How it Began
Home/work went from busy City life and office of several hundred people to tiny fishing village
Working from home for me has been the norm for years. My first experience of it was over a decade ago straight after a further decade of only working in an office (not even the old school VPN or RAS). It was pure accident. I was working in Edinburgh, living 250 miles south in a rented flat I couldn’t afford any more and using a B&B Mon-Fri in Edinburgh when the lease on the flat ended. I moved in with a friend on the Scottish west coast, so my travel was reduced but still working away.
The project I was working on for the next 6 months was based in Tyneside, though they wanted me to connect in via RAS. The main person I worked with and reported to was an Enterprise Architect based in London. After a couple of weeks, I asked if I could work from home instead (if you don’t ask you don’t get) and the architect said yes. So. for the next 6 months I worked from home.
So, home/work went from busy City life and office of several hundred people to tiny fishing village and office of me, my mate and his kids (one adult, one taking GCSEs). My desk became the sofa or dining table at the end of the living room. The environments were at opposite ends of the spectrum!
Was it Difficult?
In a word, no, or at least not to begin with. I can (or certainly could back then) concentrate on something to the exclusion of everything else. This can be a blessing and a curse, but for working with chaos going on around you it’s a blessing. To spare my household I would conduct or partake in calls either in the kitchen or outside the back door.
I could spend more time with the people in my life
One of the things that struck me is how infinitely more relaxing it can be. No more shoes, shirt and tie, no more formality. I look outside and can see straight across the bay where the boats were moored to see sunshine glistening on the water (or rain turning it turbulent). No more commuter stress. Deliveries are easier to manage. Nobody listening in on your private calls and no more keeping up appearances when you have worries at home. Not only that, but without the distractions of the office (it’s easier for people to interrupt you and there is a different stimuli) my output went up, not down.
Working late wrapped around my schedule, not the other way around.
I could spend more time with the people in my life. My friend was prominent in the village so by dint I met a lot of people quickly. Also, there was always someone in the house. The lack of commute time meant I was around home/the village a lot more making it easier to have a social life. I used to work late a lot, but with working from home, working late wrapped around my schedule, not the other way around.
I’ll keep going and just finish this bit
One of the side effects was falling straight into the trap of working more hours than usual. I think in part because as an IT worker I always wanted to finish for the day having completed something, so I’d tell myself “I’ll keep going and just finish this bit”. Also, instead of having an hour commute in a morning and an hour commute in an evening I had a 30 second commute so if you like I was maximising use of that extra time away from my personal life.
One of the other not so good side effects was concentration fatigue. At work you take breaks from your screen by accident. Tea breaks with colleagues, employee’s “door stepping” you, spontaneous conversation, walking across the room to ask a question, lunch with colleagues, etc. 8 hours of staring at a laptop screen with the odd break to make coffee or make toast took its toll and I’d be exhausted at the end of the day. For the first time I was experiencing how mental fatigue produces physical fatigue too.
I was incredibly disciplined when it came to work, but didn’t connect how badly that was affecting my judgement towards other aspects of my life
The other negative side effect was psychological but impacted my physical fitness. I quickly got used to not having 2 hours of commute per day. Coupled with concentration fatigue, by the end of the day I couldn’t face the 30-40 drive to the local gym. I quickly fell out of the exercise routine which is the biggest barrier to physical fitness – not having a routine. The most exercise I was getting was walking to the pub on a Friday to play pool for a few hours and the grocery shop. I was incredibly disciplined when it came to work but didn’t connect how badly that was affecting my judgement towards other aspects of my life. If I’d just stepped away from the computer more frequently, gone outside maybe and got some different stimulation, these small changes could have had a positive impact.
The final and most long-lasting negative impact was long periods of time sat in ergonomically unfriendly positions – chief of which was trapping my mobile phone between my shoulder and my ear while using the computer. I ended up with a stiff neck for a very, very long time (years) that would cause horrendous headaches.
Key Lessons – First WFH Role
- Working from home can be just as effective as working from an office
- Give yourself a hard cut off each working day
- Plan in exercise
- Take regular breaks from your screen (not to look at another screen)
- It’s important to have stimulation (chatting with other people)
- Sit or stand ergonomically. Utilise a desk and an ergonomic chair. Plug your laptop into a screen, keyboard and mouse.
If you’re not in the office you’re not part of the team
Over the last 10 years I’ve had roles that are WFH and those that are office-based. Most (but not all) of the office based roles have been office based because the hiring manager or company culture requires a bum on a seat to ensure work is completed. Some have also cited “if you’re not in the office you’re not part of the team” and “if you’re not in the office you’ll miss out on important interactions”.
Allowing that flexibility demonstrates trust and leads to a more relaxing work culture which leads to a productive remote worker
WFH requires a shift of thinking for managers from “I can see what people are doing daily”, to “I need to understand individual workloads with deadlines, set ground rules, and communicate effectively”. An effective manager understands that being glued to your computer (phone / instant messaging / email) is not essential as a remote worker so long as the employee is still delivering. I.E. they are prepared for meetings, they aren’t late or miss meetings, they complete work assignments ahead of or on time, and most importantly they are a good communicator.
Allowing that flexibility demonstrates trust and leads to a more relaxing work culture which leads to a productive remote worker. By the same token everyone should be held to account for a drop off in productivity regardless of whether they are a remote worker or not.
So as a remote worker what do I need to do and what do I need from others? Read on.
Communications Need to Change
Constant interruptions are the enemy of quality and progress.
You’re not going to get those off the cuff conversations after over-hearing one side of a telephone call. There are multiple ways to combat this:
- Team-Work – It goes without saying that if an entire team switches to remote working everyone needs to adapt, but the same is true of teams where a few members switch to remote working, otherwise you end up splitting the team.
- Group Chat – Tools like Teams and Slack are great for this. Someone poses a question in chat or posts an FYI and the conversation evolves naturally.
- Meeting Chit Chat – Allow a few minutes for small talk at the beginning of a meeting. It relaxes people and allows them to connect – the meeting will be more productive as a result as well as staff feeling more human.
- General Chit Chat – There is nothing wrong with calling a work mate and having a chit chat or just blowing off some steam. If we don’t get our thoughts out, we can bottle them up and they manifest in strange ways, like stress does. It can and does spark new ideas, new understanding and seeing things from different vantage points.
- Drop In Sessions – I used to run full day drop in sessions which is effectively a virtual room. A Teams call is setup with a group of people that runs all day a few times a week. The idea is people can drop in and out on video to chat, ask questions, etc. Its aim is to simulate the virtual office environment. I’ve had mixed success and largely it wasn’t used unless I initiated the call (Teams tells all members when someone starts a meeting). But others may find it effective. The lack of success is I suspect because the people in the team have become more and more used to working remotely and value their focus time.
- Face Time – Turn on your video during interactions. People read facial expressions when talking to someone to determine meaning and queues. You can talk without opening your mouth! Seeing someone’s face provides a greater connection than just their voice.
Don’t forget there is a human being on the other end
- IM Doesn’t Always Mean Instant Response – People need focus time to be effective. This means ignoring others to concentrate on getting something done and to the right quality. Constant interruptions via IM or calls are the enemy of quality and progress.
- Email is not a Means of Instant Messaging – If you’re composing an email consider whether you need a fast or immediate response. If you do then you’re using the wrong medium. Switch to a call or IM, or Teams channel chat instead. Particularly if you suspect the email reply chain could get long. Also, some people get a lot of email (I’m one of them). If they don’t reply quickly or on the terms in your head, then it may be simply because they are busy or overwhelmed, not because they are being rude. Don’t forget there is a human being on the other end of that email.
If I’m in a meeting I’m not doing work. No truer word said about meetings. They are important when an interactive group discussion, presentation, or consensus is needed. However, if you’re constantly them then your productivity will drop off a cliff. The number of meetings you are in should not go up dramatically just because you’ve become a remote worker.
Round the Horn
The most effective meeting I attend is a team meeting several times a week where we go “round the horn”. This effectively means you talk about what’s gone on in your work today, conversations you’ve had or overheard, rumours you’ve heard, things you’ve started, completed, had issues with, praise and pure moaning. This is great for connecting with your team mates, sharing emotive content, sharing knowledge and learning more about each other.
It’s particularly effective when you are part of a trans-atlantic team.
I’ve worked in environments for a few years now where periodically getting teams together in person for a day of updates and fun is the norm. It’s a highly effective way of connecting people that otherwise wouldn’t meet regardless of remote working or office working.
I’ve noticed telephone, email, IM and every other form of interactions become more relaxed and positive after meeting colleagues face to face at team days.
They are also a great for providing periodic updates and provoking participation and collaboration.
You cheat on work with your life and cheat on life with your work
I evolved in an era where professionalism = ignoring your family, friends, house issues, other personal issues and pretty much anything that isn’t work while you’re at work or have a deadline to keep. If you like, we spend our working life telling work they are the most important thing in the world and it’s not a problem if that thing you’ve asked me to do will impact our home life. Meanwhile in our personal life we spend every waking minute desperately trying not to show you’re family how stressed you are about a piece of work you’re doing all the while telling them they are the most important thing in the world and it’s no problem to do that thing they’ve asked for that will impact on your work… and breath…
I.E. You cheat on work with your life and cheat on life with your work. This is what “finding work/life balance” actually means to many, many people. The reality is we will always end up upsetting someone and live in fear of the consequences of it with that subconscious conditioning.
I’m extremely pleased to say that in my experience over the past decade, in particular the past 5 years, this fog of adultery is evaporating to expose more sunshine. I’m also lucky right now to work for a company and in particular three managers that are extremely flexible and understanding. I keep my end by being honest, transparent, dependable, have a high-quality output and manage expectations appropriately. They provide support and direction when needed. It’s more like family than work and I’m never ashamed or afraid to talk to my boss about personal things that may impact or are impacting my work.
How tough it can be if you work from home and have kids at home
The single biggest world changing event since WWII and also equally as devastating to so many families. This virus has taken a terrible toll on the lives of many and has affected every living person on the planet.
Shops shut, schools closed, and offices followed suit. We were put in lockdown. Everyone that could, found themselves working from home more regularly, or for the first time.
One of the positives to come of the semi house arrest is everyone that isn’t used to it now has a greater appreciation for the discipline involved and how tough it can be if you work from home and have kids at home. (You can’t help overhearing the meltdowns and arguments and the emotional tugs it creates to make sure everyone is OK).
The other major realisation will be that those organisations that simply don’t have a remote workers policy now see that workers can be effective at home and those that allow remote working but still insist on splitting time with the office can see they aren’t perhaps as necessary as they used to be.
Caveat – it is a given that some jobs like healthcare require in-person activities. There are also security reasons as to why an office environment under the guaranteed control of an organisation would be necessary.
Not all jobs are suitable for remote working, but many are and enforced remote working will have opened the eyes of many.