The first in a series of blogs on freelance life by Lorraine Finch ACR, LF Conservation and Preservation.
I've been freelance for sixteen years now, and the thing I love most about being freelance has never changed – the freedom. I have no line manager to answer to, no institutional rules or policy to follow, no office politics and no constraints on my time. I had always been interested in running my own business and when I was searching for a career in heritage, one of the criteria I looked at was whether that specialism would allow me to become freelance. I chose conservation, and I have worked as a conservator for 23 years. If you work out the maths, you can see that I spent seven years as an employee. I went freelance in 2003. The reason for doing this was I was fed up with being badly managed. In my first job, at one point, over half the staff in the department were on treatment for depression! By 2003, I could see the same pattern happening again and again, and I'd had enough, it was time to get out and enjoy the freedom.
I love being able to set my own timetable, to make all the decisions about how a project develops, to work closely with clients and to get to know them. It has been great over sixteen years to grow and mature alongside my clients. I've watched their children grow up, commiserated with them when they have split with their partners and celebrated their achievements. This is another great aspect about being freelance. You get to meet such a variety of people and you build relationships with them that last. Some people might argue that being freelance is a lonely occupation if you are a sole trader (and I am). I argue that it is more sociable than being employed. Conservators in institutions are generally stuck in a room on their own away from all the other staff. This is no longer the case for me. I get out and about visiting different institutions and different people. And, going back to the freedom, if I'm having a day where I need to get out and be sociable, I can. I can put down my tools or paperwork and go. Recently, I felt overloaded by the anxiety and tensions that seem to have hit society. I'd spent the day working in London and everybody was shouty and angry. Social media seemed to be full of people ranting and intolerant. The news was worse. I was supposed to be working the day after I came back from London but I moved my work, borrowed Harry the dog and went for a walk. Being freelance has some great upsides.
One of the downsides, and one I struggle with is the slack periods. We all have them. It can feel like you are never going to get any work again. There have been times when it got so bad that I thought about going back into employment. Even though these slack periods are a struggle, I still think that I'm in a safer place than someone who is employed. Some time ago I had a conversation with an employed conservator where she basically said that she could go into work on a Monday and be unemployed by Friday. She couldn't see the bad times coming. I can see the slack periods coming and prepare for them, or even take steps to avoid them. My struggle with the slack periods is the money worries that it brings. The best piece of advice I was given before I became freelance was to 'keep three months money in the bank'. I have always heeded that advice but it can still be very worrying when you see that buffer start to dwindle, and nothing go back in to build it back up. The advantage of having been freelance for so long is that I know that I have always made it through these slack periods; although it doesn't stop me worrying.
I would say that my biggest struggle is with the lack of a safety net. It can be difficult to be ill or to take a holiday. I struggle to take time off to look after myself when I am ill or need a break. I find that I work through every holiday or time when I am sick. I have been quite seriously unwell over the last few years but I have still been in bed with my laptop on a tray attending a four hour meeting. I do miss holiday pay and sick pay. My sister had three weeks paid bereavement leave when our dad died. I had a morning off.
Another struggle that I have is keeping up to date with changes in business practice such as GDPR and 'Making Tax Digital'. I have found, however, that there are a lot of free business training courses available both as classroom based courses and online. This is something that I love about being freelance, the opportunity to gain new skills and knowledge. In the years I have been freelance I have been able to attend many fantastic courses in business skills. I have learnt so much. Additionally, I have learnt a lot from the huge variety of museums, archives, libraries, galleries etc. that I have worked with. Every one is different. Every one has a slightly different approach. My skills and knowledge have expanded greatly in their breadth and depth. My practical conservation skills have also improved. It has been my experience that if somebody has funding to conserve an object, they send out the worst, the most complex, they do not send out objects which need only basic treatment. My conservation skills have been pushed to their limits and as a result my practical skills are now far, far better than they ever were.
Another point I love about being freelance, is that you are always in for deliveries! Whilst I've been typing this, the postman arrived with a box of goodies that I ordered last week. Brilliant.
All in all, what I love about being freelance vastly outweighs what I struggle with. I love being freelance and would never change. I have never regretted my decision to set up my own business. It is best thing I have ever done.
Lorraine Finch ACR
LF Conservation and Preservation