be contacted via phone, but those who do may be tempted to use their personal contact number (for the first few contacts) until they can necessitate a second phone. Back when I started out, I made this mistake on one of my first clients who had deadlines to meet and needed to keep in touch with me via phone for progress updates.
This wasn’t too big a deal when I received a daily phone call at 3pm, but when you get the odd out-of-hours text and a quick, “sorry I had to call you on the weekend but…” phone call, I quickly came to see this was a bad idea. I can’t switch off my personal phone, because it’s: how my friends get in touch with me, how my family get in touch with me, how I’m contact in emergencies and so on.
The First Step: Email
Primarily, freelancers will use email as a preferred method of communication. It allows us to convey information, images and other media as well as hyperlinks and so on. Another reason for favoritism towards email is that it gives us time to think. Phone calls are very on the spot and need answers straightaway, whereas with emails we can plan our message and then send it once we’re happy with it.
Whilst I’m not trying to compare a client to a dog, the saying “give them an inch and they take a mile” comes to mind.
The problem is that it’s all to easy to sign up to a freelance job site or job board with a personal email – after all it’s the one you check constantly and the one that’s tied to your fancy smartphone. Herein lies the problem; your work life and your personal life now come to the same inbox. It’s now impossible to simply check up on your personal emails without tripping up over a few client emails nagging about design revisions or similar.
Once you send that first reply at 8pm just because you happened to be checking your emails, a client is now aware that you are contactable out of hours via email – and you’ll reply too. Whilst I’m not trying to compare a client to a dog, the saying “give them an inch and they take a mile” comes to mind.
Email is fantastic. You can setup as many email addresses as you please, to whatever domain you want to buy and you can have them delivered to a myriad of devices. So if email addresses are so easy to come by, why is it that so many of us use one for everything? If you operate a personal portfolio or site, rather than use your typical [firstname]@[portfolio.com], why not change the first part to ‘work’? If you wanted to still keep it a bit personal, use your initials or full name instead – it still looks personal and professional but it’s not your main email.
The Second Step: Phone
Cellular phone’s are a little different to email in that they’re not a free resource, the initial investment is the phone itself and then comes the monthly bill that goes with it.
Freelancers know all to well that there can be dry patches where the money coming in might not marry up to the money going out. For this reason we all try and keep our costs down. If it’s possible to only have to pay one phone bill, a lot of new freelancers will opt for this method.
The thing is, setting up a new phone nowadays is extremely simple and very inexpensive for the service it provides you with. I speak as a resident of the UK here, so things may be a little different where you are, but multiple mobile phone companies offer a free pay as you go sim card and sell mobile phones from as little as £10. Of course, you need to top up £10 to activate it, but essentially a second phone number and phone has a cost of £20.
Not only does this help separate your work and personal life, but it also improves your professional appearance by showing that you’ve made that extra bit of confidence inspiring effort.
The Third Step: IM
Not everybody uses instant messaging to communicate with clients, it’s all down to personal preference. Personally I do use instant messengers with certain clients if the situation requires it. Although I hate myself for it, I try to avoid phone calls if I can and opt for an instant messaging session, the problem here is that unlike a phone call you can’t really hang up.
Although a lot of people base there personal instant messaging solely around Facebook chat, I still use AIM and MSN to keep in touch with a lot of people, so I tread carefully to keep my personal and business IM accounts separate from one another.
The Benefits of Skype
A service that’s definitely worth mentioning here that can help your freelancing business is Skype. I have only recently started using the service as a useful contacting tool and I’m pleased with the results. Skype has a home business package which has some great paid features such as: calling landlines and mobiles from Skype, having a landline number for your Skype account and screen/file sharing.
If your client uses Skype you also benefit from the standard free calling that Skype supports. Depending on the type of client and project, video conferencing might be something you’re also interested in. Some clients might have a preference for face to face meetings and video conferencing can be a great alternative to travelling to meetings constantly. Of course, there are competing services to consider like Google Voice as well.
Drawing The Line
The thing you’ll notice about the methods of contact I’ve recommended; a work email, work phone number, work IM accounts and a Skype account, is that they can all be switched off at 5pm or whenever it is you finish for the day – just like your standard job.
Where you draw the line between personal time and work time is important. What I’ve gone over today are just some of the ways you can keep your two lives divided – the line can go much deeper than that.
You draw your own line, but where you draw it can have a big effect on your freelancing career. It’s preferable to try and keep things personal between you and some clients, but giving a client too much reign can start to deteriorate what little personal time you may have. It’s all gravy until your client starts asking for design updates on your Facebook wall.