How the self-employed can ask for a pay rise amid the covid pandemic

It’s such a tricky time to approach fees and rates for freelancers – just as it is for employers. 

How the self-employed can ask for a pay rise amid the covid pandemic

We’re all sensitive to the loss and brutality of both the business and coronavirus environments in this third national lockdown.

And yet, independent workers still have a responsibility to themselves to negotiate where they can, to ensure they’re being paid what they’re worth, writes Kay White, Workplace Communication Expert & Coach at Way Forward Solutions.

It’s not easy of course, and certainly the emails by creative freelancers to FreelanceUK which I’ve seen to inform this article attest to the difficulty in asking for more money, in such straitened times.

Extended and in-work, but at what cost?

“Fortunate enough to be extended, but now not being paid a vaguely promised uplift to make the work worthwhile,” writes one.

Or, in the case of another self-employed, they were “lucky enough to be renewed at lockdown by just one client, only to find a significantly changed, larger, more stressful workload, with no change at all in my pay.”

 The approach I would recommend to many such freelancers when approaching a pay rise in the coronavirus crisis is always to go forward by focusing on:

1.     the value you’re bringing /have brought.

2.     what you’ve been able to achieve for the client’s business.

3.     how you’ve managed to take on their increased / requirements to support their business (during lockdown).

So with those three in mind, I would approach the actual discussion like a chess game. 

And a bit like how The Queen’s Gambit was the most popular show on Netflix for a while, and you didn’t have to play chess to understand the programme, non-chess players can follow my discussion plan too!

Five-point plan if you're a freelancer in need of a pay rise

It’s got five pillars:

  1. Have a plan
  2. Make your move
  3. See the response
  4. Make another move (factoring in their response)
  5. Be prepared to be flexible with your plan

 In chess, it’s widely believed the advantage is with the player who starts first. 

First-mover advantage (cont.)

In this kind of conversation or discussion, my advice is to start first too. You’ll find a natural opening, such as when discussing a next project or task, or perhaps the future development of the work. So rather than “I’m due a rate rise” which won’t be your exact words of course (and would be batted away if they were), it’s better to look at future-pacing the work and mapping out your involvement in that future work.

Some creative freelancers struggle with numbers (or so those emails suggest). Or they just fear the outcome if they can’t mask asking for an extra £95 a day with the more innocuous, smaller-sounding request for a ‘three per cent increase.’ But this hesitancy largely comes down to perception and – if you looked around – you’d probably find there are many other freelancers with higher, and lesser rates than yours. Your rate is your rate

What the self-employed should actually say to whoever holds the purse strings

So, what should freelancers do and say, when looking for a rate increase in the covid climate? 

Bringing the issue up yourself, first, would be best done aligned with the scale and scope of what’s being discussed. So you might say something along the lines of:

Brilliant, really looking forward to continuing our support for you. You’ll understand we’ve worked with you at the existing rate for ‘X’ months and going forward, our rate will change from ‘X’ to ‘Y’.” Note here, freelancers, you don’t have to say ‘increase.’ 

You might also say: “Because of our good relationship, let me hold the current rate you have for another X months (so you’re giving something that others might not have in the past). “So we can maintain the level of commitment at the current rate until April 1st.” Here freelancers, you are giving the client fair warning. Plus of course, a special, personalised deal is easier to accept!

Follow-up, show empathy and avoid blurting

Next, clearly follow up your discussion in writing. But – initially – say it rather than write it, so that your stakeholder/client/decision-maker, has a more personal touch from you.

Looking again at those appeals form freelancers needing more money to make their work worthwhile, they are all clearly empathetic about the business environment that their client is in. This is a positive if you’re trying to negotiate a rate increase. When in a tough spot in business, because of covid-19 or another pressure, people will want to work with people they know, like and trust. More so now than ever.

But some freelancers and self-employed out there today might try for a 5% pay increase, when they really need an 8.5% increase to keep the lights on. Generally-speaking, stating (if asked) that your new rate is going to be 5% more, but then blurting out that you could really do with an 8.5% uplift is totally ill-advised, and not going to help your situation. 

Getting your magic number out there

What does help is you thinking and focusing on the value you’ll self-employed services will bring to the client and will continue to bring. 

If you really want to get your ‘magic number’ out there (the 8.5%), you could put forward that you’ve, “held back a rate increase for them for as long as you can -- and that while an 8.5% increase will be your new going rate for other clients, for you, and in recognition of our good relationship, we’re happy to go with ‘X,’ which is only a  5% increase.”

Be very careful here though, such as ensuring you do go onto charge others that 8.5%! Ideally, you want to leave the primary client (in receipt of your 5% offer) with a sense of having a good deal, and you having a still-fair increase in rate.

If it all goes wrong...

Of course, pay negotiations don’t always work out as you want! Staying open for other client work is therefore smart, and it may be that your existing client will look to work with you for a finite period based on your discussion regarding your new rate. 

Remember, just like chess, you can plan and understand the choices of moves you have but you can’t ever truly predict which way a client will move! The current covid situation and its unknown but undoubtedly massive dent in companies’ profitability just adds to that unpredictability, especially in the pay stakes. However as a self-employed freelancer, more than most individuals, you can stay open-minded; stay customer service-orientated and focus on the value and integrity of your work, and then seamlessly, go with the flow of where their energy and decision goes.

 The author, Kay White, is an influential communication expert and the author of two bestselling books – The A to Z of Being Understood and It’s Always Your Move.

Kay works with organisations and private individuals showing them how to become more savvy, influential communicators.  More details and ways to connect with Kay are at her website: