Help me frame a shift on how I work to my client
June 11, 2019 12:11 PM   Subscribe

I'm a freelancer, but the majority of my work is with one agency I've had a relationship with for 7 years who works with a variety of clients. I was very eager to begin working with this agency even though we were on opposite coasts, so I've been available 8-5 and do things like announcing when I've logged on in the morning, letting the client know when I'm grabbing lunch, and being available for messages and phone calls anytime during the day. I want to shift away from this.

As the sole income earner for my household I am not comfortable taking big risks and want advice on changing this situation by framing it in a positive, non-confrontational way. Please keep in mind that I'm not looking for answers about firing this client. I have taken to heart previous advice and added additional clients but this still brings in the bulk of my income and there are positives to the relationship.

Since I've set the expectation that I'm at my computer the entire day and will reply to any message or request for a screesnhare or call to review a project at any time, as time goes on I've gotten stuck feeling guilty if I need to make an appointment during the day or work on projects for other clients. This client has always given me as many hours as I want and if needed, will fill my time with internal work (updating the agency website, handling social media, file organization) if they don't have client work. It's a good arrangement for a freelancer like myself who dislikes client management, billing, and all of that unpaid stuff that can eat up an entire day, so I want to be clear that there are positive parts of this relationship. I get paid for every bit of work I do and have never been questioned about my billing or had to hunt down a paycheck. I love this about this relationship and want to keep it like this!

How can I frame this conversation about wanting to start later in the day, wanting to not be expected to reply to text messages and emails immediately when I've spent 7 years being so worried about job security that I've given the opposite impression? My internal thought process goes back and forth like:
I know I will do better, more efficient work if I can start setting my hours with my flexibility, since I am a night owl and starting work at 8am has never been ideal. I'd be much happier starting at 10 or later. But I know often work comes in early in the morning and this client is an extreme early bird and workaholic so they're online 5-6 hours before me and waiting for me. I'm introverted so the constant communication, even though it's mostly through texts (with a lot of phone calls), feels intrusive and can really take a lot out of me — but I know this helps keep projects moving and that the client is waiting on my reply since we work so closely together and have for so long that I'm heavily relied on.

I want to have a matter-of-fact conversation but I have such a close working relationship with this client, a fear of losing out on income or projects that I really enjoy doing, and can't think of any positive way to frame my needs and desires in a professional way since I feel so emotional about it!
posted by the thorn bushes have roses to Work & Money (9 answers total)
Ouch. You've been allowing them to treat you as an employee without the benefits of being one. Hopefully others will have advice for you. I had to end a contract a couple of years ago, myself, because despite their stated intentions of hiring an independent contractor, what they'd really wanted was an on-call employee... and they couldn't understand that they expectations basically broke the rules in defining me as an independent contractor.
posted by stormyteal at 12:31 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]

I am not sure about your family situation, but you could perhaps frame it in a way that you say something like, "My family's needs have shifted, and I need to change my working hours in XYZ manner. I will be responsive to texts and will attend all scheduled phone calls between X and Y Eastern."

It helps of course if this is true, and you don't have to tell them, "Hey my wife has doctor's appointments that i need to attend" or whatever but I think if you are still delivering and reliable and clear about how you need to change, with such a long-standing relationship I'd certainly hope it would be okay.

I say framing it in terms of family or partner just because people tend to question that stuff less than other things, and I'm avoidant of conflict and prefer for people not to ask me 1,000 questions about why I need to take a day to work from home or whatever, so YMMV.
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:32 PM on June 11 [9 favorites]

Here's how I'd approach it - set up a meeting with the client and let them know how valuable they are and how much you enjoy working with them. Be honest - after 7 years, you've realized that these hours are rough on you and you are looking to modify the start times, etc.

Let them know what hours you plan to be available, and how you can keep projects moving in lieu of real-time interaction. Maybe a standing daily meeting to go through things? Think ahead of time what kinds of questions you have to field and how you can still provide the same value to the client without real-time interruptions.

I hope this client is reasonable and approachable and you can have a good, productive conversation about ensuring the working relationship continues to be good and productive for both of you. Be prepared to make a few compromises from your ideal situation if the client is really firm about the way you're working now.

Note that I have worked from home / freelanced for nearly 20 years. My observation after a long time was that the cow-orkers and clients at the other end didn't notice when I was not immediately available nearly as much as I assumed they would.

If they understand you do have other clients, they should be OK with the idea that you may not always be immediately available.

Assuming they don't have any major problems with your proposed arrangement then make sure you keep all commitments and are rock solid in so far as keeping the workflow going, etc. People have a tendency to blame any disappointments on recent changes, so you don't want a "well, XYZ project was late obviously because thorn bushes changed their schedule."
posted by jzb at 12:34 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]

Popping in because I deleted this from my question and it sort of came up in the first comment and I could see that becoming a derail (I know it's something that any familiar with employee vs contractor law would want to know): I have consulted with accountants and then a tax lawyer about whether my client relationship was running afoul of the laws where I work in terms of employee vs independent contractor classification and it does not as far as the law is concerned for reasons I didn't get into in my question since it was already so long. Thanks for the helpful answers so far!
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 12:52 PM on June 11

Well, you're an independent business. So I'd say that you've been doing some strategic planning about how to improve the value you offer your clients (or your productivity). You feel you work best when you focus your time into concentrated bursts, especially during your peak productivity hours in the afternoon, and you are restructuring your daily schedule and approach to projects to be doing more of that. This should increase their respect for you -- you're not resting on your laurels and doing the same thing you've always done, but sharpening your approach.

I think you'll then need to talk about two other things: what the new system / schedule would look like, and how much you value them. You could mix those together by saying you want to see whether this proposed new schedule will work for them and then adjusting it if necessary. But in general, what you want is totally reasonable (I had a whole paragraph about the legal definition of consulting that I deleted), so I wouldn't be too tentative or apologetic.
posted by salvia at 1:28 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]

Congratulations for making this shift! This will benefit your life and work SO MUCH. This is how I would handle it.

VIA EMAIL: "Hi Main-Contact-Person!

Firstly, wanted to thank you so much for all the work we've collaborated on over the years. I'm so grateful to have you as a client. Also, wanted to give you a heads up about some new procedures that will be used with all my clients:

Please send project requests via email and give a sense of timing needs. I'll followup typically within X business days / hours to confirm receipt and assess timing.

If an emergency arises, feel free to text me at XXX with URGENT in the message. Any non-urgent texts I may not be able to respond to. Anything non-urgent is best to send via email.

Also, availability between the hours of X-Y won't be guaranteed.

Please let me know if there are any questions on the above! And if it helps to talk thru anything, please feel free to book a call here [call link] Thank you so much!"

And then when you deliver something, include something like this in your email: “If a call or screenshare would be helpful, please feel free to use this link to book time on the schedule [call scheduler link that you've pre-slotted with certain availability - i.e. 2 hours in the afternoons 4 days a week or whatever]”

Think of yourself like a business (which is what you are). The MAIN HUGE MEGA advantage of working for yourself is flexibility, being able to set your own hours, control your own projects, etc. You have traded those advantages for the disadvantages, which include more risk (though that's debatable), no benefits, etc. You NEED to take back those advantages so good on you for pursuing this!
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 1:33 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]

Reading your question, I’m left wondering: why do you feel the need to address this issue now, after 7 years? I’m not saying there is anything wrong with seeking the change you seek; I’m just curious what has triggered you to want to do this now?

I generally favor telling people the truth. Is there a reason that you don’t feel you can be honest with your client about why you want these changes? I think jzb‘s approach is a good one.

I dislike being the one to say this, but since you are “not comfortable taking big risks”: if you make changes, you may find yourself doing less work for this client. Maybe the reason they give you so much business is because they like your responsiveness. I guess I’m trying to say that you should consider framing this endeavor as a trade-off between “better working conditions” and “income”. I could well be wrong. But since you’re asking advice on this, I feel it is appropriate to mention the possible downside.
posted by doctor tough love at 1:44 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Working time of day -
Obviously saying that you don't want to work early because you stay up late wouldn't be wise, but there are a plethora of perfectly normal reasons you can start later - you're to take on driving your kids to work as your wife's job situation changed, the office space you rent have changed their operating hours (not sure if that's arguable), and although I'd typically advise against using 'other clients work' as an excuse, you can say you have a standing daily morning meeting with another client. Of course, always preface that you can be flexible if asked in advance for calls or project deadlines.

Being on call -
As someone who works with several vendors, it is *completely acceptable* they have duties in their own lives that they will be unavailable - as long as if it's something planned to communicate it. If it's unplanned (emergency per-say) and something cannot wait, that's really on them (if you were an actual employee you'd get PTO, have backup resources, etc).
However, for me personally, I do expect frequent communications throughout the day from a remote vendor doing day to day work, not immediate responses but at least a status once or twice a day.

Hope that helps! I did work at an agency on client management. They absolutely should know they shouldn't expect you to be so accommodating to them as a freelancer when they probably get asked ridiculous demands from their clients. And in my current role, I really don't care when our freelancers needs to be out or when they start as long as they get the job done and communicate when they'll be unavailable (hell they could be in the circus for all I know, just 'when and for how long').
posted by hillabeans at 2:07 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Txt "Going dark for a few hours", or "I'll be offline 8am - 11am". Just imply that you're working with other clients; I wouldn't tell them I'm sleeping in or have a doctor appt. or a life whatsoever; I would tell them I've got other work to do.

Or just gradually reset expectations by being non-responsive sometimes.
posted by at at 8:26 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

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