Whether you’re a freelancer or the owner of a small design firm, there are times when the workload is simply too much for you to handle. Rather than playing Russian Roulette with your client base to decide who you’re going to let go, you should consider expanding your team to take advantage of the increase in available work.
Below you’ll find some signs to look for to help decide if it’s time for you to expand your team along with some practical tips on how to do it.
The first area to examine is how your work is affecting you on a personal level. The ultimate goal is to find both personal and professional fulfillment in your work, but in reality, your dream job can leave you feeling profoundly unfulfilled if the workload is too intense.
#1 Constant Stress
Odds are, you became a designer because it’s something that you love to do. Every now and then you need to ask yourself if you’re getting what you wanted, ie. are you loving your work? If you’re constantly in a state of chronic stress about your workload, then the answer is going to be “no.”
They key to this tip is to identify unhealthy stress. As a freelancer or business owner, you know that stress is built into the job; that’s just how it works. Juggling clients and deadlines should stress you out enough to spur you into getting the job done. In other words, a healthy stress level can be a good thing. However, if you’re constantly battling with a completely overwhelming feeling that you simply can’t finish the work in time, it’s time to reevaluate your position and consider seeking help.
#2 Lack of Sleep
The freelancers I know (myself included) are famous for crazy work hours. Faced with a tight deadline for a valuable client, good freelancers will work through the night to get the job done. In fact, many designers are just naturally night owls and prefer to work in the evening.
However, as with all of these tips, there is a tipping point. If your office trash can is overflowing with empty Mountain Dew cans consumed after midnight for the caffeine and your eyes look like Vincent Schiavelli’s, you might not be getting enough sleep.
Not getting enough sleep goes way beyond droopy eyes, it can really take a toll on your overall health. If you can’t remember the last time you got more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep on a week night, you’re probably stretching yourself too thin.
#3 Suffering Family Life
This is perhaps the most important sign to watch out for because it has the most potential to literally wreck your life. If you’re married and/or have children, all of the factors above can really start to take a toll on your family life. I’m not saying you should freak out every time your little boy asks when you’re going to stop working, but I will urge you to take a serious look at the balance of time you’re spending between work and family.
If you’re a family man/woman, being an integral part of that family is the most important role you can play in life; everything else is secondary. This means finding that delicate balance between working to provide for your family and actually being there for them. Be frank, ask the people closest to you whether they think you’re spending too much time away (even if “away” is only in the next room on your computer).
#4 Non-Existant Social Life
Whether or not you have a family you will ideally have enough time outside of work to attempt a social life. When I was in college, I always told my friends I couldn’t go out because I had to much homework, meanwhile promising that things would be different when I graduated. After graduation I found that my life stayed the same, only the excuse had changed. Now I had too much actual work to go out with anything less than two month’s notice.
I’m not pretending to be Dr. Phil so I won’t rant about self worth in relation to social interactions. What I can tell you is that the single fastest way to get completely burnt out in regard to your profession is to neglect having fun elsewhere. Even if you absolutely love your job, if it’s absolutely all you do for six years, you will crash and burn in the form of waking up one day hating your life. If you’re legitimately too swamped with work to catch an occasional movie, baseball game, etc., you need to think about hiring an extra set of hands.
The other area that can be affected by your work overload is your professional life. Read below to see how working too hard on your career can actually be self defeating.
#5 Decreased Worker Morale
If you already have a small team of designers, an insurmountable work load can have the effect of wearing on relationships between members and a declining respect for the team lead. In turn, these things can lead to a dramatic decrease in productivity and the ultimate loss of key performers.
Those who already have a team can be especially prone to ignore the need for more help in favor of the squeezing more profit out of fewer workers. Don’t make the mistake of pushing people until they break unless you are prepared to accept the disastrous results. You have every right to demand the best from your employees but absolutely no right to undermine their value as individuals by working them beyond a reasonable capacity because you know they’re too afraid to quit.
Every business professor in every university will tell you that keeping the project to employee ratio at a level that greatly challenges (and rewards) every team member but stays well within a reasonable and possible range is the best way to maximize the potential of the people working under you. The consequence of this truth is often taking an initial cut in profitability in favor of a long-term increase in productivity.
#6 Endless Clerical Duties
When you build up a decent client base, you quickly learn that half the job (or more) is made up of taking and initiating phone calls, reading and replying to emails, scheduling due dates, drafting quotes, sending files to printers, and various other “non-design” duties. This type of work is absolutely necessary but can drastically cut into the time you need to actually do what you’re getting paid for: design work.
Time yourself on a typical day to see how long you spend on design vs. supporting tasks to see if you need to look into getting an office manager or secretary.
#7 Declining Quality
As you take on more and more work, you obviously have to be stricter about the amount of time spent on any given project. Initially, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can in fact teach you a lot about proper time management. However, you will eventually reach a point where you not only can’t spend the time you want on each project, but can’t spend the time you need on each project to ensure that you’re turning out quality work.
As work quality declines, so does your reputation. If you’re not careful, your work surplus will vanish quickly leaving behind a crippling deficit.
#8 Missed Deadlines
If the workflow problem really gets serious, you’ll start making promises you can’t keep. You’ll be so overloaded that even the most generous of timelines will leave you wanting for a few more hours or even days to get the job done.
Some clients will be forgiving regarding the occasional request for extra time. However, if a pattern develops, you can bet on all of your clients to start looking elsewhere. Continually missing deadlines is the single best way to find yourself with a drastically reduced number of repeat clients.
#9 Loss of Clients
The ultimate result of all of the professional signs listed above is the loss of clients. If the people who are paying you can’t contact you when they need to, see a decline in the quality of work you’re giving them, and frequently have to make excuses about why their designer isn’t meeting the deadlines put forth, they will simply stop coming to you for work.
The client relationship is such that it is usually quite easy to terminate. There is no necessary paperwork or legal procedures, the phone just stops ringing one day as your clients begin to use one of the thousand other freelance designers in your city. Chances are, by the time you realize what has happened, they’ve already found your replacement and are therefore nearly impossible to win back. Never make the mistake of assuming that you are an irreplaceable asset to any of your customers, even if they tell you exactly that. A quick Google search should be enough to prove that there are far more freelancers chasing work than employers chasing freelancers. The cold hard truth is that you can and will be replaced swiftly and without remorse.
#10 Missed Opportunities
The last sign that you need to expand your team doesn’t affect your current work as much as it does your potential for work. Simple math dictates that more opportunities equals more clients which equals more income. However, if you’re reaching the point of maximum output you’ll find yourself constantly turning down additional work. Unless you’re supremely satisfied with your current level of income, this is extremely undesirable.
Turning down quality opportunities for an increased workload can leave you with a stagnant, albeit busy, career. The single greatest professional benefit that adding to your team can have is opening up new possibilities for you to increase your potential. If you’re one of the lucky few that can grow your little design business into something greater than yourself, then by all means pursue it with all you’ve got.
Thoughts on Expanding
Now that you’ve read the signs above you’ve either come to the conclusion that your` workload isn’t so bad or finally admitted that you may need to start looking for some extra hands to lighten the load. If it’s the latter, remember that this is actually a good thing. Any freelancer will tell you that too much work is far better than too little. Here’s a couple of tips to get you started on your search.
If it’s a designer you’re looking for, the current unemployment rates across the globe ensure that you will have no shortage of talent to choose from. The clients that I’ve talked to recently about this very thing indicate that a single ad on Craigslist in search of a designer will net you well above three hundred responses. There are also dozens of job sites out there that can match or better that response rate and provide higher quality candidates.
What this means for you, other than the fact that you’ll be sifting through portfolios for hours on end, is that you have a profound amount of freedom to dictate who you hire to help. If you’re patient and actually take the time to sort through the responses, you’re almost sure to find a candidate matching your needs.
For all our sake, just be sure not to take advantage of anyone. I can’t count the number of listings I’ve seen lately asking for candidates with a minimum of five years of web design experience offering $10/hr in a major US city. Find someone with credentials that merit a price you can afford and pay them what they’re worth.
Freelancer or Employee?
This is an incredibly important question that will greatly affect the obligations of both parties. Both sides benefit from the stability of an actual employee relationship. You have a much greater chance of being able to procure the person on a regular basis and they feel better about having a guaranteed stream of work. Further, it is often the case that you can hire someone for much cheaper if you’re willing to take them on as a salary employee as opposed to an hourly wage.
However, if you’re a one man/woman business, taking on an employee can have a ton of complications that you might or might not wish to avoid. Suddenly you have to consider health plans, vacation time, sick days, complicated taxes, extra liability insurance and all the rest of the fun stuff that comes with being an employer. If these words make you want to run back to pulling all-nighters and missing deadlines, you’re probably more fit for a freelance relationship. It might cost you a bit more than an actual employee, and you won’t be able to demand the accountability that you would if you were an official employer, but it does provide you with a lot less legal headaches in the short run.
What Do You Think?
What do you do when the workload becomes too much to bear? Are you a one designer show, too proud to call in reinforcements or do you have someone on stand-by ready to help out? Use the comment section below to let us know how you decide where your breaking point lies and where you turn for help.