While I’ve been a freelancer for over thirteen years, 2020 has presented significant challenges. Not just from a work perspective – that in itself has been something of a roller coaster; also from a “keeping it all together” angle. Here are some of my reflections on some aspects of the past six months.
Many of us have been at based home 24×7 tackling the new challenges generated by lockdown and the social isolation that comes for free as part of the package. Plus homeschooling, school governor responsibilities, a rangy old Victorian house with a big garden to manage. Throw in a renovation project frozen by lockdown, family bereavement and a large fistful of uncertainty, and it would be a lie to say these have not been trying times!
The flipside of freelancing
Being self-employed when the world is recoiling into itself has been something of a life lesson. The fragility of freelancing is the counter side to the flexibility and variety it offers. And, working in the field of websites and marketing, you are one of the first business disciplines to get switched off when cashflow is tight and budgets cut back. Which is what happened to me. Within 48 hours in late March, all strands of my work all dried up as clients reacted to the pressures building by Covid-19’s global journey. Added to that, I’d recently made the decision to give notice on my part-time employed work and head back to college one day a week to study for a horticultural qualification. The course ground to a halt too!
Much of my work is in the travel sector, one of the hardest-hit areas. And that particular evening in late March, sitting at my desk in my attic office, I faced the harsh reality of the prospect of zero future income from the work which I’d built up for over the past 13 years. Sobering and indeed, challenging times. I’ve worked with many of my clients for many years and am heavily invested in their success. And I’ve always paid my way, even when the children were tiny.
I’ve been very fortunate in that, since that low point, one of my local clients has offered me regular work as part of their team, so my work-gap has been short-lived and I’m loving my new work. I’ve continued to work for a couple of my clients for free as I dearly want to see them come out of this economic storm intact and I launched Keeping It Local as a side-venture. And my course has just resumed.
Ability to flex
With further lockdown measures now coming into force, small local businesses, irrespective of their sector, should look hard at their set up and product lines. Times are tough but the situation could also present an opportunity to flex and think outside the confines of business as usual. And, to see how small businesses can still operate even during periods of lockdown where shopping habits have changed, lots of things have gone online and where more people than ever before are shopping through the internet. There are, I believe, some clear definites that could help to stop small businesses being left behind:
- being online is a must
- having a solid digital presence is essential
- taking card payments and online payments necessary
- customer service is key and will take you a long way
- think laterally – what else can you do?
Back to ItsLello HQ. So in late March and when lockdown kicked in. I was home-based already having worked that way for many years. Which meant that the prospect of #WFH didn’t bother me in the slightest – I knew all the pitfalls and challenges that come with this way of working.
What was new for me was having the rest of the family in the house. All. The. Time. And the overnight assumption made by the education establishment, that kids can flip over to digital learning at the click of a finger and mouse. Schools and education authorities relied on an unspoken expectation that parents could magic themselves into ersatz teachers and mental health/wellbeing experts alongside working, running a home and keeping their own sh*t together.
So our two, one at secondary school and one at primary school, waited for their respective schools to click across to a remote working set of railway tracks. This took weeks after which they were both expected, to negotiate a mix of digital platforms and continue their learning remotely with very little school driven input. A seismic shift. Students were expected to magically have the digital skills necessary to organise their work online. And to be able to work entirely off screens (a skill in itself) and largely self-teach. All in all, a huge step change, one which, I think, it is akin to the type of work one would expect to do in sixth form or university. They had not been educated nor prepared to work in this way at short notice so all in all, a tough ask for all involved. This term, digital platforms have been used as a norm which is making a huge difference.
I’m thankful that both of us are digitally literate and had enough resources for the boys to be able to use. But this hasn’t been the case for many households in these challenging times, where digital and educational inequality have been very real issues. In our case, neither of our children received any interactive teaching and they enjoyed just a bare minimum of interaction with their teachers. We went months with little more than a skittering of feedback on pieces of work that took hours to complete. And between us, like many parents, we supported and taught them day after day, whilst also juggling work demands and personal commitments. Massively challenging for us all, children and parents alike.
Students in North Wales have lost six months of education and support. And this won’t be retrieved and will have damaged prospects, whatever government rhetoric may say. I hope that schools and authorities took time over their very long summer break to thoroughly plan for both face-to-face and digital strategies as the pandemic strengthens its hold again. After all, medical experts have been predicting a second wave for months. Children deserve the best educational experience possible – it’s absolutely the key to their future. And to be with their friends and peers. And parents need to be able to work.
Children are social creatures. The isolation created by lockdown and impact on their mental health has been so very hard for them. And all of us need social interaction and friendship to one degree or another. The enforced isolation and social distancing necessary to counteract the virulence of Covid-19 have had a huge impact on mental health. Whilst lockdown provided an opportunity to get on with jobs at home, which we had put off for years and to slow life down, it also offered a chance to reflect on what is important. But without the ebb and flow of social interaction, the longer social distancing went on, the more challenging it became for all of us.
Contrary to government messaging, I don’t think that the challenges presented by Covid-19 have created greater social cohesion. Rather, lockdown and social distancing have cumulatively created more insularity, more intolerant and selfish behaviours and less community trust. Solid friendships have flourished and it has been great to have been able to help people out where needed but I do worry about how our society may react to further lockdown measures. More are now coming into place over the winter when the days are short and the nights long and it so much harder to get out and about than in the summer.
So what exactly has been so challenging?
A question I’ve given plenty of thought. On a simple level, we are safe, well, housed, fed and watered; I still have work; we live in a beautiful place. We have so much to be thankful for.
I think that perhaps for me, the hardest challenges have been several: the intensity of living together 24×7; the stresses of filling in for teachers when we’re not educationalists; future income and work stability worries; the cumulative lack of face-to-face social interaction – screens and phones can only go so far; not being able to spend quality time with close family and friends And, perhaps most importantly, the continuing lack of certainty.
Perhaps many of these are first world problems but all of them are going to play their part in the “new normal” for the foreseeable future. This is a time of change for everyone.
So perhaps a lesson learnt is that it’s not just businesses that need to be able to flex and adapt to meet and survive intact the challenges generated by this global pandemic, but also ourselves.