Learning on the job - reflections on my first year
Updated: May 25
It's almost exactly a year since I started Claire Aston Communications, and since travelling back in to the Christian Aid office earlier this week to swap my old laptop for my heels, I've been reflecting on what I've learnt in this first year of freelancing in a pandemic...
High heels are not essential business kit
It's nearly 14 months since I last wore these shoes for a work meeting, and I can hardly remember how to walk in them. Every work conversation since then has been held either at the kitchen table, or in the garden, or sometimes even on a dog walk. None of which requires heels. Sales of high heels went down 71% in the second quarter of 2020 apparently, and I'm not rushing out to buy another pair. I do slightly miss the variety of work outfits though...
Finding and supporting your freelance tribe, however, definitely is essential
Just before I actually took the leap from a sensible, salaried job, a colleague who'd jumped slightly earlier suggested we start a monthly Freelancers What Lunch club. It was an inspired move. She gathered a handful of us together and, just pre-Covid, we managed to meet for actual, in person, lunch twice early in 2020. Having swapped tales of why, and how, and what, we were all trying to do, we then locked down in our various flats and houses, and stayed in touch via WhatsApp and Zoom ever since. It's been fabulous to have a virtual place to ask the silly question (is this insurance quote trying to rip me off? what's the best way of tracking your hours?), and a smiling set of people to laugh with on Zoom.
Networking is still possible, and you don't even need canapés
There's no doubt about it, most work comes from people you know. Or people who know people you know. I am grateful for every friend and former colleague who has trusted me enough to recommend me for a new piece of work this past year. If that's you, thank you.
What's been fun has been meeting new people, often fellow freelancers, through what's a very supportive and amazing network run by Charity Comms. Without in-house training, I've instead joined Brand Breakfasts (without leaving my own breakfast table) and Campaign training days run by Charity Comms, and met fabulous new 'colleagues' in little virtual break out rooms, with whom I've shared struggles and joys, and then swapped future work ideas.
It's helped me feel less alone, find ways of learning about all manner of different topics, and have a really broad selection of people to bounce ideas around with, without leaving home.
Embracing my inner librarian
When I was 16, I had a Saturday job in the local library (which didn't look like this...). I chose it because the hours (1pm - 4pm) fitted in with my then priority of playing the clarinet in the borough wind orchestra every Saturday morning, and the pay was almost as good as a full day in a shop. But I also loved the peace and quiet.
My inner introvert thought that working from home would be a lovely way of writing quietly without the distractions of a large, open plan office, in which people constantly stopped at your desk to ask you something. I didn't bargain for two separate sets of home schooling!
Let's just say that it was quite some learning curve to work out how to find peace and quiet in a house not designed for four people, two of them under the age of 10, to all be 'working' from home at once. We got there though, which is quite an achievement in itself. I found ways of carving out little chunks of peaceful time, processing things when out on one of many, many family dog walks, and learning to embrace the genuine gift of sharing every living minute with our two boys and their home learning. I'm still not entirely sure what a fronted adverbial is though, and love a peaceful school day with no interruptions...
I am even more in awe of teachers than I was before the pandemic
See above! Also, with my school governor hat on, I have seen at close hand this year just how much more than teaching they do on a day to day basis. The effect of the pandemic in exacerbating existing inequalities has been well reported, and this year, schools have been at the front line - printing out work for those not online / bringing children into school because their parents aren't able to read well enough to help them at home / delivering meals around the local community / dual teaching some at home by zoom and the rest in the classroom, all whilst their partner home schools their own children, the list goes on. Amazing.
With my work hat on, I've learned more about ideas for the future of education by playing a tiny part in the production of The Educators - a fantastic series of films and podcasts with big names in education and learning sharing their experiences and asking some big questions.
Asking questions is always useful
One of the reasons I went freelance is because I wanted to help smaller charities with their communications. I said I wanted to help them 'see the wood for the trees', and this year, there have been a lot of trees! Through asking questions, about why a charity wants to communicate, or what exactly it is trying to say, and to whom, I hope I have helped tell some clearer, more effective stories. Certainly, I have learned a vast amount along the way, and I've had feedback that my role as that external questioner has helped clarify things internally.
Sometimes, when you're in a day job, running all the comms almost single handedly, it can be difficult to pause and reflect. I've enjoyed helping people take a step back, remember why they are doing what they are doing, and find practical ways - like new tone of voice and image guidelines, or some key messages for a project, that can really help clarify things.
I still love writing...
A year ago, I pondered whether just to offer strategic communications advice, or whether I should also offer my copywriting skills. I decided to go for both, and am glad I did. There is something tremendously satisfying about crafting a carefully worded piece of copy, and knowing that a charity's objective will be more clearly articulated to its audience as a result.
And in the meantime, I have learned all manner of things about all manner of different charities; from how Dementia UK offers really practical help to individuals and families living with the disease, to how The Leprosy Mission is helping people in the most remote areas live with, and overcome their leprosy, and how Christians In Sport is encouraging their members to get back out there and remember how much they love playing sport in person.
There is always someone struggling more than you and finding ways to be joyful
I knew this, anyway, after years of working in international development, but this year it has been even more apparent. Even when a deep winter lockdown meant that it was difficult to feel full of joy and hope, I knew that somewhere there was someone in much, much tougher circumstances who was finding ways of keeping going each day.
I've been completely inspired by the work of Refugee Action this year; I've been working with their Good Practice and Partnerships team, helping them move some of their work from face to face to digital, and finding ways of telling their story clearly. They work with people going through our complex and complicated immigration system - something that Covid has made even more challenging than usual. And yet they are always positive, practical, and hopeful.
It's inspired me to keep a global perspective, be grateful for what I have, and keep on keeping on. It feels like this year has been quite a journey. Thanks for sharing it with me.