Should a freelancer set office hours? The simple answer is YES!
Will you always follow your office hours? Frequently not. But that’s OK too.
Many starting freelancers see setting office hours as being too restrictive. They want to literally be ‘free’ to work whenever they want, wherever they want. And I get it, I really do. However, after a short time, I came to find that setting what I call ‘phone hours’ was very necessary. You do not want to be the pictured freelance lady above, answering client phone calls at any time of day or night. Yes you can work with clients located around the world in different time zones, but you also want clients, or potential clients, to speak with you when you are at your best. [And I know I am not at my best when I’ve been awoken from sleep, that’s for sure.]
I do frequently work before or after my 9 AM – 4 PM EST time slot, but by having set these hours I no longer have to worry about phone calls interrupting my sleep … or my family time. I had three main priorities when I started my business: 1) I wanted to make enough income to cover my half of the bills (making more is gravy!), 2) I wanted to be able to ditch the day care and have more flexibility to be an available mom for my young kids, and 3) I wanted to reduce my stress level. [Reducing my stress level was more of a medical need for me, due to some health issues I was diagnosed with, but who really enjoys stress, right?]
When I started freelancing full-time, I quickly found that by not setting office hours, clients thought they could call me at any time, day or night, week day … or weekend! Not setting office hours was not freeing at all. It actually encroached on my ability to have free time with my family and was indeed stressing me out.
My advice to starting freelancers is to set hours that you plan to regularly be available for calls. If a special time for a phone call after or before those hours needs to be arranged, urge your clients, or prospects to schedule that with you via whatever on-line method you prefer. You are your own boss and can be flexible with when you actually perform the work, and can schedule calls whenever you are available. I have found that clients will actually respect you more if they know how, and what time of day, to best get a hold of you.
Instead of restricting your new business, setting phone hours is incredibly freeing.
Also, do not be afraid to use voice mail and caller ID to your advantage. If you are neck-deep in a project with an encroaching deadline and someone calls you – you do not have to answer it. Even when I worked for someone else, I was occasionally off-site, stuck in a meeting, or I occasionally needed to eat lunch or use the restroom (gasp!). Do not fear that you will lose a potential client if you miss a single call. Make sure your outgoing message is professional to cover you when they can’t reach you right away … and then whether the caller is personal or business-related, if their call is important they will leave you a message. You can call them back right away, or when you get your current project complete. Please note that you may want to let your immediate family members know that you do sometimes screen calls so that they will leave a message in a true emergency (i.e. your teenager locks their keys in the car and if you don’t answer they think you’re not home.)
A certain amount of unavailability can even make you look better. You definitely don’t want to overdo this and then appear like you are never available, but on the flip-side, if you always seem to be ‘sitting on the phone’ your clients may start to think they are your only client. That’s never a good idea.