Homeworking, good or bad?
Updated: May 11
The world’s biggest work-from-home experiment is a chance to ask, does it work?
UPDATED May 2020
Since I wrote this article in March, I have been absolutely nowhere further than the local supermarket, and have been, like so many others, balancing the demands of working at home with home schooling our two boys. It has been, shall we say, quite a learning curve.
I've learnt that all the top tips I bashed out below still stand, that many of them are not easy to put into practice, and that concluding my post with 'Let’s just hope our Coronavirus lockdown isn’t too long, then...' was a wee bit optimistic. Eight weeks in, we're still here.
Overall, I have learned that a global pandemic gives us a chance to reflect on what's important in life, and to be kind to each other. Sounds cheesy I know, but it is, quite frankly, impossible to pretend that we can all continue as we did before, just from our homes.
As for new wisdom from elsewhere (because I love researching what different organisations are doing), I'm going to pull out two particular examples that have struck me recently.
Firstly, a brilliant blog from Charity Comms that acknowledges the realities of working at home with children, including such gems as 'each day is different and what works one day might not the next. And that’s ok.'
And secondly, a great initiative between the Mental Health Foundation and Linked In, researching the impact of all this working at home during a pandemic on our mental health. Do take a look; this is an opportunity for us all to support each other in building resilience.
Flexibility has always been one of my key working values, and at this moment in history that feels more important than ever; acknowledging that work is vital, but so are our wider roles.
It’s March 2020, and we’re in the middle of the world's biggest work-from-home experiment, triggered by coronavirus. Companies in China want to get back in business after the shut down, but, nervous of contamination, are asking their workers to do so from home.
Italy is in full lock-down, the Republic of Ireland has shut all its schools and colleges, and many companies in the USA and UK are asking their staff to stay at home with their laptops.
Will this forced experiment bring about a boost in flexible working? Will it encourage companies to say ‘yes’ to people who want to work something other than 9 -5 at their desks?
Or will it send us slowly into a pit of despair, desperate to get back to the water cooler chat?
As someone who has spent nearly a decade working, on-and-off, from the kitchen table, and is about to kick-start a freelance career from the same place, here’s what I’ve learnt.
You can Get Stuff Done
There’s no doubt about it, when you get ‘in the zone’, you can whizz through your To Do list if you are not endlessly interrupted by colleagues popping by your desk. You don’t have to put on a massive pair of headphones, or, as I once saw suggested in a magazine article but wasn’t brave enough to try, ‘put a crown of fairy lights on your head’, if there is no one to do the interrupting.
Granted, if you don’t live alone, then you’re going to need to lock yourself away from house mates/spouse/partner, but when you can, it’s great.
As a colleague forced to self-isolate whilst waiting to find out if he had brought the coronavirus home with him from an Italian holiday (he hadn’t) said; 'the problem won’t be getting used to working at home, it will be trying to get back to the office afterwards.’
Finding your own ‘commute’
Everyone’s different, but if all I do is get up, get dressed, have breakfast and sit down at my desk, then I go a little crazy. I end up getting distracted by black holes on the internet in search of someone to talk to, and suddenly lose half an hour to Facebook. I also get freezing cold and start craving biscuits. We are not designed to sit still all day, and in an office, you have to at least walk to the kettle. If you’re working in the kitchen, you just turn around.
My most productive days are when I do the school run in my running gear. Yes, I know, but thankfully we live too far out of London for there to be a ‘competitive gym gear’ thing going on, so old leggings and muddy trainers are fine. I force myself to run around the local forest before I sit down at my desk. Which has the added benefit of meaning I arrive home hot, and don’t need to put the heating on until later in the morning. Much cheaper than the gym too.
See above. I find it essential. But if you work across different time zones, and it makes more sense to start typing when you’re still in your PJs, then fine, go ahead.
You will just have to work out how to hide from the postman, when your neighbours realise you are in all day and can therefore receive all their Amazon deliveries.There are lots of blogs about that...
Finding your local ‘colleagues’
Unless you are an extreme introvert, there is a downside to the lack of interrupting. However frustrating it is to get into the office and lose half an hour discussing transport systems, it does at least give you a sense of community.
According to the 2019 report the State of Report Work, 19% of remote workers struggle with loneliness. That lack of interruption is nice to start with. Until you long for someone other than the postman to talk to.
Which is why I try to find someone to run with, so that I have someone to pick apart the previous day / evening / news / challenge of getting the children out of the house, and help me find a sense of perspective before starting work.
You might even find - as I have - that there is someone in your local shop / school playground / gym who can help you out with something useful. Especially if you’re freelance.
It’s cheaper to swap skills (a press release for, say, an IT tip,) than to do a course.
Remembering you still have colleagues
If you’re working remotely for an organisation, then you might feel lonely, but you have a ready made online community. You just need to find ways of using it, both for actual work, and for support.
At Christian Aid, we’re totally global, so it’s quite normal to have an online meeting with people in three time zones. The best ones work when you’ve already met in person, so that you can visualise your colleague in India when the low broadband means all you have for context is the sound of Tuk Tuks in the background. Second best is a decent broadband connection all round, so that everyone has to switch their video on. It’s much harder to try and multi-task (ironing / cooking dinner / answering the front door, come on, we have all done it at least once…), if everyone can see what you’re up to.
Also, if you’re doing the impossible task of chairing a global, virtual, meeting, try to ensure that everyone has to actually verbalise their comments. Yes, you can use the chat box, but if you actually make everyone go on mute and listen to the person articulate their concerns, then a) everyone has to listen and b) the person with a problem / issue has to frame it in a constructive way. As anyone who has ever been on Twitter knows, if you’re hiding behind a quick ‘bashed out comment’, then, well, let’s just say manners sometimes get forgotten.
Up your communications game
As a colleague of mine wrote on an internal Yammer post on ‘remote working’ -‘remember, you are using blunt tools of communications’.
Emails, instant messages. All these have the danger of coming without any nuance if you can’t see the smile, or raised eyebrow that’s coming with them. Find a way of adding personality into your communication. Not in a cheesy way, just as in, remembering you’re dealing with another human, who might be feeling lonely and appreciate being asked how their day is.
I’ve done a whole project with United Bible Societies without ever actually meeting anyone in person - it’s all been via Skype and Google Docs. Worked perfectly. But everyone was highly polite and professional, and the brief was super clear. Which is another essential.
Asking for help
Here’s another one, totally linked to the last point. It’s fine - and totally necessary - to ask for help. If you’re in the office, you will have worked out which one of your colleagues can help you fix your IT crisis if 'turning it off and on again' hasn't worked.
If you’re part of an organisation, then your IT department has probably switched to being online anyway, so you shouldn’t notice any difference. If you’ve just gone freelance, then you will suddenly realise you should have been nicer to the people on the Help Desk.
You’ll need to find someone else to do this. Or get very good at using YouTube.
Remember to Switch Off
Which leads me to my last point. You still need to stop working. If your laptop is on your kitchen table, and your work phone lives by your bedside, then you will wake up in the night time, thinking about work.
This is why there are lots of ‘how to get the home / work’ balance things written in blogs about how to survive as a self employed worker. They mostly cover everything I’ve touched on further up...
Since it’s time for dinner at home, I’ll nip back to that Stanford Study - it finished with a recommendation that companies enabled working for home, but just for a few days a week rather than it being a constant.
That’s my experience too. Three days at home, bashing away without my headphones on, balanced out by two in the office, is a perfect routine.
Let’s just hope our Coronavirus lockdown isn’t too long, then...