Up at 6:30 am. Walk the dog. Eat breakfast. A day’s work, punctuated by a mid-morning break, a half-hour lunch slot and an afternoon break. Then gym, home, dinner, television, bed.
Sound familiar? It is the daily schedule for so many people across the globe. It’s a workday routine that might see you fret through a long commute on a packed train or rue time wasted in traffic as everyone heads for the bottleneck that is the commercial centre of your town or city.
You might yawn your way through meetings that are not relevant to you, or sit at your desk checking social media until the end of the day, because you finished your work and there isn’t time to start something else.
Not you? Well that was certainly me.
So I decided to make a change, leaving the security of my regular nine-to-five grind for the gig economy. At the time, my decision generated one of two responses: “Wow, that’s amazing,” or “Oh my God, you’re nuts.” I prefer the first, although there have been times — scary times — when the second response resonated more with me.
I arrived at this decision in 2012 while working for a publishing house in the UK. I got a secondment to work for three months at the London Olympic Games as head of the field hockey media operation. During that time I met several people from across the world who were involved in running national field hockey associations, and it suddenly became clear that I could find plenty of freelance work writing for these organizations, if I was prepared to work a little differently.
Fast-forward six years and I am now an international field hockey journalist. I write for the Pan American Hockey Federation (PAHF), the Swiss-based International Hockey Federation (FIH), a New-Zealand-based magazine called Planet Hockey, the European Hockey Federation (EHF) and a number of other hockey-focused publications. My clients are based across the globe but I work from my home, which is in a rural corner of the UK.
All this has been made possible because of two things: digital technology and my willingness to approach the working day differently.
A typical day for me still begins at 6:30 am when I check my emails to see what has been happening on the other side of the world. My inbox will usually have messages from my Australian and New Zealand contacts. I work until about midday, then I will take a two- to three-hour break, which could include a bicycle ride, a walk with the dog or meeting a friend for coffee. In late afternoon, my work from Canada, the U.S. and the South American nations starts to pour in. I spend a few hours working, and then I switch all devices off.
This is the usual pattern, but depending on work demands it could look very different. For example, during the 2016 Rio Olympics, I worked completely on Brazilian time. (I even made sure I had some Brazilian cachaça on hand so I could get into the celebratory mood!)
The most extreme example of rearranging the working day occurred at a recent international field hockey event that took place in New Zealand. I was reporting on the event from home, which meant rising and starting work as the rest of the UK was going to bed. There is something both surreal and magical about looking out of the window across a dark garden knowing that you are involved in something that’s happening on the other side of the world.
My most effective tools are Skype and WhatsApp. I interview athletes via Skype or, in some cases, I will send my questions to the athletes or coaches who record their answers and return them via WhatsApp as audio files.
There can be a language barrier. For those players who are not native English speakers — mainly Spanish speakers from Argentina — I use a translator who sits in on the Skype call or I send the questions by email so the athletes can take their time responding. One Argentinian player uses Google Translate in every communication we have. In return, I have started using the same program to send my questions in Spanish — it doesn’t always translate accurately but we have had a few shared laughs as a result.
It’s actually not just the non-English speakers who I sometimes have problems communicating with. I spent a few long minutes explaining to a Canadian colleague what the phrase “chuffed to bits,” meant. (For the record, it means very pleased.)
For me, one of the greatest benefits of my new way of working is the way I view myself. It might sound pretentious but I feel as if I have no physical borders to my working life. I see myself as a truly global citizen. Not because I am dashing about the world reporting from different sports venues, although that sometimes is a benefit of my work, but because I spend my days networking and communicating with people from around the world. There is now an amazing diversity and richness to the work I am asked to do.
The other benefit to changing my working ways is the balance I have been able to add to my life. I was worn out by the never-ending sameness of the nine-to-five working day. The rush to be first to work means everyone is travelling to the same spot at the same time. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that, in any busy cosmopolitan area, a huge influx of people all rushing to be somewhere at the same time will cause stress levels to rise.
Office politics got me down. I didn’t see the need for endless meetings which seemed purely a chance for everyone to say precisely nothing of interest. It often seemed like a game that everyone had to play but that no one really enjoyed.
Working from my home office and in different time zones gives me a lot of control over my life. I can decide when I am available to talk to my contact in New Zealand. I can organize my day so that I can visit friends before settling down to interview a coach from Argentina in the evening. It is just a question of planning.
Of course, there are also downsides to freelancing. It can be isolating. Despite my dislike of meetings generally, I sometimes crave catching up with colleagues just to hear other people’s ideas or to share some gallows humour about some aspect of work. There are days when I wish a boss would look over my shoulder and say “well done.” Freelancers rarely get that.
And being “on” in a 24/7 world can be exhausting. It might be nightfall in Europe but in Canada it is just the afternoon and someone wants to discuss an article idea. There are times when I just have to switch off all devices. In fact, if there is one takeaway I would want to stress to everyone in the world of work today it is this: make sure you are strict when it comes to turning off devices. It’s the only way to give yourself a break.
But these are small prices to pay compared to the enormous sense of freedom I get from my work life. There is something exhilarating about knowing that something is always happening in your working world. I might be about to turn off the light and step back from the action but, for others I work with, the new day has just begun, and when I want to I can jump right in and join the fun, from my little corner of the world.
HOW TO ACHIEVE BALANCE IN A 24/7 WORKPLACE:
- Have strict rules about when you can be contacted.
- Plan your time carefully. If you have a Skype call scheduled for midnight, don’t schedule any work early the next morning.
- Ensure you build exercise or other well-being tools into your daily life.
- Take time to nurture your real social networks. Arrange to meet friends for a coffee or a meal.
- Play to your strengths. If you are a morning person, try to arrange all your most challenging or creative work to take place in the early part of the day.
- Don’t be afraid to turn all devices off. The world will wait for you.