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Freelancing and Boundaries: An Essential Partnership

Freelancing and Boundaries: An Essential Partnership

October 1, 2019 By Jeannette De Beauvoir

When you work in cubicle-land, boundaries are pretty clear. You start work, for example, at 8am, and you finish at 5pm. When you’re at your office, you’re at work; when you go home, you’re off work. Friends know not to call you to chat when you’re at your work site. Medical appointments are arranged to coincide with comp time or are done during meal breaks. All in all, it’s regimented… but the good thing about it is that it’s pretty clear.

All of that goes out the window when you freelance. Suddenly all the accepted boundary indicators are gone. You often work from home. You often work odd hours. You often decide to take an afternoon off for appointments or shopping. And your friends often think that you can take a half-hour out of your day to chat.

Let’s think about time. Most of us are able to freelance as relatively easily as we do because of the internet, which—like casinos—is open 24/7. It’s probable that you have clients scattered all over the globe, which is great… until the moment your San Francisco client wants to chat with you in your London home office at 3pm their time… and you really don’t fancy waiting until 11pm to have this meeting. Right: time zones. You have to reach a compromise between what would be ideal and comfortable for your client and what’s ideal and comfortable for you. You can work it out, of course: but it’s a major task to set time boundaries with your clients, who often forget that you’re half a world away from them.

Another boundary issue is intimacy. When you work intensely with someone, you often stray over the line between personal and professional relationships. In cubicle-land, this can lead to the dreaded office affairs—or, more positively, to lasting friendships. When you’re freelancing, more often than not over time you may develop closeness with your clients, which is fine until the next time they have a new project and both of you feel, intuitively, that you should charge less—because, after all, now you’re friends. If you do have someone with the potential for years of ongoing projects, ask yourself at the start if you’re willing to risk that kind of scenario. Often it’s best from the beginning to differentiate between being friendly and becoming friends.

Photo by Malvestida Magazine on Unsplash

No matter what your relationship with fashion, clothes matter. They may not “make the man,” but they do serve as indicators of the tenor of the occasion, as cues for behavior. If you like to work in your pajamas or a sloppy sweatsuit, fine: that may be one of the reasons you decided to freelance. But wearing the clothes that others don only on weekends or at night sends a signal to your brain— boundaries are being blurred. You might consider a compromise here as well: stay comfortable in jeans and a sweater, perhaps, but wear clothes that would be okay for a client to see in a Skype meeting.

Managing client expectations is a necessary headache for every freelancer. Some clients expect an immediate response to their calls or emails, expect you to be available for a rush job on a weekend, expect, expect, expect … and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t expect those things, unless you have made your boundaries clear. So decide what you are willing to do, and not willing to do, and communicate that with your clients. (I find it helpful to add this information at the end of my written contracts, spelling out some basic ground-rules for our work together.)

There are many more examples of areas where boundaries are necessary, but instead I’ll close with a few recommendations that really go across the board, no matter what boundary issues you’re addressing:

  1. Make your boundaries clear from the beginning. This means, of course, being clear about them in your own mind before communicating them to anybody else.
  2. Enforce those boundaries consistently. No one will take them, or you, seriously if you don’t apply them every single time, no matter how uncomfortable that might make you feel.
  3. If you do decide on a certain project to do a little more, to go above and beyond, make it very clear that that is what you’re doing. Your client will be grateful—and won’t expect it to continue.

Creating and maintaining healthy boundaries will ensure you won’t burn out, won’t resent your clients, and won’t feel overburdened. And even if you haven’t done it in the past, it’s not too late to start right now!

Header image by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

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