Changing Working Patterns


It was in the 1980’s that the management thinker Charles Handy, first envisaged the idea of the “Portfolio worker”. His original concept was of a freelance who engaged in different types of work with different clients, and his view was that this pattern of work would increase significantly. If we extend the notion of portfolio to include part-time employment, temporary or contract employment, freelance and self-employment or even part-time business ownership, there is no doubt of an increasing trend.

At all ends of the working spectrum there are people I know with multiple “jobs”. Students with several part-time jobs, directors with several non-executive directorships, a friend who does both freelance graphic design work with landscape gardening, and a musician who runs a studio as a business and works as a part-time salesperson.

There is a growth in all types of non full-time employment and in the current period of economic difficulty there is evidence of this type of work increasing. The media has even coined a new phrase in relation to part-time work – "underemployement".

Portfolio work gives both employees and employers a certain flexibility and it’s a trend I expect to see continue even after the recession. It’s also a trend likely to increase with more people working beyond the normal retirement age.

But what are the implications for work-life balance? The primary one is the shift of responsibility to the individual rather than the company. Many portfolio workers claim they have a better work-life balance with more flexibility than full-time single company employees. Yet there are challenges.

Amongst portfolio workers I know, there are examples of people working over 65 hours a week, people who over-commit to their clients and struggle with deadlines as a result, people who work at home who have a great difficulty in separating their home life from work and people who refuse to take time off even when sick, because sickness means loss of earnings.

If you are a portfolio worker, you have to take personal responsibility for your work life balance. There’s no working time directive, right to flexible hours, holidays or parental leave for the self-employed.
My advice is to take heed of the following:

  • If you work at home, have a dedicated space – try not to let work stray all over the house.
  • Set yourself targets and limits for working hours.
  • Manage your priorities and commitments carefully – your customers’ trust is invaluable so don’t over commit.
  • If you have more than one type of job or work activity make sure you take a break between them.
  • If you’re sick accept the fact and take time of where necessary – don’t always insist on working through.
  • If you can, have a back-up – a fellow portfolio worker in your field who can take on some of your work in emergencies.
  • Don’t become a lonely portfolio worker – join a network of some kind, be it a professional body or your local business link. Engage with others to swap stories, collaborate and develop new ideas.
  • Plan your holidays – too many portfolio workers I know don’t do this and simply take time off “when they can”.

Being independent brings with it both opportunities and risks.  If you are in this position, make sure that you capitalise on the opportunities and minimise the risks.


To contact Nick Woodeson, please email him at