I think I always knew I wasn’t cut out for a 9-to-5 job behind a desk at someone else’s office. I did it for a while anyway, spending several years climbing the corporate ladder in an advertising agency before I realised that the nagging feeling that I was missing out on life just wouldn’t go away.
So I left to work for myself instead. So far, so normal: the freelance life is one that people seem to be choosing more and more, and in that respect, I was one of many.
But I decided to switch to a wildly different industry and pursue a childhood dream.
You see, I’d always wanted to be a private investigator.
As a kid, I played Spies all the time and tried to solve the mysteries of everyday life: What did adults talk about after I went to bed? (Answer: Not very much); What was the thing I’d overheard Grandma telling Mum she’d hidden in the air vent in the living room? (Answer: Her will).
As a teenager, I read too many detective novels, something that continued into my adult life. And then one day I just decided to do it. I sent off for a private investigation correspondence course, got my qualification, quit the day job and set it all up.
For a number of reasons, I ended up specialising in cybercrime, and now I’m a digital forensic investigator. Which is pretty much the coolest job in the world.
But it doesn’t come without its challenges, and one of those is dealing with the reactions of clients when I’m inevitably jetting off to far-flung places. These days I’m a digital nomad, which means that I call a lot of different places home – generally, wherever I happen to be with my computer. I do have a base in England, which is my primary home, but I don’t spend much time in it.
There are a lot of challenges associated with this style of life: organisation, cultural differences, wifi connectivity, and so on. But one of the hardest is just dealing with clients’ preconceptions about what travelling means.
It doesn’t mean you’re always on holiday.
When I first emailed one of my clients and said something like “I’ll be in Amsterdam that week, but yes, I can do a call on Monday,” I was surprised at their reaction. Rather than just saying “OK, sure” and suggesting a time, they started questioning me. Would I still be able to do the work? Being abroad meant I must be on holiday, surely? How long would I be “out of the office” for?
I found this slightly amusing, considering that in general my “office” is either my living room, various coffee shops, the patch of grass in the park across the road where I can still connect to my wifi…
But part of working for yourself is addressing your clients’ concerns. And I discovered after speaking to a few of them that the first client’s reaction wasn’t unusual. Here’s what I do to try to reassure clients that my being abroad doesn’t mean I won’t be able to do my job effectively.
A lot of the work I do is highly sensitive. Even if it weren’t, it would still be important to keep my clients’ data as safe as possible. I make sure I encrypt communications with certain clients; I travel with an encrypted external hard drive on which I store my files, rather than storing them on my computer itself. In general, I try not to work on active investigations while I’m on the road. Instead, I work on the peripheral things while I’m travelling and leave the forensics stuff until I get home. If it can’t be avoided, then I use a virtual machine inside my physical computer.
Now, if you’re not investigating crimes, you probably won’t need to worry about many of these, but security is still important regardless of your job, so taking certain sensible precautions is always a good idea.
If you’re on the East Coast of the USA and your clients are mainly based in the UK, it can be difficult to maintain your usual level of communications. You’re probably not going to want to get up at 4am to check your inbox at 9am London time, and nor should you have to.
However, it is advisable to try to make at least some of your day overlap with office hours in your clients’ countries. This means you’ll be able to take calls, deal with any urgent requests, and so on.
Of course this is more challenging in some time zones than in others, but it’s usually possible to either start work a bit earlier than usual or stay a bit later, just so your clients can see that you’re still around, even if you’re on the other side of the ocean.
The thing is, clients aren’t entirely wrong to be a little concerned. Full disclosure: I have in the past found myself sitting in a motel room, knowing it’s 34 degrees outside and there’s a beautiful pool a couple of floors below me (not to mention a golden-sand beach across the street), and been desperate to just jack it all in and not bother with that day’s tasks.
This is one of the things people say to you when they discover you work for yourself: “Oh, that’s great! You can just do what you want!” It’s like they think that “freelance” means “free all day”. It doesn’t. And it’s important – perhaps even more so than if you’re working in a traditional office – to stick to your work schedule and get stuff done. It’s all too easy to fall out of a routine, especially if you’re dealing with both jetlag and the temptation of new, exciting surroundings at the same time.
Don’t Tell Them You’re Going
This is a tactic I’ve developed recently, and it seems to be the most effective one of all. It can feel a little dishonest, but at the same time, why would your client need to know which area you’re sitting in to do your job? If you’d decided to spend Thursday working from the coffee shop at the end of your street instead of your living room, would you email them the day before to tell them that? Of course you wouldn’t.
So why do it when you’re going abroad?
Assuming you’re not expected to work from their HQ or to be able to get to meetings in a specific place at short notice, there is no actual reason for your client to know your physical location, unless you believe it’s going to impact on your ability to do the job. And if you do believe that then, well, perhaps you need to evaluate why that’s the case.
In conclusion: we all know clients are going to freak out at the slightest opportunity. One of our jobs as freelancers is to make sure they don’t do that. And as digital nomads, that involves protecting them from their own fears about our travel plans.
What do you think? Do you agree? How have your clients reacted when you’ve taken your business abroad – either permanently or just for a short time?