A freelance graphic designer earns $25,000 for an ad campaign. A teacher drives for Uber on the weekends. An electrician owns and operates a successful small business. A stay-at-home mom sells Mary Kay cosmetics on Facebook. A recent immigrant cleans houses under the table. A retired woman knits hats to sell at craft fairs. What do these workers have in common?
There is more to what is currently called the gig economy than flavour-of-the-month media stories suggest.
But, where do you start? You’ve shrugged off the shackles and the corporate comfort blanket. You’ve broken free from the gilded cage. How do you carve a place to work from your place to live? Here are a few considerations and inspirations.
How much space do you need? Maybe, just a quiet desk will do, but will clients visit you? Do you need a separate work-space (studio, treatment room, consulting room, recording studio, etc.)? And a waiting room,too? Some rooms may have a dual business/domestic purpose, but will your partner welcome the 50″ screen in the new dining/meeting room?
Seasons and services. Separate garden rooms and garage conversions are popular, with the advantage of still maintaining a degree of separation between work-life and life-life. But, consider if they will work in all seasons: from the dead of winter to the heat of summer. Do you have adequate power (including the need for heating) and internet access?
Legals, tax and admin. How will working from home affect the following:
Does your mortgage or tenancy agreement allow working from your home?
What about property tax? If you work alone from a home-office, this may be allowable under domestic “poll tax”, but if you have a studio or treatment room etc, you might yourself liable for business rates. Check before you begin.
Insurances. How does your business affect your building and contents insurances? Do you need public liability insurance? What about a risk-assessment of your home if you will have clients visiting?
Peace and privacy. Can you work uninterrupted? Even during the school holidays? Kids, dogs and washing machines all lose their charm when they are a regular soundtrack to your conference calls. And, even the best prepared television interviews can be derailed, as Professor Robert Kelly discovered in this BBC News interview:
The home office is hardly new. Every working farmhouse is a head office. Therapists and tutors have always worked from home to some degree. All have adapted to the business needs of their owners.
Try these famous locations for inspiration:
Take a punt, or a putt-putt down the Grand Canal. Those elegant palazzos were built, business-first, by the wealthy merchants of the city-state as home and office.
On the water-level was the impressive canal-side entrance and a ground floor of storerooms and offices for transacting daily business. The next floor up (first floor for Brits, second for Americans) was the piano nobile or grand floor, lavishly decorated and used for entertaining. The floor above was the family’s private apartments.
Soane moved to 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1792 and, as his collection grew, he acquired numbers 13 and 14 , remodelling the houses and stables to accommodate an innovative, hinged Picture Gallery (that houses Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress) and more space for the collection. He negotiated an act of parliament for the house to be preserved as it was when he died.
If you’re in London it’s worth a visit – for research purposes, obviously. It is a glorious clutter, muddle and inspiration.
In the basement is the sarcophagus of Seti I, of which Wikipedia says:
By contrast, the apartments where Freud lived and worked from 1891 to 1938 are more modest. Freud moved there with his family when it was a new-build. As his practice grew, he took on the second apartment on the floor as his practice. Today, the living space is a museum and exhibition, with little furniture, but his consulting room and waiting room are furnished much as they would have been in his time. The famous couch, however, is in London.
The apartment next door, perfect for separating work and domestic life.
Winston Churchill purchased his beloved Chartwell in 1922 and lived there until shortly before his death in 1965. As Wikipedia has it:
In the 1930s, when Churchill was excluded from political office, Chartwell became the centre of his world. At his dining table, he gathered those who could assist his campaign against German re-armament and the British government’s response of appeasement; in his study, he composed speeches and wrote books; in his garden, he built walls, constructed lakes and painted.
When the Churchill’s purchased the property, they had it remodelled adding a three-storey wing with views over the Kent Weald. The property sits on a steep slope, so the entrance level, ground floor room of the extension is the middle floor and a large drawing room. Downstairs is the dining room, while upstairs, is Churchill’s large study. There is also a small library in the original house and, of course, books everywhere else.
Chartwell is a beautiful retreat that still feels like a home. It’s not enormous like stately homes of previous centuries, but it has space to live … and to work.
Dickens London Home
Forty-eight Doughty Street was Charles Dickens’ Bloomsbury home for just 2 1/2 years, but it is beautifully preserved as a Victorian Home. It’s where he wrote Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby.
If you’re a writer, you need only a quiet, well-lit study.
And, possibly space to entertain.
From the merchant palazzos of a city-state to the modest study of a great writer, these homes were all designed to provide a place to work and a place to live.
I have a couple of thoughts whenever this comes up.
‘Twas always thus
There has always been a freelance / independent / gig economy / zero-hours sector. Indeed, if you take a long view, it’s the 40 hour nine-to-five that’s the exception.
My early career was in the hotel industry, a sector that couldn’t exist without what we used to term “casual staff”. You need 20 waiting staff for a banquet on Saturday night, then maybe nothing for a week.
It was always a two-sided market. If the individuals involved were good – i.e. reliable, skilled, etc. – they moved up the mental list of who to call first. But, you had to treat them right, too. If you didn’t offer the going rate, you couldn’t get the staff. They would go and work for another venue. Similarly, if you didn’t feed them well, messed them around or if their manager on the night was a buffoon, they wouldn’t work for you. That all seemed fair enough.
That’s not really dissimilar from the work I do, today. If I do a good job and provide a great service, I get invited back. If I messed up, the phone (or inbox) would go eerily quiet. Along the way, of course, I’ve “sacked” a few clients, too.
Coase was correct
Back in 1937, the economist Ronald Coase explained why firms exist. One of those things that no-one had thought to question before. It was, he realised, all down to transaction costs. Where work is regular, predictable and ongoing, it makes sense for two parties to enter into an employer-employee relationship. Where the requirement is more ad-hoc, the business finds a supplier and enters a purchase relationship.
The last decade has seen a dramatic drop in these transaction costs. Firstly, through the email and the web, more recently through the advent of platform companies.
In so many ways, nothing else is different. It’s simply that the break point (for both parties) is lower, making it easier for individuals and larger client organisations to transact lower-value projects or tasks.
The answer (to anything) is rarely more legislation
If the courts rule that vast swathes of gig workers are in fact employees, they could raise costs, killing innovation and hitting jobs. Yet inaction brings risks, too. If a growing chunk of the workforce has to make do with poor pay and worse pensions, governments will eventually have to pick up the pieces.
It seems that the real trouble only occurs in the grey area where a client / employer seeks to have all of the benefits of an employment relationship (mainly control over time and schedules, the way work is performed, and the individuals’ ability to work for other firms) without the costs of employment taxes, statutory benefits etc.
And, that cuts both ways as well. There have been several cases where individuals have enjoyed the higher cash benefits of being classed as a long-term, self-employed provider of services, only to bring a court case for employee-related stock benefits that they had been “denied”.
But, in most of these cases existing employment law, sensibly applied, should cope. The last thing we need is the burden of “employment rights” on individuals who are perfectly happy with their independent, sovereign professional status.
About a year ago, I had a long discussion with a prospective client about this. The simple fact is that charging by the day, or per word, creates an immediate conflict of interest: the client is motivated to go short while you are motivated to go long.
I was reminded of this by a marketing mail from John Niland’s VCO Global:
Charging for time is easy. It’s familiar in many sectors: from the oldest profession to the newest. However, there are three problems with hour/day rates:
1: While on the surface, a day-rate is easy to agree with your client, it creates a fundamental conflict of interestin most relationships. Your client wants the fewest days possible: you often need more time to do a quality job. Furthermore, the client is likely to involve you later rather than earlier, in order to save cost…
I’ve wasted many hours over the last few months trying to work my way through some significant bugs (workflow and data loss) with them, and each of the many customer service people I’ve worked with have pushed me to do more testing, and they’ve clearly stated that my problem is unique. This ‘bluff, stall and get used to it’ strategy is the sort of thing one might expect from a traveling salesman. Yesterday they finally let me know that in fact it’s a known issue, that it affects many people with hardware and software like mine, and I’m stuck with it. I can’t easily rip it out, and I can’t happily work with it either.
Interestingly, I recently had a similar issue with Sonos. They were, admittedly, a little slow to respond, but worked hard to resolve my issue (album tracks losing their correct order and appearing alphabetically under each album). And, as a result, they’ve retained trust and an advocate.