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Working from home' is one of those phrases that means different things to different people. Full-time office workers may enjoy the balance of a day or two working from home, essentially completing stuff that they would have done in the office without the actual commute. You can, of course, do that on a full-time basis and many businesses are now trying to get their permanent employees out of the office to save costs. Other people see working from home as running a business from home, full-time. For the purposes of this review, I'm really talking about the former as my experience of the latter is a little one-dimensional and doesn't really explore the complexities of actually running a full business (with stock and so on) from home.
It's quite an important distinction to make with your insurers, by the way. While they won't mind if you have a full-time job that you complete partly or fully from home, if you technically run a business, that can invalidate your policy so be careful on that front.
Why work from home?
With the ever-so trendy phrase 'work/life balance' resonating in our ears, everybody these days seems to be looking to working from home to save their lives. Employees like it because it gives them flexibility in their schedules and offers great savings on commuting time and costs. In theory, it's supposed to put them in with their families more often and should allow them to be more effective. Employers increasingly love the idea because it helps reduce the overheads of permanent office accommodation. Business are now starting to downsize their permanent office accommodation by looking at the overall utilisation of office space and reducing the number of permanent desks that they hold. By the time that you've forked out for new office furniture for somebody working from home, you might wonder how businesses actually save any money but over the longer term, you'd probably be shocked by how much can be saved by farming people out to home.
Back in the days when I managed people (shudder) I would permanently get requests from individuals to work from home. After I had moved on, the company I worked for introduced a policy, whereby all requests were to be reasonably considered and managers had to come up with substantial reasons to say no. This was partly due to the perceived unfairness in the existing decision-making process, where some managers would say yes to everyone and some would obstinately say no to everyone.
I had (and still have) mixed views about encouraging working from home across the board. This arrangement doesn't suit everyone and I think that managers should be encouraged to reflect upon the skills and personalities of their team members before granting these requests. I'd question, for example, whether some people are going to be as effective at home judging by the amount of supervision that they seem to require in the office. I also strongly object to the use of 'working from home' as a means of balancing child-care responsibilities. I took a dim view of any of my managers that would dial into an audio call from home, to share the sound of their children playing and arguing in the background. Working from home is most definitely not a substitute for normal
What's good about working from home?
Having worked from home permanently for a while and intermittently throughout my career I would say there are plenty of advantages to working from home.
Concentration – where I've had big papers to review or write, working from home has been a godsend. It can be far less distracting than being in an office where you can be approached by anybody at any time and you can get thoroughly absorbed into a task in a way that very often isn't possible in the office.
Effectiveness – I would generally say that working from home for the right person increases effectiveness. Provided that you can maintain the right work ethos (and not everybody can) you tend to get more done in fewer hours.
Ditching the commute – Getting rid of that daily commute can be very refreshing even if it's only for a day or so a week. The amount of time that we waste sat on buses and trains or gridlocked in cars is pretty ridiculous and it's not until you stop doing it that you realise what a nightmare it was. Commuting is stressful too. Working from home alleviates some of that.
Personal life improves – With the right balance, your personal life definitely improves too. You can invest the time you save commuting in other stuff at home (even if that's simply doing chores or having breakfast with your partner). Working from home forces you to reflect on what you do and when you do it and that's no bad thing.
Flexibility – Your working day doesn't have to be 9-5 any more. It might suit you to start early, have a longer break during the day and then work in the evening.
Perks and benefits – There are other potential perks and benefits from working from home. Many companies will purchase office furniture and will install telephony for those who spend more time at home than in the office. While this is intended for work usage, it's inevitable that you will/can use it for personal stuff too. You can also offset some of your tax if you work from home.
What's not so good about working from home?
Isolating – It can be very isolating working from home, especially on a permanent basis. If you enjoy the buzz of working in an office and having regular contact with people, working from home can be a bit of a shock to the system. Many homeworkers are ill-prepared for this.
Technology dependant – Home working generally goes tits up if/when your PC fails or your phone line goes on the blink. Suddenly, you can do very little about it and you spend your life on the phone to help desks.
You can become distracted easily – It's very easy to get distracted by things at home, be that pets and children or housework and chores. You may suddenly find that you're ironing when you should really be working.
Perception – Many people see “working from home” as an excuse for a skive and it can be quite galling when you have worked your butt off only for office-colleagues to become negative and sneery about what you do. Home workers often have to work harder just to convince everyone that they're not lazy bastards.
Distance from workplace – Permanent home workers can struggle to advance their careers. It's easy to underestimate how useful it is being able to network in the office and being visible to peers and managers. Without this, home workers have to think of other ways to get themselves noticed, often with very little success, it has to be said.
The profile of a good homeworker
So how do you know if home working will work for you? There are some key areas to reflect on that might yield some clues.
Do you have a big commute that can be culled? If so, you'll immediately be getting more time back in your day and that'll motivate you.
Do you have a quiet, peaceful home where you can work undisturbed? If you live in a shared house or have kids at home all day, home working may not work so well for you.
Are you very self-motivated and able to work without supervision? You'll need to be disciplined and manage your time carefully so think about your personal style and how this might or might not work.
Are you using home working as an excuse? Perhaps you actually want to avoid seeing certain people in the office. Perhaps your child minder has left or you can no longer afford one. These are BAD reasons to start working from home.
How to make home working work for you
I've always found home working most effective by following these rules.
1 – Have a designated home working space
This should ideally be an office or separate room but at the very least a designated area in a room. Make this 'feel' like a workspace so keep it neat and tidy and have all your work materials in one place. Don't make it too hectic but incorporate features that relax or comfort you so that you enjoy being there.
2- Invest in good office furniture
Get a good desk and a proper office chair. Don't make do with the dining-room table and chairs. Ergonomically, office desks and chairs are specifically designed for long periods of seating and you need to make sure that you aren't cramped or hunched over your computer.
3 – Designate rules
Your family needs to respect and support the fact that you are working from home. It may be impossible to do so without being in the house at the same time as your children or partner but make sure they know that when you are 'working' you are not to be disturbed. Ask them to treat you as though you are at work. They can't run in or ask you stupid stuff all day then, so why start now?
4 – Maintain a schedule
Successful home working requires discipline and you need to manage your time carefully. Have a schedule as you would in the office but incorporate other home-based tasks. If you don't schedule things like the ironing or cleaning then you might be tempted to do them when you should be working. Time management is more important when you work from home as you are now effectively managing a combined home and work life.
5 – Communicate with your colleagues
Work harder to stay in touch with your colleagues in the office. Suggest a daily team call for twenty minutes or so where you can all discuss what you are doing. If you manage your schedule so that you aren't working 2 to 4 then make sure your colleagues know and understand this. Don't become a distant colleague that nobody ever really sees or hears from.
6 – Manage
Pictures of Working from Home
I'm not sure that Homer had *quite* the right idea
Make sure your boss knows what you are doing. Send regular updates via email or give him/her a call as often as possible. You want your boss to know that you are productive and just as valuable as other members of the team and you need to be proactive in doing this.
7 – Maintain physical contact
Try and go into the office on a regular basis. It's good to attend team meetings in person, for example and the break in routine will probably be quite refreshing. It will also enable you to do some basic networking and will stop people forgetting who you are.
8 – Keep reviewing it
Don't assume that once you've started home working you can't or shouldn't revert to other methods of working. You need to ensure that it's still right for you.
How to persuade your boss to let you work from home
Bosses sometimes need convincing of these things so you need a compelling case.
Demonstrate how you can invest more time in working by losing wasted time commuting. Focus on the obvious impacts on effectiveness that this can bring. Set out a 'business plan' that includes a detailed summary of how you intend to manage your time. Your manager may need convincing that you aren't just going to sit and watch television all day. You might need to be prepared to agree home working on a trial basis to start with. This is your chance to prove that it can be effective so grab the opportunity with both hands.
Don't threaten your boss or try and compare yourself with other employees and peers. You need to sell the case on its own strengths rather than on the basis that 'everyone else is doing it'. Be honest about it too. If you do intend to work more flexibly then make sure that your boss is bought into and understands the benefits from this.
Common problems – and what to do about them
Health problems often occur for home workers that don't look after their posture or have inappropriate furniture for the job in hand. Some people find that they put on weight working from home too as they are generally more sedentary. Build regular exercise into your home working routine and ensure that you buy the right furniture.
There can be an impact on family relationships too. Some couples feel the strain when one of the starts home working. Talk openly about the plans and work together on this. You will need support when it comes to being left alone and your partner will equally need support in adjusting to this new regime too.
Your professional reputation can suffer because nobody sees you any more. Indeed, your former office colleagues may now think you are lazy or shirking responsibility. Keep communicating with them and do everything you can not to distance yourself from your team members. Keep your manager on board at all times.
Depression is surprisingly common among home workers too, who find themselves isolated and unmotivated. Talk to your manager about how you feel at all times and if push comes to shove then go back to the office. Indeed, it might be a better balance to work from home 3 days in 5 and spend 2 in the office. Finding the right routine is a little down to trial and error.
Working from home may seem appealing but isn't likely to suit everyone. I worked from home permanently for about two years and at the end of it, I was crawling the walls. For other individuals, it works really well, particularly those with young families where the time savings can be re-invested with the children. Remember to stay disciplined with it and above all maintain a working frame of mind whenever you are actually working from home.
I worked at home for a couple of days a week in my last job, which was great as the commute to the office was pretty horrible. It could be hard to motivate myself sometimes though, and I always found I was less distracted if I had a big task to focus on rather than lots of smaller ones. I agree with the negative points you mention, and I'm sure I would have falled "out of the loop" on various ideas and rumours circulating round the office had I been at home full time. Despite the fact that some of my colleagues were quite irritating, I found I missed the routine interaction such as chats while getting a coffee more than I'd expected too.
silverstreak 02.05.2011 09:11
Even if I had the kind of job where I could work from home, I don't think I'm disciplined enough - I'd be on here too often!
hiker 01.05.2011 09:09
Excellent round-up. I've worked from home on a permanent basis for about four years and I love it. Both my manager and the staff I manage are a couple of hundred miles away, but it works because we all want it to, and work at making it work. Staying in touch is crucial. I go into the office a couple of times a month and try to phone in every day (unless I'm on the road). Far from being a skive, all the homeworkers I know put in far more time than our office-based colleagues... which is not a good thing. The 24/7 flexibility is THE payback for any downsides - every hour of the day when there are deadlines, core-time only when there aren't. Lx