The raw story of flexible working

Flexible work is a very attractive concept. Even the word, flexible, has an alluring ring to it. Still, I hadn't given it much thought in the past few months. But then I was asked to speak at a Social Change Collective event; apparently I represent flexible working in action. 

Turns out, when I sat down to put some thoughts together, I do have a lot to say on the topic. So I decided to share my speaking notes here. I'm keen to open the lid on what flexible working actually looks like, and how I manage it day-to-day. If you are interested in flexible working, or currently contract / work on flexi terms, perhaps some of my learnings and reflections will help you build your own working style. 

Why flexible working matters to me

If you had asked me, back when I was a lawyer, why flexible working matters, I would have immediately spouted something about work/life balance, and having my evenings to myself.

Having dived into the world of flexible work, I can report something quite different. Flexible work matters to me because of range the perspectives I get to experience. Sure, I have more time to rear my head from the work cubicle - mainly because there is no such thing as a work cubicle in my life anymore - but I also get to work across different organisations, different types of work, even different timezones.

I currently have three main contracts. I spend anything from 4 hours to two days on a client in a week. Sometimes I do work for all three in one day, skipping across three locations.  

This way of working certainly gets a gold star in diversity. And the insights I get from one workstream can truly enrich how I work in a different area. My networks argubly triple. I get to let my communication skills loose on a huge variety of people.

But, how do I decide the amount of time I dedicate to each in a day? And how easily can the brain switch between different types of work? What about modes and tones of communication with each organisation? And different workspaces - both online and offline? Or the fact that my clients aren’t all tucked up in the same office, so it is up to me to manage competing demands on my time.

These are some of the challenges of working as a freelancer.

There are definitely easier ways of striking out on your own in pursuit of a flexible working lifestyle. For example, if I only ran workshops then my brain would have a very clear focus point: Create content. Find clients. Run workshops.

But that’s not my experience. So...

How I achieve super flexible status

I work hard in several ways to manage my flexible working style. The first is all to do with time. 

(a) My calendar is queen

I use Google calendar, which is shared across my four gmail accounts. Each client has a different colour. If I don’t get an invite for a meeting, I create an event myself. If it isn’t in my calendar, it isn’t going to happen.

(b) I keep a timelog

It’s definitely not as detailed as the six minute units i was billing as a lawyer, but that discipline helps me understand how long I spend on each client. This helps me understand my hourly rate and also how long I tend to take to deliver something.

(c) Other commitments are still second-string

I no longer make myself so available for non-work commitments during traditional work times. It is very easy for an outsider - be it a friend or a family member - assume that I can schedule catch-ups or days off whenever I like. I held the same assumption, when I first started. But, I quickly realised that taking time off causes me massive stress, because I never seem to quite catch up again. And as a freelancer, I don’t get holiday pay or sick leave. So now I keep work within work hours, and leave personal time to my evenings and weekends.

The second area that is crucial to keeping me from tearing out my hair is all around communication. 

(a) Expectations are set from day one. 

Before I start work with a new client, I make sure I know exactly what the time commitment is. I try to schedule consistent time into my week. For example, I currently work for the same client on Monday and Tuesday mornings, and all day on Wednesday. Sometimes this might change, but as a rule this time is set aside for a client who has team members relying on some element of consistency from me. 

(b) The battle with notifications

Notifications are both my best friend and my worst enemy. Great, because I know when emails come in or if someone has just read my email. Terrible, because they can interrupt my train of thought when working for a different client.

(c) And most important...

Creating visibility across my clients. I try to be very clear with my clients about my juggling act and create a culture of open communication so that I can feel comfortable in sharing when I am feeling stretched.

Workspaces are perhaps the most obvious point of difference (aside from hours) when it comes to flexible working. 

(a) online is a must...but so is real time!

I find catch-ups with work mates in real life is just as valuable as skyping from the comfort of my own home. Culture-building doesn't work in quite the same when you're speaking to a screen. 

(b) I need lively workplaces

Working from home is awesome in that I get to hang out with my dog. But, I am also an extrovert. If I have too much time working at home I suddenly find myself procrastinating. I’m lucky that I can access Creative HQ, Dev Academy + Biz Dojo. Highly recommend these or other co-working spaces!

(c) Mix it up

If I have been head down in processing pledges for a crowdfunding campaign, I’m almost guaranteed to struggle to switch my brain to start creating content for a leadership workshop. So, I pack up my stuff and move. To a completely different space. Usually this means a completely different building. Often accompanied by a switch in the playlist I’m listening to.  

Flexi working and technology

Technology deserves its own section, if only because I now take it for granted that my workspace moves with me. My laptop and earphones are literally the equivalent of my office. In this way, technology is great. I can work from home as easily as I can work from Creative HQ, or even the train.

The not-so-great thing about technology is that work follows me everywhere. I don’t have a work phone separate from my personal phone. I receive a work emails in the middle of the night sometimes from colleagues in different time zones. The research shows that even if I choose to ignore the incoming message, my brain still engages with that notification for at least six seconds. In this way, technology forces me to be reactive, rather than responsive.

This is what I call time leak, and it can be exhausting. Say I’ve worked hard all day, and the email I was waiting for finally comes through at 8pm. It takes a great deal of strength to ignore it til tomorrow. And even if I do ignore it, some part of my brain will be ticking away in the background, wondering what the content of the email is.

I’m still experimenting with ways to combat time leak. Here's what I've developed as a strategy so far:

(a) An alarm sounds at 8.55 every evening. That’s my cue to turn off my phone. I never sleep with my phone in my bedroom.

(b) When I wake up in the morning, I don’t look at my phone until after breakfast.

(c) I have four different desktops on my laptop. When I’m in one space, I don’t look at the others. It also keeps the tabs at a minimum!

(d) I keep a timer for each segment of my day. That motivates me to stick only to one client at a time, even when emails from multiple people are coming through.

(e) I sign out of workspaces like Slack if it doesn’t relate to the client I am working on. This way I minimise the number of notifications I receive.

All of this can be challenging, but it is also essential. If I allow myself to be available to everyone all the time, I would literally explode. To summarise this section, flexible work is awesome, but it requires discipline.

Some final thoughts

If you are interested in getting into flexible work, that’s great. I definitely think it is the way of the future, and by its very nature, flexible working encompasses a heap of different approaches to work.

Nevertheless, I can't help but give a word of warning:

I suspect that flexible working isn’t in fact for everyone. If you thrive off structure, routine or pre-set boundaries, then it might be that freelancing, where you are the one who has to set all those things, isn’t for you. Some days, when motivation is lacking, I find it really hard to make the choice of whether to go into town or stay at home. If you're unsure, perhaps a good first step could be exploring the possibility of negotiating hours or working from home with your boss before you outright quit your job.

On the other hand, you might be dead set on flexible work. In which case I applaud you.

If you’re not there yet, and instead feel stuck in the 9 to 5, or worse 8 to midnight, then I invite you to take a moment to appreciate where you are right now.

The discipline and speed at which I turn out work is, I think, directly attributable to the habits I formed while in the corporate world. A stringent workplace might not be your end goal, but it sure helps you thrive in a flexible one.

Anna Watson