Disasters, big or small, can happen to anyone at any time. However, when you are hired, disaster is someone else's problem.
Whether it's a major natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake, or a sick leave for days or even weeks, none of them are solely responsible or manage all issues without support.
However, when you are self-employed, you are your own IT help desk, your own human resources department, your own CEO. It's up to you to deal with any problem.
Therefore, this means planning ahead and doing some risk assessment and management to avoid future problems is a very good idea.
This page provides freelancers and self-employed people with some ideas for emergency and disaster planning.
What is a Disaster?
For the purposes of this page, a disaster is considered to be anything that could prevent you from working for an extended period of time. It therefore includes:
- Natural disasters: fire, flood, earthquakes, and the like, that affect and disrupt individuals and whole communities. These might be community-wide, or confined to your home: a flood from a burst pipe, for example, could mean that your office is inaccessible, or your computer access goes down, or even that you need to spend your working time sorting out the flood.
- Illness, either yours or someone else's, can disrupt your ability to work. If you are ill, you obviously cannot work, but you may still have deadlines to meet. Equally challenging could be an illness in your partner or close family member, or your childcare provider. These could mean that you have to take time off working to help them, or to care for your children.
- School holidays are not normally associated with ‘disaster' status, but for freelancers or home-workers, they can be a very challenging time. Organising childcare or making alternative arrangements ahead of time can ensure that you do not lose six weeks' work.
- Breakdowns in your normal support arrangements may mean that it is much harder to work. For example, your childminder giving notice can mean that you have to make alternative arrangements, or manage without support for a period. This is going to limit your ability to work. Problems with your internet access because of a servicing issue, for example, could mean that you lose several days' work.
None of these situations are necessarily preventable.
However, having contingency plans in place can mean that they are not as disruptive as might otherwise be the case.
There is no substitute for a good risk assessment and mitigation plan.
If you are worried about drawing up a risk assessment by yourself, get together with people who are interested in your business. Ask them to help you identify possible risks, and what you could do to mitigate them.
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What can you do to ensure that you can continue to work under most circumstances?
There are a number of fairly standard precautions that you can, and should, routinely take to ensure that your work is not disrupted by common and fairly predictable events. These include:
- Always backing up your work, at least once a week, and preferably every day. This will ensure that you always have a recent copy of any document or file, and will lose no more than a few hours' work at most.
- If you are not very tech-savvy, but depend heavily on technology to keep you working, have a contract or on-call arrangement with a local computer shop to sort out any problems. It is also worth keeping spare cables handy in case your Wi-Fi breaks down.
- Using external storage, such as cloud storage, for work, including any current projects. Cloud storage is readily available, and often free on a fairly small scale. Services like Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive offer relatively large amounts of storage at low or no cost, and you can save your work to them as you go. This means that you can access your work from any computer, your smartphone or tablet and therefore avoids problems if your computer ceases to work. There are questions about the security of cloud storage, but it is generally fairly reliable and accessible. For freelancers, it is a relatively safe back-up and security option.
WARNING! Security Issues
If you are storing any sensitive data to the cloud, make sure that your file is password-protected.
The new EU General Data Protection Regulation also means that if you are storing personal information about any European Union citizen—client emails, bank details, or addresses, for example—you will need to be clear how your cloud provider is storing and processing that data.
- Have alternative arrangements available for childcare, if necessary. For example, you might have a reciprocal arrangement with a friend that you will pick up each other's children from school if necessary, or be able to ask a neighbour or relative to pick up your children if you are ill. You will also need to inform the school or nursery of these arrangements.
- Make arrangements for planned childcare well in advance. Plan ahead for the school holidays, because holiday camps and venues are booked up pretty quickly. You can also often get better prices if you book early.
- Check out alternative venues for working, in case you cannot be at home. For example, does your local library or café have free Wi-Fi? How long could you spend there? Would you be able to make any phone calls from there? Make sure you know where you would go if your house is not usable for some reason.
It is worth spending a few hours working in your ‘substitute office' at least once, just so you know that it is possible!
This will also help you to identify if there is work that you will be unable to do there (for example, because it is confidential, or because of the noise levels), and plan how you will manage that if necessary.
- Consider whether you could delegate any of the work to other freelancers if you are ill. For example, if your job is writing, could you ask someone else to write some articles that you would then check before sending to your client? If you are a photographer, it might be worth checking out some of your competition, and perhaps suggesting a reciprocal cover arrangement with someone whose work you like. Crucially, set up the arrangement ahead of time so that, if you are ill, you do not have to think about it.
Extraordinary Contingency Plans
It is extremely hard to predict and manage really catastrophic events, such as a long-term illness. It is therefore worth considering some form of insurance, whether formal or informal.
Many people recommend holding savings that will keep you going for at least three to six months. This means enough that you could stop working for that period, and still be able to survive at your current level of outgoings. This gives you a ‘cushion' to cover a period of illness, or just a downturn in your industry that means that there is less work available, and gives you a chance to look round for an alternative.
It may be possible to take out insurance against certain problems, such as a serious illness or an injury that could prevent you working. You may have to shop around a bit to find a supplier who is willing to consider freelancers or self-employed people, but they do exist. This could be well worth while if you are doing work that comes with a risk of injury, such as construction work, although the insurance will be more expensive because of the risk. If nothing else, it is worth considering insurance to cover specific major outgoings like your mortgage or rent in the event of not being able to work. This may be easier to find than general income-substituting insurance, because it is less of an open-ended commitment, and you can insure for a specific sum, and under particular circumstances.
when you are self-employed, it is common to want to spend all your time on work, or finding work, and it always feels like there is insufficient money for your needs. Spending time on contingency planning, and money on insurance, can therefore seem like a waste.
It will, however, not be a waste if you need it.
It will also not be a waste if it gives you a better understanding of your business, and which bits you really need to manage for yourself. Contingency planning could even show you ways to expand your business in the future, or to manage more efficiently in the shorter term. It is therefore likely to be well worth the investment of time and money in both short and long term. More importantly, not doing it is a major risk, and probably not worth taking.