I loved self employment from the start. It's 13 years since I made the leap from employee to self-employed, and for most of that time I thought I would never go back. I used to joke that self employment had made me unemployable. I think I believed it was true.
Recently, though, I began to realise that there were things I wanted to do in my career that weren't going to be possible as an independent consultant, and while I never stopped enjoying self employment (and I never stopped being busy) I began to plan for the shift back. Six months ago I started a new, employed role as director of a new Holocaust Heritage and Learning Centre based at the University of Huddersfield. I've been pondering work and self-employment a lot over the past few months. These are some of the things I've learned.
1. Self employment is not necessarily more flexible than having a job.
One piece of received wisdom about self employment is that it's more flexible than being employed. You can choose your own working hours; take holidays when you want; have a day off when you like; work from a cafe or park bench or beach or pub and be back in time for the school run. And yes, to some extent those things are true. However self employed people still need to keep their clients happy and for many of us that means keeping the same working hours as the people we work with and, practically speaking, I always found it better to work from my dedicated office at home with the right facilities and equipment rather than float about with a latte and a laptop, however glamorous that might sound. Holidays need to be planned for, both financially and in terms of workload, and for many self employed people a day off is a luxury they can little afford.
Which brings me to the alternative. I am lucky as an employee to have a boss who doesn't mind whether I work from the office, from home, in a cafe or library or train or anywhere else as long as I'm productive. I'm judged on my results, not on the hours I put in, which is not dissimilar to when I was self employed. I haven't (so far) been refused time off and I actually feel less guilty having holidays because I'm entitled to my annual leave. I can set the out of office with a clear conscience, rather than wondering if the one golden opportunity I've been waiting my freelance life for is going to languish in my inbox unread for the duration of my wet fortnight in Wales.
I'm being flippant, of course, but I'm discovering that the distinction between freelance and employed life is not so clear cut. Much depends on your preferred working habits and the flexibility of your organisation - and perhaps your ability to negotiate - but in my experience of museums, workplace flexibility is what you make it.
2. Self employment doesn't have to be more uncertain than being an employee.
Whenever I told people I was self employed the conversation quickly turned to uncertainty. Isn't it a constant worry having to find new work? How do you stay busy? How do you cope without a regular income? All valid questions, and all ones I've addressed elsewhere on this blog.
Personally I have never felt that freelance work was less secure than employment. Any job is only ever as secure as your notice period, or your employer's financial situation, which in museums can be precarious at best. I've worked in museums for 20 years and until six months ago I'd never had a permanent job. Of the two employment contracts I had before I went self-employed, I was made redundant from the first, and when redundancy was mooted less than a year into my next job I opted to jump before I was pushed. That's when I started my own business and I never looked back. I can honestly say that in 13 years of consultancy I've never been under-employed. Something's always come up - it might not have been what I thought I was looking for but every single contract has developed my skill set and taught me something new.
3. Self employment doesn't have to be lonely
This is something else I was often asked when I worked freelance. "Don't you get lonely working on your own all the time?". Well yes, I probably would, but in reality my working life wasn't like that. Yes, there are days when you have deadlines to meet and there is no alternative to putting in a solid eight hours at your desk. But there are many other days spent in client meetings, in pitches, at conferences and networking events, doing CPD, and in the company of great colleagues. It's all about how you plan your time. For me collaboration was key to happy and successful freelance working. Some of my favourite and probably most successful projects have been those where I've put together a team of people with different strengths and expertise and we've worked together to deliver a piece of work that none of us could have tackled alone. It's very satisfying, and it isn't lonely at all.
4. Self employment doesn't always give you more control
This is a tricky one, and links to my earlier point about flexibility. Part of what I loved about self employment was the feeling of being more in control of my own destiny. I could work when I wanted to, within the confines of deadlines and client expectations. I could take time off when I needed, as long as I got my work completed on time. I could do whatever CPD I wanted, provided I could afford both the cost of attendance and loss of income. I didn't have to do work I didn't like - except when I was worried about paying the bills. And therein lie many contradictions.
Sometimes self employment only gives the illusion of control. I always tried to have a business plan, even if it was only jotted down in a notebook and consisted of a set of ambitions and a sketch map of how I planned to achieve them. However, it can be difficult to stick to a plan, particularly when (as now) times are more challenging and freelance competiton is fierce. It's less risky in the short term to take the work that's available instead of holding out for project that's challenging and moves you forward in your career, or making opportunties for yourself. But in the long term the danger is you stop developing, stop feeling in control of your destiny and become dissatisfied and demotivated. Being able to take a day off without asking permission seems small compensation when you're mired in half a dozen projects you don't much like.
Now that I'm in employment I don't feel any less in control than I was as a self employed person. That's partly because I'm in a job where I have quite a lot of decisionmaking capacity and control over my organisation's direction. It's also because I have a good manager who will, within reason, support me to achieve my development goals. But it's also perhaps because I have one big project to get stuck into and a clear direction for the next few years. I'm relieved to be free of much of the day to day administrative effort of running a freelance business, and also the challenge of constantly having to keep up a flow of work. There are fewer variables to be responsible for, which has given a sense of greater security - and yes, perhaps more control. Another paradox!
I'd love to know what other museum freelancers make of these thoughts and whether you've grappled with similar issues in your own working life. Please do comment below or in your own corner of the internet.