Much has been written about the huge shift in working practices that has been accelerated by the events of the past year. There was already a trend towards more people working from home, and of course everything that has happened has forced more people to do this for a period of time, and perhaps more or less permanently in future. (Not everyone, as we know. Nurses, doctors, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, pharmacists, teachers, bus drivers, the people who pick up the recycling, and the list goes on: all of these people do not have the luxury of working from home.)
This post is about how the way I was already running my business helped me cope with the effects of the pandemic. But it also acknowledges that it would have been impossible to be fully prepared.
Already working from home
The fact that I was already set up to work from home, because I’d been doing it full-time since 2008, was of course the best preparation. Working from home in a sustainable way depends on more than having a laptop and a broadband connection. Of course there are many other physical bits and bobs required to do it comfortably: a good desk setup (I have a sit/stand desk from Ikea), ideally more than one screen, and hopefully a place, however small, that can be dedicated to work so that it can be packed away or the door closed on it at the end of the working day. Beyond the things you can shop for, there is the necessary companionship and support network to be nurtured, and this can take time to build from scratch. When I first went freelance I was still thinking like a person on leave from the office, in close and regular contact with many of my friends and colleagues from my most recent job. It took me a while to look beyond that, to a community of other freelancers and editors employed elsewhere, which I found through involvement with the CIEP.
So when the world first shut down last year (in March in the UK), I was ready in that sense. It seemed that nothing would need to change in my working setup, at least. I might have started to feel a bit smug, had I not been so worried. But this assumption that nothing need change would have been an oversimplification. What this attitude overlooks is the fact that successful working from home depends on fitting into a larger system, a world outside the home that is to some extent predictable. For example, if you have school-age children, working from home depends on them being out of the house and someone else’s problem (and being taught!) for a large chunk of the working week. Long-term working from home while maintaining good mental health is also supported by the ability to get out of the house and do other things – random walks and drives, meeting friends, cultural activities, day trips, short breaks and holidays. Both of these things, which I personally would usually rely on to function well at work, have not been guaranteed, and have sometimes not been available at all.
Living with uncertainty
One thing you gradually come to terms with as a small business owner is ongoing uncertainty. I’m not sure the nagging worry that everything will come crashing down ever entirely vanishes, but over time it becomes just one of the many competing voices in your head, and you do reach a point where it is possible to suppress it and move on with everything else there is to be done. But as with the homeworking setup, regular freelancing uncertainty is manageable because it exists in the context of many other structures and events that are more predictable. Clients operating as normal, most of the time. Not being on constant high alert to the prospect of bad news. The world outside the front door continuing to change so gradually that most of the time it appears as we have always known it.
No matter how much uncertainty I had dealt with up until 2020, nothing could have fully prepared me or anyone else for what has been happening. As I write from my dining room table in the UK, we are living in lockdown again, and we don’t know how long for. The vaccine is being rolled out, and the government assures me that this will fix everything, but then the government has assured me of various things that have not come to pass. We shall see.
Since 2008 I have been dependent on myself for financial survival. Although this can be a source of stress, it also gives me a lot of satisfaction. No one can make my business viable but me, and so if it goes well, I can take the credit. I’ve made peace with operating largely alone, even if with a supportive partner and family and a wider network of friends and work colleagues, and turned it into a strength. I am proud of what I’ve done, and I should be.
But this success story has a darker side, too. As we are encouraged globally to retreat into our homes and our bubbles, to turn inwards, this lays bare (while conveniently concealing) how vulnerable we really all are. What happens if you reach a point where you can’t support yourself, in the short or long term? Where do you turn if conditions are intolerable? Will anyone notice or be able to help? Sometimes I feel that by participating in the cult of the individual to the extent that I have, I have really been colluding with a system that wants us all to believe we rise or fall entirely on our own merits, or the lack of, and there’s nothing more to it than that. Right now, everything that has happened and is still happening makes clear that there are forces acting on us that are greater than the individual could ever hope to withstand. We shouldn’t ever have to feel that we can always cope, no matter what, and that if we can’t it is a personal failure. We shouldn’t have to feel alone.
Finding new opportunities
No one knows quite what’s going to happen to the economy and the working environment in future, though much of it hasn’t been good so far, and it has been disproportionately catastrophic for certain industries. As a freelancer, I have learned to diversify and spread risk to mitigate against lines of work shutting down with no warning. This has happened to me within the last year – some of the work I had been doing with a particular client slowed down dramatically and then stopped. For a while I was extremely worried about this, but then I decided instead to pour the energy I was spending worrying into chasing new leads and connecting with other regular clients, and in some ways this was a valuable wake-up call. It’s never good to become too dependent on a particular income stream.
I hesitate to attempt to put a positive spin on such a collectively traumatic event as the pandemic, but I suppose I am grateful for the way it made me focus on my business. I wrote recently about my rebranding process, and I’m not sure I would have made the push to do it at all had I not been made hyper-aware of the need to stay relevant and keep marketing myself. What has happened to all of us, and is still happening, will take a long time to fully come to terms with. Maybe years. Decades, even. But it is some comfort to know that while it can seem that everything is falling apart at once, other things go on. It has long been necessary for me to take some things a day at a time, to accept that I can’t fully map out what will happen with my work – and that can bring positive change and resilience as well as anxiety and fear.