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split clock

One of the much vaunted advantages of working freelance is that you are supposed to have the flexibility to choose your own working hours. But does it work in reality? Well… in a manner of speaking…

Certainly, as a freelancer, you can decide how, when and where you want to work – but there’s the small matter of making sure you’re accessible to clients when they need you. When I started out as a freelance translator over 25 years ago, I only worked part-time, and indeed continued to do so until my boys were well into their secondary school education. I loved the flexibility of working when it suited me (or more likely, when the children were otherwise engaged/asleep/at school!) and the few clients I had in the early years were well aware of my situation so the flexible hours were a positive boon. I also loved the fact that, if push came to shove, I could catch up in the evening or at the weekend when my then husband was able to take over the childcare. However, my priority was always the children and with another breadwinner in the house, the money I earned, though extremely useful, was always the icing on the cake.

Yet once I was working full-time and, post-divorce, the sole breadwinner, I realised that all the flexible hours I’d enjoyed as a part-time mum / part-time translator were no longer practical if I wanted to be regarded as a serious professional. Clients expect you to be there in normal office hours, i.e. 9 ‘til 5 in the UK. One by one, my regular daytime activities of dance, tennis and yoga have fallen by the wayside, as leaving the office for a regular class week in, week out, was counter-productive and frustrating for clients. (I hasten to add that I’ve moved to evening pursuits instead – time for yourself is sacrosanct in my book!) By the time I’d driven to a class, enjoyed an hour and a half of whatever activity it was, driven home, showered and walked the dogs, I used to find that the whole morning had gone and inevitably that was the time that clients had called/e-mailed/faxed with urgent jobs – and subsequently gone elsewhere….

In theory, yes, we can all be accessible wherever we are nowadays with the advent of smart phones, but in practice are you really going to check your e-mail in the middle of a tennis match or a particularly strenuous yoga routine (and why would you want to anyway? The whole point of doing sport is to relax and NOT think about work!)? I also have the added inconvenience that I live out in the sticks (if 50 miles from London classes as such!) and mobile reception round here is intermittent to say the least. On a number of occasions recently I’ve been walking the dogs, only to realise that I’ve received an e-mail offering a juicy piece of work, but was then unable to reply as I no longer had signal. On arriving home 30 minutes later, the job had gone to someone else because I hadn’t responded fast enough, which is extremely frustrating. To be fair, most of my clients know that I have dogs and do normally wait up to an hour to give me chance to reply, but this one obviously couldn’t wait. Unfortunately dog-walking is a non-negotiable part of my working day, but I’m rarely out for more than an hour and that is definitely part of my particular flexible package.

That’s not to say I don’t take time off as and when it suits me. If I’m going to be out of the office for a whole day or more, I always try and let clients know, so they don’t call in vain. Again, these days, you can usually pick up e-mails even if you’re away from the office, but it seems only courteous to let customers know. I also try not to work at weekends, but the beauty of our freelance existence is that you can decide to catch up at weekends if you really need to – or even if a particularly damp, dark weekend beckons at this time of year and you’d actually rather be working than doing anything else!

I suppose, in an ideal world, as a translator catering for the European market, I should really get up an hour earlier so I could be accessible to foreign clients working an hour ahead. Being a night owl, however, that really isn’t going to happen and sometimes you just have to work with your strengths! My European clients are fully aware that they are unlikely to get a response from me until 9 o’clock in the morning. At the other end of the spectrum, living alone and loving my job means that I am often to be found working into the early hours if I want to get ahead with whatever I’m working on – and this can be advantageous if you work with clients or colleagues in very different time zones. It’s also a great time to work in the knowledge that you are unlikely to be interrupted – or distracted by pressing jobs in the garden or a lovely sunny day (hard though that might be to imagine in these gloomy December days…).

nocturnal translators

So yes, in theory, it is up to us when we work, but if you want to maximise your potential, you have to cater to the best times to suit your clients too – and to make the most of your own most productive times, of course. I’d love to hear others’ views too – perhaps you have managed to squeeze your working day into a few hours, or just work as and when it suits? Each to their own, I suppose.