Working together apart

Working together apart

Collaborating and working remotely with people has been my normal for quite a long time now, and I’ve developed skills to make sure it’s successful. Given that working from home might be everyone else’s new normal for quite a while, here’s some thought and tips on working together, even when you’re apart.

Communication

When you work in the same office as the rest of the team, quick catch-ups are taken for granted, so having regular, scheduled communication is key to making remote working successful. Put these meetings in the diary with information on the mode (Teams, Zoom, Skype, old fashioned ‘phone etc), and make sure they happen. Issue an agenda and be clear about what needs to be achieved in the time. I find that videoconferencing works well and makes meetings focused.

Having a plan

Having a plan and communicating it clearly to the team keeps everyone accountable and on track with what needs to be achieved. Be clear about who is doing what and review the plan during your regular meetings.

Use technology to the max

The technology we have at our disposal is making this situation so much more workable – things really would have ground to a halt without phones, the internet and videoconferencing. Be grateful for it and maximise it. There have been loads of solutions mentioned over the past week, so I won’t go in to them here, but develop your skills and use them to work in new ways. I also have WhatsApp on my laptop and encourage people to message me there if it’s urgent – that way I’m not checking my phone or needing to go into my inbox multiple times a day.

Sharing documents

Document sharing and version control is one of the biggest challenges of working remotely (in my opinion). I’d recommend either using proper sharing technology, or numbering your documents sequentially. There’s nothing worse than editing the wrong version of a document! Agree where the documents will be saved and how you will communicate with the team when you’ve finished with them.

Maintain a semblance of office hours

There’s a rumour that freelancers work whenever they like, and perhaps some do, but I have always maintained office hours, so that I’m synced with clients. I start work early, generally have a long lunch and be contacted until around 6pm. Work out a structure that works for you and communicate this with your team. Make sure everyone knows how to contact team members. 

What have you learnt so far? 

These are some general points I’ve thought of, but I wonder if any of the working from home newbies have discovered anything else over this past couple of weeks? I’d love to hear about them – what’s keeping you productive and focused as a team at the moment?

Coronavirus – an opportunity to do things differently

Coronavirus – an opportunity to do things differently

Understandably, Covid-19 is causing a lot of anxiety – the news around it is worrying, especially if you have underlying health conditions or are close to someone who does. It’s already directly affecting many people and businesses and hopefully both the government and local communities will work out solutions that minimise the damage. Despite all this worry and stress though, I believe we are being presented with an amazing opportunity to be agile and find new ways of doing things – at least in the short to medium term and who knows how attitudes will change over the course of this year? 

Keeping in touch with people

One of the biggest changes for people is social distancing or self-isolation. As a freelancer I’ve been doing this for ages and I really enjoy it – I focus better on my work and get more done. It’s also forced me to be more intentional about connecting with people, which is how the idea of #VirtualCoffeeBreaks or #DigitalBrews came about.

I can’t claim credit for the idea, but I saw it Twitter a while back and thought it would be a great way to extend my own network while getting a lot of deadline-driven work completed. Over the past two months or so, I’ve met some great people, had a chat about what they do and looked for opportunities to build further links for them. In some cases, this includes creating opportunities of work for other people, helping freelancers connect with people providing complementary services, and collaborating with service providers to help them solve some problems.

If you’re new to working from home, why don’t you set up a virtual coffee break with your colleagues, just to catch up for half an hour a few times over the week. There’s plenty of software you can use that will connect people in different locations. I also use Slack channels, but I prefer video calls, because I have to stop what I’m doing and be present. 

Mindset

Thinking differently and being aware of our mindset is critical if we are to get through the next few months in one piece – not just as individuals, but as local communities and society as a whole. While it might feel difficult to keep positive when your trip to the supermarket resembles an apocalyptic scene, the trick is to remember that as humans we, and we alone, are in charge of us and our thoughts, and that no external power or event has any influence on us, unless we let it. 

It’s taken me decades to both realise this and fully practice it, but it is enabling me to observe what’s happening whilst not becoming emotionally involved with it all. If this experience helps other people to develop mastery over their internal chatter and realise their own power, then that has to be a good thing. 

Doing things differently

I do believe the circumstances now present an incredible opportunity to create change and do things differently and we should grab it with both hands. Look at how air pollution has cleared up in various areas across the world – will we really go back to how things were? Will companies really demand their workforce to be in the office, if working from home has been proven to be successful? As individuals, will we find new ways to entertain ourselves that don’t involve consuming, or will we be happy to quietly read a book and go for a walk? Will the random kind acts continue, or will we be doing the future equivalent of panic-buying toilet roll?

Of course we may still be at the very start of things and we don’t know how the next few months will pan out, but I reckon if we take the panic out of the situation, we could turn a disaster into a great opportunity that we can all benefit from. 

 

11 things to consider before you go freelance

11 things to consider before you go freelance

A call went out on Twitter recently, asking experienced freelancers for the pieces of advice they would give to someone considering making the leap. This got me thinking – what do I wish I’d known before going freelance, and what would have been the most useful pieces of advice to me? So, here’s 11 things to consider before you go freelance.

Finances

It’s a long story, but my route into freelancing was unexpected and I had minimum funds. While this forced a sink or swim mentality, I wouldn’t recommend it to other people. Give yourself the best chance of freelance success by putting away at least three months of living expenses and business expenses. There will be many highs, lows and new experiences during those early months, and you don’t want to add lack of money to that heady mix.

Start-up costs

The freelancing dream is that you can set up with minimal capital, and although this was the case for me, have some available funds for business costs for the first few months. Critical things include insurance, a robust contract, purchasing a web domain (if you’re having a website), and equipment like a laptop and mobile phone. Of course, once you start turning money over, you’ll be able to pay for business expenses out of your revenue.

Business structure

Decide on your business structure – do you want to be a sole trader or limited company? There are many articles on this subject. Do some research about the differences, pros and cons, by reading articles, speaking to other freelancers and having a chat with an accountant. Some articles worth reading on this subject include this one by Creative Boom, and this one by Word Service. It’s worth understanding the issues in advance. 

I’m a limited company because my clients won’t contract with a sole trader, but it’s different for everyone. Alice Hollis wrote a blog about her personal journey to setting up her limited company. 

Business processes

My processes have evolved with the business, but I wish I had given them more consideration from the off. Things to think about are: 

The basics

I got started with just a basic laptop, Dropbox account and a mobile phone. You may need more or less than this, depending on what your plans are. Make sure your equipment and your business is insured. This article by IPSE explains the types of insurance you’ll need – see above for my comments on business expenses. 

Business admin

I’ve written about this before, but consider your freelancing business like any other corporate. You will never have done so much admin – finance, invoicing, social media, writing blog posts etc. Organising the administration of the business allows you to focus on delivering what it is you do.

Client experience

Work out how clients will flow through your business, from initial conversations and sales, to work delivery, completion and invoicing. How you manage this will depend on the work you do, but it will probably follow this general trajectory. How can you make this experience fantastic for clients? My own tip is to develop some sort of briefing process that allows you to capture and agree the work to be done with your clients, that you can both sign-off and keep a copy of.

Contracts – don’t start work without one

Get a contract organised and don’t start any piece of work without one. Koffee Klatch provides guidance and draft contracts for freelancers offering a range of services. The site is run by Annabel Kaye, who is an expert in the gig economy and legislation affecting freelancers. 

IT

As a new freelancer, the role I struggled with the most was being the company IT manager. I now outsource all of my IT and for a small monthly fee I obtain Office 365 support, security and a helpline for ad-hoc support from experts (because you never know when things can go wrong) – it’s easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, business-wise. Manchester IT is very local to me but they work across the UK. 

You may also want to invest in other programmes to help you complete your work or run your business. There are so many web-based systems available now and I couldn’t survive without Adobe Pro, Harvest, Xero, Canva and Hootsuite.

Develop a niche

What is your niche? I am a bid writer in the construction industry and in many ways, life doesn’t get more niched than this, but being specialised has allowed me to stand out from generalist bid writers by focusing on one industry. I take my hat off to generalist bid writers by the way – I couldn’t learn a whole new industry for every bid I worked on. 

So – what is it you do, how do you help clients, and why is this different to everyone else? This niche will be the cornerstone of your marketing for your freelancing career – give it some real thought in the early days and it will pay dividends for you because you will be able to articulate who you are and what you do.

What will your marketing plan be?  

Marketing can sound scary but really it’s just your plan for securing paying clients (ie the ones you have already identified when you thought about your niche). Will you bombard social media with push messages (not recommended), or will you take the slow-burn approach by meeting a lot of people at networking events (definitely worth considering). Get a plan together, including a six month outline of what your social media is going to look like. 

Working out who your clients are

Once you have worked out your niche, you will be able to work out who your clients will be and where to find them. What kinds of problems will you help them solve? How will you secure work from them? I recommend starting with your own existing network – all of my freelancing work in the first six months or so was from people that I knew, had worked with previously or had some sort of connection to. Even six years on, these relationships still bring work to me. 

Developing a brand

Brand doesn’t have to be complicated. Just think about a logo, colour palette and a clear message about who you are and what you do will suffice. You can then apply this branding to your business collateral, such as business cards, letter heads, contracts, social media and website. Have a chat with brand supremos like Nik Jones at Hello I’m Nik or Jon Horne at JH Creative

Consider putting a website together

A basic website will give you the platform to tell everyone about your services, with regular blogs demonstrating your expertise. I spent too much time and money figuring out how to do this in the early days, so if you’re unsure, outsource it to another freelancer who can provide you with something simple and cost-appropriate. You can always develop it as your business evolves.

Show up on social media

Social media has really come of age in the time I have been a freelancer, making connecting with potential clients, other freelancers and everyone else very natural and a whole lot easier. Think about where your ideal clients will be and get good at this platform. If you need help with your strategy, consider working with another freelancer who is a specialist in social media. This external knowledge and expertise will be worth its weight in gold – I’ve worked with Kat from Stripe Social for 12 months and I’ve learnt so much that I regret not engaging someone a lot earlier.

There are many freelance groups on Facebook that you should get involved with – although freelancers are a diverse bunch in terms of skills and, we all have the same challenges and it’s good to get advice from other people who have had similar experiences. Groups I recommend are Freelance Heroes and Being Freelance. There’s also a fantastic twitter chat every Wednesday evening between 8pm and 9pm. Follow the conversation on #FreelanceHeroes.

Research freelance resources

There are so many freelance resources out there to read and listen to – check out IPSE and Worknotes. Also make listening to the Being Freelance podcast a weekly thing – so many freelancers all doing different things, but so many common experiences and solutions.

Connect and build relationships with other freelancers

One of the best things about being a freelancer is the freelance attitude of collaborate, but never compete. We genuinely don’t compete with each other – we complement each other’s skills to build agile virtual teams. So connect with other freelancers in this spirit – especially those doing similar things to you, or those offering complementary services. For example, bid writers can connect with other bid writers and people who do other roles in bidding, such as management or graphic design.

While this may sound counter-intuitive, this network will provide camaraderie when the chips are down, as well as work opportunities.

Setting your rates

Everyone has different thoughts on this – for bid writing there is a general market rate, with variances within this based on a range of factors. Research the rates within your own skill area and set yours in accordance with this. Don’t feel you need to undercut the market when you start out – value your skills and ask for the rates you are comfortable with. If clients don’t want to pay that, they won’t. It might be worth reading the Work Notes pricing guide for more background information. 

Have a think about the pricing model you’ll offer, i.e. day rate or project rate, and how you will articulate the benefits of each of these to clients. How will you invoice work? Also get comfortable with the fact you won’t necessarily get paid when you want to – payment is an ongoing issue in the freelance world, so protect yourself by invoicing on time and having a buffer of cash.

Round-up

As I’ve been writing this blog post, I’ve been chuckling to myself because I realise how much I didn’t know and how much I didn’t even consider. I got through some things relatively unscathed, but there’s been times when I’ve really paid the price for ignorance. Freelancing will be one the best adventures of your life, made even more exciting by being prepared. 

 

 

My goals for 2020

My goals for 2020

Last year was hectic: I worked on more than 50 bids in various capacities across the whole range of built environment disciplines. That’s 50 deadlines, 50 teams, 50 tender specifications and 50 sets of questions to get to grips with, and while I worked on some high-profile projects, got a lot done and helped clients win some great contracts, it did have a big impact on my own life. So, over the past month or so, I’ve really had a think about how I can best provide value to clients and bids, how I want to work and what I want to achieve in 2020.

Changing the focus of my work

The frequently last-minute nature of my work has long been a frustration, as well as the difficulty of mitigating the impact of constant deadlines. I’ve thought about how I can change this and have decided to focus on helping clients to get bid-ready by developing bid libraries and collateral, such as CVs and case studies. This will put them in a much better place to bid for work when the right opportunities come along.

I will be declining last minute requests to work on bids, but will share my bid writer contact list with clients, to signpost them to other people who may be able to help. I will still be working on submissions for long-term clients, where I know good base content exists, as well as bids where clients have engaged me early in the process. Working like this will enable me to gain back control of my diary and my life in general, as well as reducing the 60-hour weeks which I no longer find sustainable. And these two aspects combined will allow me to deliver a higher quality of service to clients, so it’s win-win.

As part of this approach, I am offering set price packages to audit bid content and develop bid-ready strategies. Get in touch if this sounds like it would be something that would benefit your business. 

Diversifying

I’ve never made a secret of my interest in the esoteric and became a reiki master in 2019, which was a staging post in a journey that had taken six years to that point. I also trained in hypnotherapy last year, enabling me to work with people in a different way to bid writing. I will be doing more of this work in 2020, starting with setting up lunchtime meditation sessions local to where I live. Obviously this is a departure to my bid writing career, but I feel inspired to do it.

Listen to more podcasts and audiobooks

I spend most of the day reading and writing, so it’s often the last thing I feel like doing when I finish work. I am, however, a big fan of the radio and listening to podcasts and audiobooks. I will be listening to more of these this year. My preference is non-fiction and I recommend The Sun King by David Dimbleby if you have an Audible account. I listened to this during my holiday in Egypt before Christmas and it was a fascinating account of the rise (and rise) of Rupert Murdoch. I’ve just started listening to a very academic account of life in Ancient Egypt, inspired by my holiday – it’s 19 hours long, so will keep me occupied for a while.

Walk (even) more

Walking has always been my favourite form of exercise and I’m never happier than when I’m walking in the Peak District, even if the weather’s a bit meh! I have committed to hiking twice a week, so if you can’t get hold of me on a Wednesday morning, you know where I’ll be. I plan to walk the Gritstone Trail this year, an approximately 35-mile mooch that will take me from Disley near Stockport down to Kidsgrove in Staffordshire. I won’t be walking it all in one day though!

Keep learning more about food and cooking

The long-hours culture of both my job and the industry I’ve spent most of my career in has had disastrous effect on how I’ve eaten over the years, grabbing stuff for ease because I didn’t have time to either cook or eat properly. I spent a lot of last year un-learning this bad behaviour and invested in myself by working with Tailored Nutrition. It has been worth every penny and I have been amazed by the impact of food on mood, energy levels and general well-being. Laura is offering free 30-minute consultations to anyone interested in exploring the power of food to improve their health.

I’ve also enjoyed learning to cook new things and will be continuing this habit in 2020 – I’ve recently rediscovered butternut squash, which is delicious roasted, and who knew that celery and peanut butter could be such a fabulous mid-afternoon pick-me-up? Much nicer than a chocolate bar or biscuit. 

Travel more

I’ve travelled a lot over the past few years – probably more than I have done in my entire adult life and it’s taught me a lot. I am going to Finland and Russia over the summer and will probably return to southern Africa next winter – it’s an area of the world that I love. But I also love the UK – in the sunshine there is nowhere more beautiful – and would like to explore more of the 700 islands off the Scottish coast – ideas are welcome! I also plan to visit each of the four capital cities of the UK, so I’m all ears for suggestions of things to see and do. I will spend many spring and summer weekends in my canvas holiday home and have always got my eyes peeled for campsite suggestions. 

What are your goals for 2020? I like the idea of focusing on the positive aspect of gaining new skills and experiences, rather than the old-style resolutions to (generally) stop a negative pattern of behaviour. So, here’s to the 2020s – may they be productive and constructive for us all. 

 

Work Life Week 2019

Work Life Week 2019

October 7 to 11 is National Work Life week. Although the focus is on working families, there are some takeaways for those of us working in bid environments, where the concept of a work/life balance can feel like the ultimate troll. As bid professionals, we are so driven to ensure wins for our clients or employers that down time, or self-care, is the first thing to go out of the window. I speak from bitter experience when I say this is a mistake.

Preventing burn-out 

Being freelance has enabled me to gain more balance and prevent burn-out – cooking from scratch, swimming regularly and getting into the hills for a hike as often as I can. Brain rest is as important as physical rest in my view and I have done a lot of work over the past 18 months implementing and sticking to boundaries by not responding to emails or phone calls in the evening, unless it’s prearranged. I also switch off my laptop and deliberately do something else, even if it’s just watching TV!

This summer was exceptionally busy, with three really major pieces of work that required more than a few 14-hour days, but to counterbalance this, I made sure that September was quieter and I went to Scotland for a few weeks. I have come back feeling refreshed and ready to meet the demands of a full diary until Christmas.

Technological solutions 

Over the past couple of months, I have been learning more about the impact that technology will have on the bidding environment, including project management tools, information libraries and programmes to reduce graphic design re-work. Having said this, I am yet to really see a technological solution to reduce the writing burden, so I’m interested to see whether a solution for this crops up at some point.

What about you? 

Do you feel like you have a good work/life balance? Do you recognise the signs when you need to re-assess? Have you got any advice on how to do this? I’m sure other bid people would love to hear your ideas, tips and tricks.

You can find out more about Work Life Week on its website

 

World Architecture Day 2019

World Architecture Day 2019

October 7 2019 is World Architecture Day, established in 2005 by the Union International des Architects (UIA) to promote the role of architects and architecture. This year’s theme is Housing for All and is a clarion call for architects to come together to contribute their creative energies to improve housing across the world. 

Architects are essential to the world around us – designing the infrastructure that enables us to live our lives, including houses, shops, schools and colleges, hospitals, and the buildings we work in and around. They also have an important role in delivering social justice and equality, creating quality environments for all sections of society. This is particularity true of housing. 

I’ve loved buildings from being a child, but it was an architect that sparked my interest in the built environment as a career. I’d watched them develop a scheme into a completed bricks and mortar building from the earliest of feasibility sketches on their drawing board. The sense of wonder I felt as I witnessed this evolution has never left me. I’m also constantly amazed by the ability of architects to combine the aesthetic with the technical, although I doubt it’s as easy as they make it look.

For those wondering why I didn’t follow a more technical career path, it’s because I’m definitely a language person – I can’t count for toffee, so any building I’d designed probably wouldn’t come out straight.  

So on this World Architecture Day, let’s celebrate the architects we work with and appreciate the contribution they make to the world around us.

You can find out more via the website and follow the hashtags for the day: #WAD2019 and #HousingForAll.