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Robust business continuity when working as a freelancer

Posted on 1st July 2019; minor edits in April 2021

Please excuse the long backstory, but hopefully this will all make sense. In early 2018, I did a sample copy-edit for a PhD candidate (let's call him Joe). I copy-edited the chapter and returned it to the client, and though he was very pleased with my work, I didn't feel I was the right person to continue with the project. Instead, I put Joe in touch with a colleague (let's call him Jack) as I thought Jack was the perfect fit for the project. Both Jack and Joe were very happy and all seemed fine. Fast forward a few months and I got an email from Joe asking if I had heard from Jack lately. Jack isn't a close friend or colleague, so for me not to have heard from him was not a concern. However, Joe had been trying to communicate with him for a few weeks and getting no response. This then happened a second time a month or so later. As it transpired, Jack had health problems and was unable to reply, but when there's no one else in the business to reply on a sole trader's behalf, how can Joe or any other client feel reassured?

Well, this is a conundrum I have often thought about. When I worked for a global investment company, business continuity was a major consideration, so much so we had a complete back-up office with all the equipment required to run essential services and every so often had dummy runs on how we would access that building (not on any maps or advertised anywhere) and check that we did indeed have all the necessary items in place for the business to carry on. Funnily enough, my freelance editing and proofreading service isn't lucrative enough for me to have an entire back-up office! I've discussed the joys of cloud-based storage and IMAP emails in other blog posts, such as this one about the technology side and this one looking at location-independent proofreading service practicalities that I think overlap with everyday business continuity planning, so that's not what I am going to discuss here.

Instead, the focus here is on how I want to help clients feel reassured that though they are choosing me for their editing and proofreading needs, I have considered worst-case scenarios and have processes in place if unforeseen circumstances mean I am unable to work.

Everyone approaches admin differently, but I am a big fan of spreadsheets and also of keeping on top of my emails. My inbox only has emails in it related to current projects or those booked in for the near future. I then have a tab on my accounting spreadsheet that lists all upcoming projects, used in a sort of diary way.

If I were to be hit by a bus, or rushed into hospital for some other reason, my husband, Peter Haigh, will be able to access my emails and contact current clients to advise of the situation. He can also access my spreadsheet in case he needs details about work booked but that's further into the future.

Since 2010, when I set up my freelance editing and proofreading business, I have (touch wood) only had one week of unexpected time off work. I had labyrinthitis and couldn't move my head without feeling sick (or being sick for the first day, before I got some wonderful drugs!) or dizzy. Peter stepped in and contacted my clients on my behalf. On that occasion, I was well enough to be able to tell Peter which clients needed to be informed. Peter was able to find a colleague to take on an urgent project, and my other clients were thankfully willing to wait until I was well.

But after the advent of GDPR and with the story at the top of the blog post fresh in my mind, I thought I should formalise this. Consequently, I have updated my privacy notice to make it clear that Peter has access to my emails in any force majeure event. I would hope he'll answer my phone too, but of course it might depend on the nature of why I am not able to work so email would probably be more reliable.

I realise I haven't accounted for what happens if both Peter and I end up under a bus (why is it always a bus that I think I'll go under?!) but that might be sufficiently newsworthy that people will find out through other means.

I always aim to answer emails in a timely manner, which to me means within a business day (Monday to Friday). If I am out of the office, I put on an autoresponder with dates of when I am away. I provide my phone number when I start working with people and have a LinkedIn account, so I would hope that if I have an email issue I am unaware of or someone needs to contact me urgently, there are other ways for clients to get in touch. In turn, I hope I have covered all bases and reassured clients that though they are employing a sole trader, I am reliable and reachable and have considered back-up options for worst-case scenarios.

I appreciate that I am fortunate to have Peter to do this. I'd be interested in hearing how other sole traders deal with this risk, and whether there are efficient and cost-effective ways of more formally covering these scenarios.

Written by Kate Haigh.