Freelancing in a pandemic: what are the challenges?

Recently I've been chatting to freelance friends and colleagues about the changes we've noticed in freelance work over the past couple of years. I came back to freelancing in July 2020 after four years in employment, but prior to that I'd worked successfully as a consultant in the museum sector for 13 years so I thought I knew the main benefits and pitfalls. However, things feel very different this time around.

 

The biggest challenge I've experienced with consultancy work over the past year is managing my workload - which normally consists of 6 to 8 projects for different clients - in the face of constantly changing deadlines and time delays. The organisations I work with are under huge pressures and this means that, in many cases, people have struggled to manage the work they’ve commissioned me to do. More than in any previous year I've been faced with deadlines constantly moving, work being postponed and project timelines being stretched. It means I’ve often allocated time to do work that has then not materialised, usually at too short notice to enable me to find something else to fill the gap. I know I'm not the only person worried about this, though I've certainly fared better than colleagues freelancing in live interpretation or visitor facing roles who have found work cancelled at no notice with no hope of it being reinstated in future.

 

Having work postponed and deadlines moved is problematic for freelancers because periods of dead time (often followed by overwork when the rescheduled deadlines all come at once) not only leads to anxiety and stress, it impacts directly on our income. For example, if a client books five days of a freelancer’s time for a piece of work, then delays that work at short notice, the freelancer has lost five working days when they could have been earning an income somewhere else. Assuming the client doesn't compensate the freelancer for that time (and in my experience this never happens), the client is effectively halving the rate they’re paying the freelancer for that piece of work. In practice the freelancer will probably need to replace that lost income, which may mean taking on more work than they can realistically handle at a direct cost to their personal life and wellbeing. The same is true for small businesses like design agencies who have to plan in studio time and staff workload based on their estimate of when work is going to come in from clients. If the work doesn't come in, their staff still have to be paid. 

 

I’m not writing to have a whinge or to blame anyone for this. By and large I work with caring, committed people who are trying their absolute best in very challenging circumstances and I don’t think any one of them is deliberately trying to cause me or other contractors any problems. Projects rarely go exactly according to plan, and one of the skills of freelancing is the ability to work flexibility and respond to changing timescales.  It's something I have always managed to do in the past. In previous years I've managed by replanning my diary and bringing other work forward, but the extent to which delays have happened over the past year means this just hasn't been possible. You can compensate when one project goes off timescale but when half your portfolio goes sideways at once it's a different story.

 

It’s not difficult to see why this problem is increasing. The Centre for Cultural Value at the University of Leeds is leading a research project on the impact of the pandemic on the cultural sector and it makes depressing reading. The Museums Association's redundancy tracker has at the time of writing recorded 4,780 redundancies that can be directly or indirectly attributed to the pandemic. This comes on top of the restructures and redundancies that many organisations had already gone through as a result of austerity politics and declining core funding. The work that those people were doing has in many cases not gone away, it’s just transferred onto the staff that remain. The cultural sector is experiencing the same levels of sickness and self-isolation absence as any other business at the same time as trying to ‘pivot’ (I can’t tell you how much I hate that term) to new business models or develop new services in response to the pandemic. All this contributes to the debilitating level of exhaustion that many people in the cultural sector are feeling. I wrote about this in a previous blog, and the response I had on Twitter, LinkedIn and directly via email made me realise how many people are struggling.  

 

So this is not about special pleading for freelancers. I understand that nobody is deliberately trying to undermine our livelihoods and we're all just doing our best. I've been on the other side of this as a manager in an organisation and I know that circumstances and timescales are not always within your control. However, I do think there is a lack of awareness among people commissioning and managing freelance work of the impact their decisions make on our personal and financial wellbeing.  Naturally, most managers are only thinking about their own project. When they call me about a piece of work that isn't going to happen (or sometimes they're too stressed and overworked to even call me), they probably don't realise that 3 or 4 other people are doing the same thing. 

 

Organisations need to realise that this is a problem for them too, because if this approach to working with freelancers becomes normalised it will translate into higher freelance rates in the long run. Anyone who manages a freelance business has to factor periods of dead time into their overhead cost. There is a cost to freelancers sitting at our desks every day irrespective of whether or not we do any paid work, made up of a wide range of costs that employees don't have to think about because they're covered by the employer: sick pay, holiday pay, insurance, pension contributions, IT equipment and software, accountancy, power, broadband, phone calls, professional subscriptions, training, CPD... the list goes on. It includes unpaid time spent marketing and pitching for work and it has to include time that we set aside for work that doesn't materialise. If these costs go up, so does our overhead - and if we want to stay in business, so, eventually, will our freelance rates.  

 

So what is the solution? This is the part of the blog where I'm supposed to come up with an answer, but I'll admit it isn't obvious. Clearly the way freelancers manage their businesses can be part of the solution: implementing more stringent payment terms; asking for a higher proportion of the fee upfront to support cash flow; even adding clauses into our contracts that specify compensation for last-minute delays that are not our fault. But none of us want to to do this and it doesn't feel like a good starting point for managing relationships that are often long term and always rooted in trust. In researching this piece I found a couple of museum specific guides to working with freelancers - Christina Lister wrote a great guide to working with freelancers for Share Museums East, and there's a similar guide by Museum Freelance for Museums South East - but neither of these address the importance of negotiating changing timescales. Stockton Arts Centre has a policy for the employment of freelancers - the first time I've seen anything like this for any organisation - which does actually specify that 'if delivery circumstances change... we will try and find alternative ways for freelancers to engage in your contracted work and receive payment as planned'. It's great to see the organisation make a commitment to this in writing. The context suggests that this policy primarily applies to freelance delivery staff who work on site for specific hours, rather than those of us who work more flexibly as consultants (I've used the term 'freelancer' to cover both in this article) but nonetheless it's good to see it's there. 

 

Talking about any problem is the first step to taking action, which is the main reason I'm writing this. I'd like a bit more awareness among commissioners and managers of the realities of freelance work and the impact of their decision making on the individual freelancers whose work they clearly value and rely on. This also requires freelancers - and I put my own hand up here - to be more upfront about having difficult conversations with clients and being clear about the level of flexibility we can and can't accommodate. Standing up for myself at the risk of being perceived as 'difficult' or confrontational is something I really struggle with, but being more assertive so that I can set and stick to my own boundaries is definitely on my professional development list for 2022. And it looks like I'm going to have to raise my rates. 

 

I'd love to know what other freelancers - and those who employ them - think about this. Has it been a problem for you in your freelance work, and if so, how do you address it? How do you address changing timescales and delays to projects as a manager of freelancers? Let me know what you think.

 

Photo by 2H Media on Unsplash