- Wise Words -
Why Working As A Freelancer
Is Your Career Bridge
*writer opted for anonymity
We’re in the middle of a health crisis, which has led to an economic crisis which in turn has led to an employment crisis.
The employment crisis affects all of us who are reliant on a job to pay for our lives. We may lose our job and with the current levels of unemployment brought on by the weak and uncertain economy are likely to find it very difficult to secure much by way of a job. Well a permanent job anyway.
So what to do?
Lowering all our expenses and taking care of our physical and mental health should be priority 1(a), applying for jobs and all that associated activity (networking, researching companies, updating our resumes etc, etc) priority 1(b). Trying to get some paid consulting (aka freelancing) work though should be priority 1(c) though.
The most obvious reason is that it can help financially. A less obvious and perhaps even bigger reason is that it keeps us in the game and our skills sharp. We keep engaged with the world of work and when we get that job interview (things will improve... one day!) we will have something to talk about and to demonstrate that we have had some success, even if in a diminished and temporary form.
Another big reason for taking on paid consulting is that it could change the way you work for the better if and when you make it back to full time employment you will be an even more productive employee. If you are a people manager it could also make you a better manager.
In this column I want to highlight how and why consulting for a short period of time (6 to 24 months) could teach you skills that will allow you to be a superb hire when the employment market comes back.
I was unlucky enough to get caught up in the adtech implosion where a promising career in technology went off the tracks when the bubble started to deflate. This would not have been an issue if hiring managers had been able to see that I, like many of my co-workers had transferable skills that could apply to other tech companies (I won’t rant here about the lack of imagination I ran into here!).
I was, though lucky to get a job at a great start-up in the martech space (not really, it was adtech, but we tried to call ourselves martech to get around the adtech malaise.), but as I was overseas (London and the company was headquartered in New York City) I was hired on a consultancy basis.
This was the first time that I worked like this and I didn’t really know how to price myself and negotiate appropriately (more on that in a later column I hope). Despite missing out on a dollar here and there, what I got through this new way of working was a total revamp of how I actually define my effectiveness and the value of what I produce.
Why Consulting Works - As a Worker
When I worked full time for a company and in an office, my day was filled with meetings. Whether for the teams I led or with my manager or many other teams. In many of the meetings where I was an attendee, I learned the bad habits of multi-tasking and checking my email. I learned also to focus on making good and productive points and then scrambling to do actual work when I was out of the meeting.
What I never did though was think at the end of every day, week and pay-period: “Can I justify what I achieved for my pay. Did I provide value in every minute I worked for my employer”.
It was partly as my time was used poorly by every company I have worked for that I developed these habits. Don’t get me wrong, I worked hard and put in very long hours to meet business goals. What I didn’t do though was to ask myself if I was being used in the right way. To ask whether the maximum value for my time was being harvested.
This all changed when I consulted.
Every month I had to invoice my “client” and provide a summary of the work that I completed and how my time was spent. This put pressure on me to prove my value. To prove it on an hourly basis.
This made me focus on being massively efficient and focused on the outputs as opposed to the inputs.
To focus on the outputs and efficiency meant that I stopped multitasking (see more in this column for the importance of focus). I figured out that checking email to see if there was work mail every couple of minutes was just a distraction and unnecessary as there were no emergencies in the work as I was doing. All the constant checking did was shift my concentration from the actual project.
In my purge of multi-tasking I was aided by the fact I was working remotely (even in the days before Covid) and doing this in a different time zone. I was based in the UK and the company that retained my “talent and time” was in NYC, five time zones away. There was of course the curse of being remote and only getting to the office once per quarter, but the gift was that my day was segmented. Instead of dipping in and out of meetings if I had been in the same office and time zone I was able to structure my day for output.
The segmented day meant that I used the first part of it (up until 2:00pm) to focus on the output part of my engagement. This also happened to be when my mind was at its freshest. The afternoons were then spent on people stuff such as team meetings, project discussions, “chat”.
The final piece that really helped me focus on the value I provided was that my contract came up for renewal every 6 months. This is not something I would want to have forever (there are many downsides to consulting/temporary work, to read more on this as well as employment trends try “Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits and Job Security ” by Louis Hyman), but as a lesson learned it’s exceptional. I would have to justify my role and pay for another period of time. This kept me focused. It also made sure I partnered across the organization and with those I would rarely have such as the CFO as I knew she was allocating budget and wanted a return on the resources I consumed.
Why Consulting Works - As a Team Manager
This is a smaller learning, but could have a greater impact on my future employers’ productivity than just the lessons I learned and apply to myself. That is how I use my team members’ time.
When you have someone who is working for you on a full time basis, it can be tempting to view their time as free. Or free-ish. We may occasionally think about the opportunity cost of the meeting we are holding or of the time we are spending on small talk, or the general office distractions that keep us from the “real work”.
The lesson of my consulting “tour” is to really care about the team’s time use so that they can be more productive. This doesn’t mean to not focus on relationships and getting to know people on a human level, but instead on giving people the space to work and be productive and do it in a disciplined way. This is something I “lucked into” by working in London while everyone else was in NYC as I spoke about earlier, but having segments of the day for discrete activities helped maximize my efficiency no end.
How I will apply this with my team is that I will have meeting-free parts of the day that are protected (unless something breaks / a true business emergency) which allow people to focus on their work. If we return to office life post-Covid I will use time and space in a different way.
Gone will be being in the office 5 days per week, but instead my focus will be on having set days for team meetings, collaboration and planning (likely Mondays) as well as end of week wrap ups and reviews, one/ones (likely Fridays to ensure momentum kept into the end of the week), but then giving team members the flexibility to decide where best to complete their work for the remaining 60% of the week, whether at home or in the office. This isn’t an opportunity for people to slack off, but instead the appreciation that being away from the distractions of the office can increase output.
Lesson learned but not loved
Being a consultant is not my career goal. I like being part of a team. I like the greater certainty provided by full time employment. I like being able to build my career. The benefits we get from employers such as healthcare and 401k retirement (or equivalent) match to help fund retirement are very, very important as we are seeing now (writing this in September 2020). The support network of managers and co-workers. Being part of something bigger than me. Even though the career I have chosen is one that does not “save lives”, it does make and fund the lives of other humans as well as me. It has meaning.
As well as the advantages of having a proper job, there are downsides to the consulting life. These downsides were the drivers of some great lessons around productivity. The constant insecurity. The way some people treat you as a second-class worker. The way you have to chase payment for work that ordinarily would have been paid at the end of a pay period.
That said, the lessons I have learned from being a hired gun will stay me, I hope, for the rest of my career and that’s why if you get the chance, when laid off, to get consulting work to jump at it, not just to help provide for you and your family but also to change how you work. To change it for the better.
Epilogue - A Final Call to Appreciate Consultants
Ok, this is a bit self-serving, but for any hiring managers out there who question the value of hiring someone who consulted after they were laid off, please think again and help get these folk back into the workplace and back on a path to career and financial security. The payback for your organization could be significant based on all they have learned about managing their time to maximize their output and results for their business!
Importance of Focus & Output: “The Importance of Focus at Work", "It's Only the Results That Matter”, “Succeed from Home”, “Take Action”
Job Loss: “Breathe. How I dealt with the loss of my job”, “Life after layoffs. How I got back on the career horse”.
Finances: “Preparing for a Downturn”, “Money Management. The Basics”
For more content on Freelancing / Portfolio Careers check out The Portfolio Collective here.