by Stephanie Heying Bach
Despite the struggle to overcome U.S. unemployment figures, many companies are still undergoing major changes in workforce planning and management. Layoffs and reorganizations are still very real – even within those companies who had hoped to maintain workforce status quo and weather the storm.
Company cultures are changing, as well, and many companies have scaled back on the number and types of employee benefits offered, special perks and employee bonuses and rewards. In many companies, job responsibilities and workloads have shifted to accommodate lost headcount, and often, remaining work teams are expected to meet the same production levels with fewer resources. These changes may give even the gainfully employed among us a moment’s pause to consider how well ‘traditional’ employment meets our needs during these difficult times.
Perhaps you are dreaming of having more flexibility to spend time with your family, care for an aging parent or dedicate more time to a hobby or personal goal. Contract employment can seem like the golden solution to sudden job loss, salary cuts and increasing dissatisfaction with full-time employment, while providing necessarily balance to help you meet other needs. While it is true that contract employment can be the perfect fit for many, it may not be the answer to everything. Before you decide, here’s the real truth about taking the leap:
- Be prepared to wear many hats—accountant, bookkeeper, sales manager, historian—at the same time. While some freelancers and contract consultants hire an accountant to manage invoices, billing and taxable income, most of us, at least initially, handle these tasks ourselves. Depending on how many clients you have, projects you accept and hours you work, bookkeeping can take a significant amount of time each week or month. Likewise, consider the amount of time you will need to dedicate to landing new clients or projects, marketing and networking and even archiving your work. All of these are critical to keeping your business afloat, and each takes time away from ‘billable’ hours.
- Flex time can be both a blessing and a challenge. While contract consulting can allow you the flexibility to manage your own schedule and working hours, it may not be as easy as you think to establish and stick to a work schedule. Clients often expect your availability and flexibility to meet deadlines, attend meetings or meet other expectations. For some consultants, contract work ebbs and flows as client budgets are approved or fiscal year cycles turn over. Billable hours may vary widely from week or month to month and it can be tempting to take on more projects during flush times to make up for leaner periods.
- The lines between work and life will begin to blur. Especially for consultants who work from home, life and work have a way of creeping into each other. At first it might be as simple as throwing in a load of laundry before a conference call. Over time, the separation may become more difficult. Establishing these boundaries is important, however, and you may need to consider how well equipped you are to aid this separation. Some of us find working from home is simply not all it is cracked up to be, and do better in a more structured environment. You may want to consider renting office space or ‘hoteling’ with other consultants like you in a common office.
- Access to resources will change. If you are used to working in a corporate office environment, with access to common resources such as IT support, HR benefit representatives, payroll departments, administrative assistants, and tools such as computer software and templates, you may be in for a rude awakening. Self-service is the name of the game for freelance consultants and you will need to consider how well you are able to offer your expertise or services without the common resources you had available to you within the corporate environment.
- You will need to protect yourself. Insurance, contracts, statements of work and other legal and financial concerns may seem a bit foreign to you depending on your area of expertise. An important consideration to working as a contractor is knowing whether and how much protection you have with regard to the products of your work and the obligations you have to serve your clients. Obtaining a general liability insurance policy, incorporating yourself and/or drafting a standard contract or statement of work that has been reviewed by an attorney is good business practice and may protect you in the rare instance of legal concern.
Ask yourself: How flexible am I in my ability to toggle between tasks? How well am I able to multi-task? What kind of a network do I have today? What kind of network would I like to have? What resources or tools are available to me as I take on these different roles? The more positively you are able to answer questions like these, the more prepared you will be to take the leap.
Kerri McClimen has been a freelance Public Relations consultant in Chicago, IL for three years. She left a Director of Communications position at Fannie Mae after 11 years. She notes, “The first year I broke even ..to keep things status quo. The second year I had too many clients and worked my summer away while my kids played at camp and the beach and with friends. This year, number three, I’m trying to learn balance. I’ve dropped clients. I’ve said “no” to new opportunities (which is HARD to do!)…I pick and choose.”
Ask yourself: How important is it more me to have a set work schedule and dedicated working hours? How much flexibility do I have outside those hours? How will I balance the lean times with the flush?
Ask yourself: Where will I do my work? Do I have a place I can designate as my work space that is separate from my life space? How will I handle potential interruptions to my work? How important is it to have separate phone lines, email accounts or other communication tools available to my clients? Can I stay more focused in a structured environment? How much will I miss the camaraderie of an office surround?
Ask yourself: Am I equipped with the tools I need to offer my services? What resources will I no longer have access to? How will I compensate for these?
Ask yourself: How well can I protect myself from possible breach of contract or other legal concern? To what degree will I be personally liable for my work? What requirements might my clients have of me as related to legal protection?
Although there is much to consider when making the decision—and the leap—life as a freelancer can be altogether satisfying and may open the door to opportunities you never dreamed you might have. As McClimen states, ‘I love the life of a consultant. I love starting my day and ending it when it works for my family’s schedule. I also know that…there is no end to the day. No one is giving (me) a bonus at the end of the year, or ranking (me) for a raise. So far, consulting has afforded me (professional) success… after the last teacher-parent conferences, I’d say my kids are (my success) too!’
Stephanie Heying Bach is an accomplished professional with over 15 years of business and consulting experience, including: Web site development strategy, Web content strategy, Web content management and systems, Web marketing, usability testing, focus group facilitation, copywriting /editing, editorial planning, client/ project management, retail management and sales. Stephanie has an MS degree in Communication Science from Northwestern University. Contact Stephanie at stephanieheyingbach.net.