Working nine to five…

Chris Gibson  —  May 16, 2012 — 3 Comments

… what a way to make a living.

I’ve been struck recently by the number of people in our Twitter stream who appear to be working ludicrous hours — up at six, still working at ten, and carrying on throughout weekends and holidays. For example…

@[removed] Are you about to have a horrible horrible night to finish off the horrible horrible day, like me?

Meh, fell asleep at the keys in the early hours manually adding content to CMS which resulted in me sleeping on the floor.

Edging ever closer to being the only Freelancer left in Manchester. I never liked sleep anyway.

* I must stress here that these are tweets from people I respect and admire, and this isn’t meant as a criticism; they simply serve to illustrate the point I’m trying to make.

I’m also frequently told by clients that they’re so busy that they’ve been working eleven-hour days, going into the office on their days off and so on.

It seems to me that there’s a mentality — especially in the media industry — that says that working long hours is somehow a necessary part of the job, that it’s even something to be proud of. Designers and developers enjoy moaning about it, attempting to outdo each other in the style of the Four Yorkshiremen. Project Managers will cheerfully shout, “Come on, guys! Let’s do a late one! Beers and pizza are on me!“, usually before going home and leaving everyone else to it.

Here’s the thing. Working long hours does not prove your commitment, or even reflect the effort you’re putting in. Working until three in the morning does not (necessarily) make you an invaluable member of the team, and it shouldn’t in itself earn you any kudos. A normal, working day should be long enough to get all your work done. If it isn’t, then you’re not managing your time properly — or, you’re not managing the expectations of your clients or colleagues.

The way we do things:

When I switched from being “Chris Gibson the freelancer” to operating as a micro-agency, one of the changes I made was to put fixed office hours in place. Outside those hours, I don’t answer the phone (I have a fixed office line, rather than a work mobile) and I very rarely even check emails. If I do check emails, I don’t reply out of hours unless absolutely necessary; instead, I might draft a reply and schedule it to be sent in the morning.

This emphasises the fact that we operate as a company, rather than as a guy in his bedroom working until three in the morning. If clients really want someone to work until three in the morning, well — there are people who are prepared to do that. It’s just not what we offer.

The important thing — and the gist of this post — is that as a freelancer, or indeed as a company, you define the hours that you want to work. If that’s twenty hours a day, through weekends and holidays, that’s great. However, if you’re working these hours under duress, and if you’re not making a small fortune by doing so, you need to ask yourself why.

OK, I know what you’re thinking.

“Nonsense. You can’t run a business in this industry working 9 to 5.”

Well, I do, and it does very well.

“But – my client has just told me that they need something tomorrow!”

This is unlikely. Clients rarely need something tomorrow — they want it, as soon as possible. If they ask, and you say yes, then they’ll obviously be delighted. However, if you point out that tomorrow is unrealistic, but that you can schedule the work in for later in the week, I can guarantee that they’ll be equally happy.

Ultimately, if something is genuinely needed for Wednesday, then being asked for it on Tuesday afternoon isn’t good enough. In fact, compensating for such poor planning by working until midnight is not exactly going to discourage the client from making the same mistake again.

This isn’t a case of penalising a client, or being difficult — after all, we’re all in the business of keeping clients happy. However,  it is important to set realistic expectations on all sides.

“But – if my client asks for something, and I say no, they’ll…”

They’ll what? Never send any more work your way? Again, that’s unlikely. If you deliver high quality work, on time, clients will want you to work for them again. Skilled, reliable freelancers are in very short supply. The important thing is to work with the client to make sure that your schedules are realistic.

“But – I’ve got so much work on. Eight hours a day just isn’t enough!”

Granted, this will sometimes happen. But if it’s happening consistently, then you’re taking on too much work, or you’re underestimating how long the work will take. If Client A wants a website that will take eight days, and Client B wants a website that will take twelve days, then committing to deliver both websites within three weeks is a mistake.

Likewise, convincing yourself that you can deliver Client A’s site in six days, if you work really really fast, is also delusional. An eight day job is an eight day job, and that is defined by the number of normal working days that it will take to carry out. An eight day job does not magically become a six day job because you, or the client, have only allocated six days in which to complete it.

Again, clients need to know when work will be completed, and they need you to stick to those dates. In this example, telling both clients that their websites would be ready within four weeks will be perfectly acceptable, and you’ll have allowed yourself normal working hours.

“But – I need the money! I need to get as much work done as possible!”

Then you’re not charging enough. Your rates should be high enough to generate sufficient profit, while working a standard working week. If you have to work massive amounts of overtime in order to keep the business afloat, your rates are too low.

And if you’re working for the Man…?

I originally jotted down some similar reasons why people in full-time employment work late. Ultimately, though… that’s honestly not my area. If you really want to work for someone else, then at the end of the day, you might have to do what you’re told. If that involves working long hours, then maybe you’ll feel obliged. When I last had a salaried job, I certainly put in my fair share of late nights.

Running a business, though, has taught me the value of time. Even in a full-time job, you’re selling your time to your employer. More importantly, you’re selling your contracted hours to your employer. If you work late nights and weekends, you’re working for free — and the purpose of working, after all, is to earn money.

If you really think that in the long-run, working late will benefit you financially, well — maybe it will. Maybe. As with freelance work, though, the people who make it to the top are the usually the people who produce the best work.

Look at it like this, though. Are senior management going to look at you and think, “Wow, he puts the hours in. He deserves a promotion!“. Or, are they going to say, “That guy is working a 60 hour week, and his department is churning through a load of work as a result. Let’s leave him where he is — if we promote him, we’ll have to replace him with two new members of staff“.

If it’s your company, you decide when to work.

This is one of the most important lessons I have learnt over the past few years, and it’s the lesson I’m trying to pass on here. You decide when you want to work, and what business hours you keep, and it’s up to you to enforce this. If a client wants someone who works weekends, maybe — just maybe — you’re not that person, and they should find someone who is.

Too many freelancers I know seem to be working crazy hours, when they really don’t want to — and if working for yourself isn’t making you happy, and you don’t feel as though you’re in control, you’re not doing it properly.

I’ll finish by quoting another tweet I spotted recently:

In the world of freelance, apparently neither family weddings nor family funerals are acceptable reasons for a couple of days out.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the person who wrote this. They were clearly in a difficult position, and we’ve all been there. Working for yourself isn’t easy, and frequently involves a lot of pressure and a lot of stress.

At the end of the day, though, both family weddings and family funerals are, quite clearly, acceptable reasons for a couple of days out. In fact, whatever your company decides is acceptable, is acceptable. If your client disagrees, and they want someone who (for example) will work rather than attend a funeral, then you’re simply not a good fit for each other. They need a new freelancer, and you need a new client.

Chris Gibson

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3 responses to Working nine to five…

  1. Some really valid points that I totally agree with. I’ve done some long hours on occasion but I’ve always been strict in working to fixed hours so I can balance work and life and it’s always worked well for me and it’s something we do @offroadcode too as we don’t feel working 12 hour days is productive and as you mention, can be indicative of poor planning, taking on too much etc.

    In my freelancing years no client has ever expected me to work long hours (partly because I define overtime clearly in my contracts and charge accordingly) and nobody’s ever complained.

    James.
    @welcomebrand

  2. I’m a freelance account planner. I had a meeting with an agency I haven’t worked for before the other week and they seemed to have real trouble getting their head around the idea that I try to work 4.5 days a week (on average) so I have time to enjoy my family, friends and time consuming hobby. This perception problem said a lot to me about agency cultures in general and this agency in particular.

  3. Great article Chris.
    I refuse to be called a freelancer, mainly because I don’t fit the label too well but also because it doesn’t speak for the quality of work I do!

    anyhow I do 5 days a week, which 5 depends on urgency of the work load and whether or not I can fit it in during the next day or week just fine. my hours are never 9 to 5,

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