I am a member of a number of online forums for Virtual Assistants. They are part of my online network and the discussions I get to take part in are always valuable and encourage me to think in different ways. With the last week being the half-term holiday for many schools, one of the forums asked its members how those who have children manage childcare alongside their work. The answers varied, with those who have school-age children generally having less of a conundrum than those with smaller children. I contributed my own experiences to this discussion but also observed the answers of others. What struck me was that there seemed to be two messages coming out; two schools of thought. One was that clients did not need to be told the ‘why’ details when Virtual Assistants are less available at times like these, and the other was that it was no problem for them to know that childcare was the reason. Those who felt strongly about the first opinion generally believed that it was better to tell clients that they are not available without saying it is due to childcare commitments. I understand this. After all, freelancers are responsible for managing their own time and their projects within that time. However, it did make me think a lot about how I probably, hand-on-heart, am more affiliated with the second school of thought. The completely honest approach, because it is the way I work myself. Indeed, I received a new client enquiry just before the half-term holiday began and I was open with them that I very much welcomed the opportunity to bid for the work and would be able to do so after the week had ended, as I was committed to caring for my children whilst they were at home and I would have limited time. The potential client was happy with this and I felt no regret in being honest.
I haven’t always been comfortable being so candid. When I was in my mid-late teens, I began my first weekend job selling clothes in an old mill shop. It was a brilliant experience for me because it helped me to come out of my shell and develop confidence interacting with people and of course having my first experience of earning a wage. During the initial weeks there, I met the owner of the shop. She was very pleasant and put me at ease, telling me about her plans for the business. One thing she said struck a chord with me though and I never forgot it. In outlining her expectations of me, she told me that work was for work, home was for home, and she had no interest in me bringing anything to do with my personal life into work. Family problems? Keep them at home. Boyfriend trouble? Keep it away. I got the message. And for a long time in my earlier roles, I headed this advice and kept my private life private, to the point where I probably came across as very aloof to my colleagues. The message I took from her warning was that we should become separate people when we are at work, almost as if we do not have personal lives at all that may impact on our day jobs. But then I was fortunate to begin to work for managers and with colleagues who did not share that philosophy and who understood that work and home often collide, even blend into one sometimes, and you cannot simply take off your ‘home’ coat because you are working. Those managers taught me that they valued me not just as a worker but as a worker with a home life that would sometimes encroach on my work life, even if I didn’t want it to. They recognised that this did not make me less good at what I did and their approach was instrumental in helping us all to have the balance between work and home.
It is this that encouraged me over time to have the confidence to adopt my own approach of real openness with my employers and subsequently my clients. It taught me not to fear the consequence of honesty. I carry this philosophy with me throughout my life, even when those around me might occasionally caution me not to. But I see no reason to hide things just because they do not fit with a corporate image or ideal. I am open with my clients, that I am a working mother with young children. Being freelance means I can work more flexibly but this doesn’t mean the quality of my work is affected.
Whatever your philosophy, it is important to recognise that we are living in a working age where it is no longer all about the ‘9-5’ and separating our private lives. We should not be afraid to be honest about our private lives in our working lives. We should not be worried that our clients will think less of us, simply because we shine a light on the fact that we are people first and business people second.