Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Freelance Rules #4 - Establish a routine

When you move from corporate life to an independent operation, it's often very hard to establish an effective routine. It helps to know if you're really out of the corporate world for the long term or whether you're just passing through an independent phase for a short time while looking for that next great corporate opportunity. But if you've established that a microbusiness life is the working life for you, it's important to set a routine that distinguishes your work from the rest of your life.

That's what we set out to do when Jac and I set up Leapfrog, though 10 years down the line, I look back at some of the early thoughts (and early expense) and cringe. Having freelanced from a back bedroom for three years in the 90s, I was determined that Leapfrog would be different, so set about finding an office we could work from to give us a presence. And to a degree, Leapfrog was different - it wasn't just me making money from the venture, and I wanted  to be competing a little further up the business chain - getting the projects, not just the in-house overflow. So we sub let an office in Henley and then moved to a lovely office in Oxford - marble pillars and even a shared swimming pool! With the desks, the tech and even a sofa in it looked a treat. The problem was, we were hardly ever there.

My two main associates lived in Kent and Bedfordshire respectively - so while we occasionally met up at the office (and they even more occasionally worked from it), we were more likely to meeting in London where most of our clients were. And the fact our client base was in London largely negated the need for an office in Oxford. We'd selected it, cleaned it up and made it look welcoming because I naively thought we'd have plenty of clients coming to see us - but of course, that didn't happen. Since they were buying our brains and the ability to make their communication work, what they needed was us: sometimes in person, sometimes on the end of a phone - more often across a flurry of emails. In the first year of the Oxford office, I spent 40+ days working on Diageo's premises and more than 60 in London, Paris, Bristol, Brussels and Zurich on a project for Orange. For many of those days, the office was empty. It was something of a vanity expense and not in the best interest of the business long-term.

When Jac and I moved house, we decided to buy somewhere with an office built-in. The room I'm writing from now is an extension to the original extension on the house. It has space for two desks and is just about big enough for Leapfrog's needs. But it fits a changing microbusiness world. The business is portable and goes where the work is. Sometimes it's just me working on a project and at other times the network swings into action again - though now we're all connected over the internet from our respective home offices.

The difficulty working from home though is establishing a working routine. It demands discipline and balance - but can be far more productive than working in a office.

If I'm not at a client's premises, I'll be in here from 8.30 in the morning. I close the door and am 'at work'. The difference to being in a big corporate office is that I'm not called into a million meetings that are less than directly relevant to my work and I'm not also copied into all those interesting but not overly productive emails that circulate in any organisation. It tends to mean that when I have a task to focus on, it gets done quicker and with far less distraction.

Much as the office brigade may buy into the myth that we homeworkers just sit with feet up and the telly on when work is slack, I can probably count on one hand the number of days I've actually done that. Sure, I'll put the washing on and get the dishwasher going. I might even put out the bins, but from 8.30am - 6pm I'm in 'at work' mode. I will, however, break off for a natter with the kids when they come in from school and wander up to Costa to meet up with my fellow homeworkers - the very worst thing to do is to stay in the bubble all day with no external contact. I'm also very reward-driven: editing a document by such a time might earn me the time to read a chapter of a book; arranging my week's meetings might get a chocolate biscuit - that kind of thing.

I wish that all those hours in the 'office' during the week were billable, but of course they're not. But the trick is to make them productive nonetheless. For the last few years for me that has been fairly easy. I do some training and coaching, and there's always a deck to tweak or material to update. I'm also in mid-PhD and that, frankly, counts as my learning and development. So, as well as the part of the week I devote to university stuff (scheduled in, of course,) I'll grab a couple of hours here and there to take notes on a text or do a bit of online research. Then there's the necessity to 'stay connected' (see previous post) and the aligned need to keep up with clients and former clients and even potential clients to see where future work may come from. So, even if I'm not immediately busy on a piece of work, I have to keep myself occupied on ensuring there's work in the pipeline. And of course, business red tape ensures there's plenty of admin to fill the remaining time - as a microbusiness, there's no-one else around to do it for you (that was quite a shock after so long in-house).

When I started off running my own business, a more experienced colleague said: "Make the most of your downtime." A decade on, I know what she means.

Of course, routines are there to be broken, and one of the great advantages of being my own boss is that I've been able to walk my youngest daughter to school for much of the time we've lived here and can slip away more easily to school events than I ever could when I worked at Forte or Barclays. I even have the chance to take a day off on a whim.....though in practice, rarely do.

Rules get broken the other way too. While I endeavour to finish up my working day by 6pm (earlier if I feel I've put the right effort in), the dynamics of working to other people's agendas do still mean I work some late nights to hit rush deadlines. But it never feels so hard to switch off the PC at midnight and just walk up the stairs knowing I'm home rather than contemplate a late-night tube and train ride.

My routine works for me: others will find a very different way to make microbusinessing work. The trick is to find the balance that's right for you.

No comments: