When I worked on a national newspaper, we did long hours (news never sleeps, even if you feel the need to kip yourself). Even so, if I left before silly o’clock I could feel the eyes of colleagues boring into the back of my head as if to say, ‘Knocking off early, lightweight?’ even though I’d already completed the day’s tasks. I eventually overcame this by carefully leaving a jacket or cardigan on the back of my chair so that if someone looked, they may have assumed I’d briefly nipped to the loo…
Things are different now; I’ve been freelancing since 2001 and have left my days of cunning cardigan subterfuge behind me. Not having to justify my presence or absence in an office is definitely one of the major benefits of freelancing, as well as not having to sit in endless, pointless, ‘I think I may have just nodded off temporarily’ meetings (I estimated that 70 per cent of my time was spent in meetings about meetings when I worked on a women’s magazine and I’m still not entirely sure what we achieved. I’m way more productive now).
There’s no doubt about it: the whole concept of ‘being your own boss’ and working from home is deliciously enticing. In all likelihood, your epiphany will come when your nose is wedged in the armpit of a total stranger on a packed Tube during rush hour and all you can think about is tapping away on your laptop on your (odour-free) balcony, wearing your jogging bottoms and with only a flat white for company.
In fact, research just published by Fiverr, who are changing how the world works together, shows that the majority of millennials (25-34 year olds) have already had this zeitgeist moment. Eight out of 10 of them prefer not to work in the office and 67 per cent of them are thinking of quitting their jobs to go freelance. I suspect the same pertains to workers of other ages, too.
However, before you all start handing in your notice in droves, lured by this freelance idyll, you should know that working under your own steam definitely brings its own challenges. For a start, there’s the whole thing about swapping job security for job anxiety (us freelancers frequently talk to each other about ‘feast or famine’, the dichotomy of tearing your hair out from overwork versus tearing your hair out because you think you’ll never work again).
Then, strangely, there’s this: when you go freelance you think you’ll never tire of the calm of working from your home office (or kitchen table). As you sit, drinking your coffee in silence, you start off thinking, ‘Work life doesn’t get much better than this.’ But then, slowly but surely, you begin to miss the buzz, the murmur of life, even the pedestrian ‘Do you want to sign this birthday card?’ interruptions of other people. So what do you do?
Getting into the freelance way of life
If you decide to go freelance, I think you have to organise it so that it works for you, giving you enough peace and quiet to focus yet enough interaction to satisfy the need to get things done without going insane from the loud din of silence. The ability to dictate terms in this way is the thing that makes up for the job insecurity.
Central to this is the whole ‘Where am I physically going to work?’ thing. As someone who is endlessly obsessed about her surroundings, I think work environment, whether fixed or transient, is crucial. When I started freelancing 18 years ago, I sat in my home office and tapped away on a laptop with dial-up internet connection (that’s like the tech equivalent of saying ‘I went to work on a horse and cart then wrote on papyrus’, I know) and worked a full day. It was like work only at home. I always assumed that’s where I’d work and it didn’t occur to me that it could be any other way.
But in that time everything has changed – and I think it’s for the best. I have a desk area at home but I must confess it is filled with junk (is this a metaphor to modern freelance working? I suspect it might just be a sign that I’m a slob) and instead I find myself working in totally different ways, This includes hotdesking (at the office of my ever-bounteous friend Matt, MD of 11-London), coffee shop sessions (I’m not wedded to one), focusing during Soho House stints (that’s where I mainly wrote my book, Shelfie) and, of course, at home – not at the desk, but on the sofa (like right now) or on the kitchen table.
These various places and spaces are a reflection of the varying types of work that I now do. Nearly half of full-time workers (43 per cent) have a side-hustle to make extra income on top of their main job, according to the Fiverr research. This is me: I actually introduce myself as a ‘hustler’ when people ask what I do). The research also shows that 77 per cent of us prefer to work away from the office given the chance. I think this is a reflection of the hustling phenomenon: some of my hustles require utter silence and solitude to accomplish while others are loud, vibrant and feed off the buzz of other people’s chatter and heartbeats.
How to create the perfect freelance space
Here are a few tips that I find help me to be the most productive – as well as the happiest – freelance worker I can possibly be…
Connect with what works for you
Some freelancers love silence and the absence of distractions whereas others crave a ‘buzz’ of working around other people and being able to interact once in a while. If you know what suits you best you can work out how to accomplish it: hot-desking, perm office space or a buzzy coffee shop with a forever changing vista. I use a combination of all of these, depending on if I’m writing a blog, a book or perusing colourful pics for Instagram.
Understand that your workspace needs may fluctuate
This can happen even within the space of a day. You may start off wanting to focus in silence but by midday you’re craving interaction with other people. Your needs will probably depend on a number of variables, from the specific project you’re working on (creative or, say, number-crunching?) to how the headspace you’re in on any given day. Just because you choose a certain space at 10am doesn’t mean you have to stay there. Roll with it – flexibility is king!
Use technology to create your perfect work setting
We all know how platforms such as Skype, social media and email have given us the technology to work wherever we want but it’s possible to fine-tune it further to really personalise your portable workspace. For example, if you want the atmosphere of a coffee shop but without the distractions of the real thing, use an app like Coffitivity which recreates the ambient sounds of a café to boost your creativity and work better. One of the major benefits of freelancing is creating the ultimate work environment to suit your needs rather than the utilitarian approach required by shared office space.
Surround yourself with things that matter to you – like colour!
Research by Dr Chris Knight from Exeter University in 2014 found that if an office doesn’t have any pictures, souvenirs or other distractions in them they become ‘the most toxic space’ you can put humans in. He said that if you put a gorilla into a ‘lean’ cage they are ‘miserable beasties’. Humans, he says, are much the same. Sophie’s Fiverr pod was, I know, filled with objects from her own office space – colourful, inspirational and, I’m sure, an important part of her creative process. I have to have colourful things nearby, including notepads, diaries and Post-It notes. I also have Pantone postcards spread out in front of me because the colours inspire me, no matter what project I’m working on. ‘Things’ that inspire you should be celebrated not stashed away!
Incorporate greenery into your workspace
The same study found that employees became 15 per cent more productive when ‘lean’ workspaces were filled with houseplants. I once read of a study in the Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin that found that people who were shown green before creative challenges came up with the most imaginative and interesting responses (the so-called ‘green effect’). Load your workspace with plants or find a coffee shop with greenery. At the very least, try to look out onto green spaces. Great oxygenating plants include spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) which helps to process environmental pollutants. My Colour File workspace also has brightly coloured flowers in it (today it is gerberas).
Although some of us love solitude, no man (or woman) is truly an island. Freelancing can be liberating and energising but it can also be lonely and enervating, so make sure you have human contact if you’re starting to feel isolated. This could be meeting up with other freelancers or making the most of hot-desking. Understand your own tolerance levels when it comes to working alone and don’t be afraid to admit ‘I’m feeling a bit isolated’. You might just discover that others are in the same boat and would love to connect in order to combat it.
Published 4 July 2019