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  • Writer's pictureGraham Atkinson

Freelance: freedom to choose

Going freelance and setting up my own business has been fantastic; and challenging; and really interesting. So, I thought it was probably a good place to start when thinking about what to write for my first ever blog.

3-months ago I took the leap from full-time employment to being a freelance HR Consultant. I’d considered setting up my own business before but never quite had the courage to take the plunge. My last role was as Director of People, Governance and Performance at NUS – a brilliant organisation to work for, in a role that I thoroughly enjoyed for 5½ years. I knew I was ready for a move though and the time felt right to go for it.

Consultants that I’ve known for years have been overwhelmingly generous with their time and encouragement and, in many ways, it didn’t feel like I was going into the unknown. I’ve received lots of useful advice and words of wisdom. And, of course, the gig economy has been talked about endlessly in the media and HR press over the past few years. Both in terms of the rise of 'precarious' and exploitative contracts as well as growth in 'privileged' freelancers, who enter into this way of working out of choice. According to IPSE (Association of Independent Professionals and Self-Employed) there are now 2m freelancers in the UK (in the latter category), an increase of 43% over the last 8-years. From an organisational perspective, the benefits of contracting are well known - the ability to flex capacity quickly, bring in skills and expertise on a short-term basis and to give focus and impetus to a key project.

Personally, I knew full well I’d be sacrificing security, employment rights and certainty. It’s hard work and there’s more risk – if I’m ill I don’t get paid and I’ve waved goodbye to my pension contributions and other benefits. Likewise, the advantages are well documented. The opportunity to earn more if I secure enough work, the ability to focus on projects where my strengths lie and greater flexibility and control over my work – all being important with a young family. Whilst it’s really early days, so far, things are going well. I’m really enjoying my work, enjoying the new challenge and the bills are getting paid.

There’s some parts of this new chapter that still feel alien and probably will do for a while. It will take a lot of getting used to trying to sell myself to colleagues (and friends) that I’ve known for 15+ years – negotiating over my day rate. Even writing this blog, which will fill a page on my website, is all a little bit uncomfortable.

But in addition to these known quantities there’ve been a couple of positives that I didn’t really expect, because they’re not talked about that much; and I think they’re quite interesting from an organisational development point of view.

I’ve been doing some review and diagnostic work for a number of students’ unions and I submitted my first client report this week. It’s really thorough and a piece of work that I’m proud of. I think it’s a good report, and I hope the client does too! I carried out detailed stakeholder interviews, focus groups, absorbed 1000+ pages of over 40 key documents and did external research and benchmarking – all to inform my analysis and recommendations.

I would say that I can’t remember the last time I had the luxury to give this kind of focus to a project. But I can. It was during my induction period at NUS, when I used my first 100-days to meet every single colleague and develop a new People Strategy - doing it quickly because I knew after that first 3-months I'd be dragged in different directions. That’s not to say I wasn't involved in really successful projects since then, but I do think they've probably always been compromised by other demands on time and resource. I wonder what it says about every workplace if the only time we get to give real focus on an important project is in our first 100-days? Maybe this is just reality in any busy workplace, but I do think there is an interesting theme about how organisations ring-fence or protect time for work on key projects so that they can be delivered to their full potential.

On a related topic, another thing which has happened, that hadn’t even crossed my mind until it occurred, is that I've unexpectedly, and excitingly, been freed from Outlook Purgatory. I’m not copied in to emails just so someone has covered their back. I don’t receive emails with difficult messages that should have been delivered by phone and I don’t get dragged into email debates on situations or conversations that don’t need to involve me. And I feel like I'm much more productive as a result.

I do still get a handful of emails, but they tend to be ones that I want – either from people with enquiries about work, or from people that I’m working with. But, I’m no longer checking emails round the clock to keep on top of them or panicking about the state of my inbox when I get back from holiday.

Again, this is fascinating from an organisational perspective. For a few years, companies have toyed with email free days, and Halton Housing Trust banned emails altogether in 2015. It seems like one of those trends that never really gained traction, but now I've experienced another way, I do think it’s something more employers should give some serious thought to.

This honestly isn't a blog to be smug about the joys of freelancing. As I said at the start - the experience is a combination of risk, hard-work, challenge and fun. It certainly isn't for everyone, but I'm enjoying it so far. And with some of the intended and unintended benefits (for freelancers and organisations), it's not hard to see why some believe that "rising self-employment has been the biggest jobs story of the last decade"

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