Work-life balance as an IT contractor: 5 top tips from a tech recruiter

One of the benefits of contracting is the potential for flexibility and achieving an optimum work-life balance.

Unfortunately, with demanding clients and multi-faceted assignments, a good work-life balance isn’t always easy to strike, in practice.

And this difficulty in balancing your technology work nicely with your non-working life increases in a digital era where mobile devices are designed to keep us connected.

But if greater flexibility and control are what you want, then read on --  as I’m going to share five things IT contractors can do to stand the best chance of separating and balancing out the professional and the personal, writes Jamie Spencer, head of technology, media and telecoms at leading STEM recruitment specialist Matchtech.

1. Count the commitments you agree to, keep track, and know them well

While it’s true that contracting in the UK technology and IT industry can offer greater control over the work you do, it doesn’t automatically deliver a more balanced lifestyle.

As an IT contractor, you are more in control (than just about any other type of technology worker), meaning you will manage your own workload.

Sometimes, juggling more than one contract at a time can be challenging though, particularly where you are required on-site. Striking that balance can be difficult. To maintain a healthy work-life balance, you must pay attention to your commitments and how they fit into your lifestyle. Tally up your commitments if it’ll help, as you mustn’t bite off more than you chew.

2. Find the contracting structure which suits you

With contracting, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Based on your field, level of experience, and the service/skills you provide, there are several structures to choose from, including the trusty limited company and more common of late, the umbrella company.

If you do choose to operate via your own limited company, the norm is to use recruitment agencies to help source you consistent work. While this can offer you a greater level of control, you’ll need to pay attention to the IR35 status of the assignments you go forward for.

In fact, if you operate as a limited company, all new contract assignments (except for those where a ‘small company’ is the end-client), are required to specify whether the role falls inside or outside IR35. This status needs to be made clear ahead of the role’s commencement. If a contract falls outside IR35, you are generally considered as self-employed, operating as an independent business entity.

So using your own PSC outside IR35 gives you a level of control over deliverables and timeframe. But be aware – you’ll still be bound by the terms and agreements set out in your contract. As a result, any time off-you want for a holiday should ideally be mutually agreeable to the contractual parties.

For some technology workers, contracting through an umbrella company is a better option, as the admin required to run a company, including IR35 compliance, can outweigh the tax-efficiencies which a PSC offers.

Currently unregulated, umbrella companies serve as an intermediary between you and the client and will handle administrative and financial tasks for you. You'll still use agencies to source work and contracts will still be a consideration, notably with the umbrella itself.

If neither umbrella nor PSC appeal, some technology workers operate on a sole trader basis, and others club together to form a consultancy using the LLP model. 

So it’s horses for courses. But choosing which structure is best for you depends on your field and personal preference. Before deciding which model fits best with your lifestyle and professional values, research some of the professional services available to support each model. Signing up to a few of those services should eventually allow you to free up some time to focus on the things that are important to you, personally.

If it helps you to know -- to inform your decision, it is currently the case that businesses are still keen to monopolise contractors' time. But we are starting to see a significant shift in the IT contracting market, as businesses move to recognise the importance of balancing their need for contractors' time with the contractors' desire for autonomy. As a result, we are seeing more agreements between contractors and businesses that lay out specific deliverables and timeframes.

3. Fine-tune your communication

Research shows that people are happiest when they feel understood both personally and professionally! Though contractors still often work alone, maintaining clear lines of communication with clients, and us agents, is key to healthy, productive working.

Before embarking on any new role, a contractor will have an opening to negotiate the contract.

Clear, open, and honest communication right from the start will allow you to voice the things that are important to you -- and research shows that what’s important to contractors in 2023 is work-life balance. Your objective is to conclude the negotiations with a contract which ‘works’ with your lifestyle.

As a contractor, you may be required to work with new groups of people, often in a remote environment. Again, communicating well from the outset will help you and your peers land on the same page sooner rather than later, so aspects of your day-to-day such as working toward the same goal within the agreed timeframes (set by the business at the start of your contract), should be easier to achieve.

Despite contracting have the lure of a better work-life balance, similar to permanent employees, self-employed PSC contractors can be subjected to stress, exhaustion, and pressure. In fact, an IPSE study shows 76% of contractors have experienced burnout while juggling multiple contracts.

Open communication will help you voice any concerns you may have to clients, or even your family if you are feeling under pressure. Transparent communication will help you to avoid misunderstandings and help you switch off for a more peaceful downtime. 

4. Incorporate a ‘Work-Life Merge’

The term ‘work-life merge’ is a relatively new concept that refers to blurring the boundaries between work and personal life.

While the rise of remote work, and flexible schedules has undeniably made juggling a career and personal life a little easier, it unfortunately has made it more difficult for people to distance themselves from work with the integration of technology into our daily lives.

Incorporating a ‘work-life merge’ means that rather than seeking balance through separation, you focus on making decisions based on a complete picture of your responsibilities both in and out of work.

Moving your personal and professional goalposts closer together makes you more likely to focus on achievements, rather than setting yourself unrealistic ideas of perfectionism. It can also help you find work that reflects your personal values and interests, which will ultimately increase your overall satisfaction.

It's important to remember that contracts are mutual agreements. As a contractor, you should have confidence in your deliverables and voice any issues which may arise. While IT contractors typically operate on a day rate, it's important to balance your workload and personal time so, for example, you don’t squeeze in an extra billable hour if it’s going to be to the detriment of your health or work-life balance.

5. Recharge, replenish, and rebalance

As a self-employed ‘Ltd’ contractor, you may not have access to some of the benefits and support structures available to permanent employees. That is why it is so important to prioritise both your physical and mental health by taking time out when you need it. 

One of the core problems with digital integration is that it increases the overlap between our private and professional lives, meaning we never fully ‘switch off’ from work and can be ‘always-on.’ 

While technology has helped productivity in many ways, it has also created unhealthy demands of constant accessibility. As a contractor, you may find yourself working intensively to complete a project or working irregular hours. You must pay attention to your working habits and take some time to recharge. ‘All work and no play…’ is a helpful adage to remember here, not only for your sake but for your client’s sake too. Dulled creativity, or mental block from too much screen time will take you twice as long as to finish your code or project to the standard required.

And yes, we still see contractors prioritising earning potential over taking time off!

But finding breaks is crucial for your own well-being, productivity and professionalism. The importance of taking breaks might sound obvious, but since the pandemic, the world of remote working has propelled forward at the rate of knots, making it more difficult than ever to fully disconnect and realise when a busy work schedule has one too many tasks loaded in. By all means use technology to help be more connected at key moments, but for the sake of achieving a good work-life balance, know when it’s time to unplug.

Wednesday 30th Aug 2023
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Written by Jamie Spencer

Jamie’s recruitment experience spans across 12 years. At Matchtech, he leads a team of consultants specialising in core areas of technology including Cloud, DevOps & IT Security. He has worked across a number of sectors supplying technology professionals in a multitude of industries including  technology consultancies, retail, defence, public sector, financial services & energy starting as a resourcer and now leading multiple teams within the technology division of the STEM specialist recruitment partner. 

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