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Summary:

These days, I tend to think of my approach to work in terms of “work policies”. That way, I get a degree of distance — the kind of distance that makes it easier to see things objectively, and change them relatively painlessly to greater effect.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein

If Einstein was right, it’s fair to say that a quick review of some of my approaches to remote work might lead you to believe I’m certifiable! A number of recent events have caused me to realize that the approaches I continue to use in various areas of my work simply aren’t working.

In the past, coming to terms with this, and making changes to my behavior might have been a big challenge. After all, it can be hard to be objective about your own behavior, especially when it’s tied to something — like your own business — in which you have a large personal investment.

But these days, I tend to think of my approach to work in terms of “work policies”. By consciously boxing up the ways I operate into work policies, I get a degree of distance — the kind of distance that makes it easier to see things objectively, and change them relatively painlessly to greater effect.

What’s a Remote Work Policy?

My remote work policies take in the mechanics of remote work. As examples, I have “policies” for everything from invoicing to shaping my work day, from the way I respond to low-tech colleagues to the way I go about finding work.

They’re not written down and filed in a cabinet, but when I think about particular remote work challenges, I think of them as policies rather than just “part of the way I do things”. Calling these “policies” is of course just a convenience (they could be called behaviors, or approaches, for example), but it does achieve two helpful objectives.

First, it helps me break these behaviors into definable classes. My invoicing policy takes in a range of behaviors that relate to invoicing: how I track my hours, how I submit invoices, how I chase them up, how I decide on my rates, and so on.

Secondly, calling these “policies” distances them from me — from who I am and the way I operate. This makes it easier to view my behavior objectively, and think about ways to make my approach more effective. This might all sound a bit cute for you, but it works for me: if I decide to review my policy for responding to non-technical colleagues, it’s not quite as daunting as telling myself I need to rethink the way I work with people.

Humans see behavior as a means of personal self-expression. But policies are like tools: they serve a purpose, and are dispensable if better options come along. My work policies give me the flexibility to change and adapt as painlessly as possible.

Is it Time for a Policy Review?

You could be the organized type who reviews their policies periodically — once a month, for example, on a Friday — but my approach to this is pretty fluid. As a freelancing friend once remarked to me, most of us just go along with the status quo until life stands up and punches us in the face. My trigger for policy review is usually that something’s gone wrong.

Things go awry all the time in work, but each time something does, I try to backtrack and see if my approach to this issue — my work policy — is a problem. Often enough, it’s a one-off hiccup, and I’m happy to keep my policy in place.

When I experience multiple issues in one area, though, I usually take it as a sign to review my policy. And that’s what’s happened this year. For some reason, I’ve had extraordinary difficulty extracting cash from a number of perfectly happy clients: there were inexplicable and unexpected delays, confusion and miscommunication, and so on. I decided I couldn’t just put all this down to some kind of GFC backlash; there were other issues at play. Yet, like Einstein’s madman, I just kept doing what I was doing … and getting the same result.

In the end, the woeful state of my bank balance was the proverbial punch in the face. I decided it was time to review my invoicing policy.

The Review Process

As I said, one of the great things about having work policies is that it lets you disengage emotionally from your behavior, and be objective about what’s working and what’s not.

When I started to review my invoicing policy, I found that I was being hampered, to a large degree, by the payment processes my late-paying clients used. In the past, my clients had had more reliable payment processes, and my invoicing policy (terms, payment methods, follow-up procedures and so on) had reflected that. But many of the clients I’m working with now have less predictable payment processes.

This realization made me look more broadly at my expanded client base and the cashflow conditions businesses in this industry are working with. I swiftly understood that these market conditions significantly restrict the contractor’s potential to negotiate favorable payment terms. Effectively, if I want to work in this industry, I realized, I need to accept the flaky payment schedules.

Having reached this point, I took yet another step back: I saw that I needed to alter my expectations of how this new client base could fit into my overall plan for earning a living. In the end I’d need to alter not just my invoicing policy, but my earning policy as well.

In a nutshell, my policy review involved three steps:

  1. Using a case example as a starting point by which to identify potential problems within the policy in question
  2. Progressively stepping back further and further in the search for policy perspective
  3. Looking at other, possibly related policies which are working just fine, to see if there’s a way in which these can be adapted to positively influence the problem policy

Developing New Policy

So I’d identified a bunch of problems, most of them around invoicing, but also around how I generate cashflow. I made a series of plans for action on both policies.

My plans for developing a new invoicing policy involve finding new cashflow management software that suits the changing needs of my operation, scheduling a regular time slot to oversee my cashflow, send new invoices, and chase up outstanding ones. The review itself gave me a clear understanding of how different clients in different industries manage their payment schedules, and now I can take that into account in my cashflow planning.

My earnings policy also underwent an overhaul as I reshuffled my priorities, revisited the budget, reworked my project schedules, and reconsidered the industries I’m working in and want to work in. In effect, reworking my earnings policy also required tweaks to my scheduling, work sourcing, and spending policies. The changes I’m already making here will, I hope, ensure both a steady, reliable income while allowing me to pursue my goals in the new industries I’m so keep to operate in.

Seeing my operations as a series of policies really works for me, and gives me direction when something stops working. What techniques do you use to ensure you don’t get caught up in the minutiae of work problems, and make effective changes that benefit your remote work process overall?

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By Georgina Laidlaw

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  1. My policies are all in my head. I’ve never written them down. Do we really need to make them formal?

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