I first became a museum consultant in 2004 and loved it from the start. I thrived on the freedom and flexibility of freelance life and couldn’t imagine tying my working life to an organisation’s agenda again. I started to joke about being unemployable. I really believed it was true.
However, as time went on, I realised that some of the things I wanted to do in my career were likely to be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve through freelance work. After 13 years as a museum consultant I finally went back into an employed role as the founding director of the Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre, based at the University of Huddersfield. However, that shift didn’t happen overnight. Here’s my rough guide to making the move from long-term freelancing into employment.
1. Know your motivations
It’s worth spending some time unpicking your motivations for stopping freelance work. This will give you the confidence to know whether a shift back to employment is the right option and help you identify the right role.
For me it was a combination of factors. I’d started to feel stuck in a rut with the kind of projects I was being offered. I was tired of chasing contracts and doing work I wasn’t really passionate about. After having my daughter, I struggled to balance self employment with family life. However, these factors could have been addressed if I’d thought about my business in a different way. I finally realised that what I was missing was the opportunity to take responsibility for a big interpretation project and to carry it through from start to finish. My freelance work in project development and fundraising often meant I finished working on new developments just as they started to get interesting. I wanted to be the person to see the work through and to be able to influence an organisation’s direction from the inside.
2. Identify your skills gaps
Once you have an idea of the kind of work you want to do, spend some time researching potential roles to find out what employers are looking for. What skills and experience do they need?
The skills you develop as a freelancer make you a very desirable employee. We embody the entrepreneurial mindset that so many heritage organisations aspire to. However, in some areas it’s harder to demonstrate relevant skills if you’ve been self-employed for a long time. I was aiming for senior roles and realised I’d have to work hard to convince potential employers of my management skills. This isn’t because I didn’t have them – as a freelancer I manage people, time and resources constantly – but I couldn’t demonstrate recent line management experience within an organisation. In a competitive jobs market I knew I’d be up against plenty of people who could. This meant I had to be proactive in working on that skill set through the kinds of freelance roles I sought out.
Figure out where your gaps are in relation to the kind of role you want, and work to address them through training, mentoring, even voluntary work outside the sector. Part time jobs and maternity cover roles are a great way for freelancers to dip a toe in the water of employment and find out whether it’s for you.
3. Do your due diligence on potential employers.
This may sound like an odd thing to say in an employers’ market when competition for good jobs is fierce. But if you’re going to give up your freelance business, even temporarily, you need to know it’s going to be worthwhile. Is this organisation worthy of you? Is this job worth giving up your freedom for?
Do your homework on potential employers. Policies and public statements don’t always represent the reality of working in an organisation and this is where all that networking you do as a freelancer proves invaluable. Start asking around. What’s the organisation’s reputation? What do current employees actually say?
4. Be persistent
It might take a while to find the right role. Don’t give up. Use your networks and the insight from your freelance work to find out when interesting roles are likely to appear. There’s plenty of job-hunting guidance out there, and your freelance resilience will stand you in good stead.
5. Plan for a smooth transition
So you’re about to start your new job. But what about your business? What you do will depend on whether you plan a permanent move away from freelancing. Either way, these are some of the things you’ll need to consider.
Telling HMRC: you must notify HMRC if you’ve stopped trading as a sole trader or if you’re ending or leaving a business partnership. If you trade through a limited company you have options – you can close a company completely or let it become ‘dormant’, though in this case you’ll still have to submit annual accounts and a confirmation statement to Companies House. Check the latest official guidance – and don’t forget to submit your final tax return.
Telling your clients: think ahead about what you’re going to tell them and when. I kept quiet until the ink was dry on the employment contract as I was anxious about giving up work and then the whole thing falling through. I was able to complete some contracts before I started my job but in other cases I planned how I was going to support clients where I had to give notice on a project. Can you recommend another freelancer with a similar skill set to you? Is the project in good order to hand over? Treating people how you’d want to be treated in similar circumstances is a good rule of thumb.
Your website: will you keep it live, or take it down? Can you repurpose the content to maintain your professional profile, perhaps through a blog or on your LinkedIn profiles? Plan time to update your online profiles, and check your new employer’s policy on personal social media use.
Insurance: take advice from your insurer about how long to wait before cancelling your policies. As an employee you’ll be covered by your employer’ public liability cover but you may need to keep professional indemnity in place a while longer, depending on your contracts with clients.
Your finances: decide what you’re going to do about your business account and whether you’ll continue paying into a personal pension if you’ve got one. Remember you’ll receive a tax and NI bill after submitting your final tax return, so don’t raid your self-employed savings account just yet.
As for me, I achieved what I wanted to do – I led the creation of the Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre from scratch and managed its first 18 months of operation. After three years in employment I went back to freelancing towards the end of last year, having realised that self employment really is my spiritual home. I found it a lot simpler making the switch back the other way and I'm really enjoying bringing the skills and insights I gained in the job to a new portfolio of work.
This post was first published by Museum Freelance in March 2021.