I can’t tell you how much I enjoy working from home. But there is one thing that really bugs me about my chosen career.
It isn’t the freedom to make my own choices about my time. It isn’t the unlimited aspiration and ambition I have. Can’t complain about the opportunities to travel, meet new people, have a balanced life, pick up new ideas and ways of doing things.
No, I am a very happy camper except in one important respect. Often, the problems appear when I attend a networking event or even a social occasion. The fact I work from home gives people carte blanche to be rude, nosy, interfering or downright insulting.
For instance, I recently attended a work event whereupon I bumped into an acquaintance who has been employed full-time at a publication for a long time. After a mutual contact of ours asked me about my job, she asked this acquaintance whether she would ever go freelance. “Oh no, I could never make it work. I’ve got to earn a living.”
I wondered whether she had spotted that I wasn’t exactly wearing filthy rags and gobbling down the canapés in a ravenous desire for food. She didn’t seem to take into account that I was dressed, had managed to brush my hair and had scraped together enough coppers for the tube fare to this event – how did I manage, given the sheer penury that must blight my existence?
She seemed to be unaware that – right in front of her – was someone patently making it work. She could not get past her own prejudices and fears about the self-employed route. This wouldn’t really bug me if she was perfectly happy in her own career choices. But she wasn’t. “I don’t find this occupation very interesting at all,” she later told me. When discussing someone who had managed to write a book in their spare time, she said: “Oh no, I could never do that. Apart from going to the gym, I’m too tired to do anything else with my spare time.”
I was a bit shocked. Call me naïve but to give most of your working life, energy and vigour to a career you don’t even like seems a crying shame. A tragedy even. Perhaps this lady would be happier if she dropped her misconceptions and chose a new path in life. But I suspect she won’t.
Another lady said: “It would do you good to go back into a fulltime job and do a minimum of two years.” Really? How on earth would you what’s best for me? Another common question is “do you get lonely?” (If I have to hear the word ‘camaraderie’ in connection to working in an office, I will go bananas.)
To be fair, these views are the norm. I have often been asked if I’m getting enough work (euphemism for “do I earn enough money?”). And boy it’s a boring conversation to list all the projects you’re working on when someone asks “who are you writing for?”
Funnily enough, reciting one’s CV is not like seeing Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet. It’s simply an exercise in ‘proving’ to a perfect stranger that yes you’re working and yes it’s enough and yes you’ve made a choice to do it (which is met with an expression more suited to the admission that you’ve married your cat).
Of course, none of this is worth taking seriously. Most freelancers should prove they are happy and confident in what they do by refusing to give this nonsense any oxygen. My favourite pub name in London is the “Live and Let Live” – for good reason.
I just wish we could get past these kinds of conversation today, stop trying to put people in conventional boxes and define them by the work they do. Even on Linkedin, it’s impossible to construct a proper work profile if you can’t list a series of organisations and the years you worked at them. How backwards is that?
It doesn’t help that programmes such as Radio 4’s The New Workplace paints a very prosaic and one-sided picture of people who work from home. You can tell these programmes are made by people in full-time jobs. I’m not ageist but it’s fair to say that presenter Michael Robinson is not exactly in the first flush of youth. He doesn’t exactly sound like he’s on the button when it comes to exciting new technological and business opportunities. But that’s the problem when it’s down to more “educational” stations, dominated by the older generation, to discuss subjects that affect people of all ages.
The statements of the bleeding obvious come thick and fast – like the fact that you don’t get a workplace pension if you work from home (gosh! shock horror! I’m getting down the Job Centre pronto!)
But there was also a relentless focus on falling pay for the typical freelancer and lack of benefits in the programme. As if pay should be the consideration above all others. How depressing. What kind of message does that send to the next generation (or indeed those misinformed work acquaintances of mine)?
With that kind of attitude, it’s a wonder that anyone takes a risk today. We will all be too worried about how much we can take from an employer or the state, rather than what we can give back.
The point is that clever entrepreneurs are in it for the long haul. They know it will take years, they may lose money, they may even see their business go bust several times. But the truly resilient always come through and are highly fulfilled as a result.
Besides, I can tell you a thing or two about the costs of full-time working. When you tot up the commuting and the need to live near work in places like London, where expensive rented accommodation eats up most pay packets, the amount left after tax and auto enrolment quickly gets spent on frantic recreational activities. How else do you compensate for the lack of time and choice often associated with full-time jobs?
This isn’t always the case of course. But unlike my work acquaintances who have never experienced freelance life, I know what the other side of the fence is like. I know which I prefer.