Even if some people hate it...
For many of us still lucky enough to have our jobs, working from home is now a reality we face.
Some are finding it hard to deal with - I for one, love it.
Assuming that most of us sleep for 7 or 8 hours per night, work accounts for nearly half our waking hours. For many, it’s more than half our lives.
Our work doesn’t just dictate what we do with our time and how much money we are given in return for it (and hence what we can do when we aren’t working). It also determines who we spend much of our time with and the environment within which we do that work.
I consider myself fortunate that much of my day job can be done remotely, and my current long-standing client is supportive of flexible working. Most of my work is done from home and I love that fact.
In this article, I want to share why I love it, and what I’ve learned about home working over the 8 years since it became the norm for me.
With the proliferation of affordable high-speed home internet connections and mobile phones, technology now makes home working a possibility for many jobs that used to have to be done in an office environment. Just because something is feasible, it doesn’t make it successful or appealing to all though, and I’m conscious that even among those who do exactly the same job as me, it’s not universally loved.
It used to be that working from home (or WFH to give it an acronym) was treated with disdain. The assumption was that you were slacking, watching TV and eating endless bowls of cereal in your pyjamas while keeping a cursory eye on your email inbox. Employers (including many who I’ve worked for in my career as a contractor) would require you to account for what you were doing while working at home. The false-assumption was that if you were in the office your time could be accounted for and your efforts would be focused. If you were at home, you needed to be micro-managed.
Nowadays, employers seem to understand that a bit of flexibility and trust extended to their workforce will yield good-will and dedication in return. Equipping them with the technology and the trust to work from home seems like a good way of doing this, often at little marginal cost. Indeed, many employers now provide desk-space for 80% of their workforce or less, on the assumption that the remainder will work from home. This then yields financial savings for employers.
Not all jobs suit working from home and not all workers will want or be able to work from home even if their job allowed it.
I’d estimate that I spend over 90% of my working time at home. As such, mine is a biased viewpoint. I’ve summarised below those things that I love about it, and the things that are less ideal or that others often mention as negatives.
I’ll start out by saying that I believe firmly in delivering an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. I don’t measure the quality of my work and output by the number of hours I’ve put in. Instead, if I deliver a project on-time, to budget and specification then I have done my job effectively.
With that said, here are the good sides to working from home:
Things I love
I don’t waste time commuting
This is a big one. I am expected to work a ‘professional working day’ for my main client, which broadly equates to 8-hours, Monday to Friday. If I travel to my nearest office, I’ll spend at least half an hour commuting each way. If I have to go further afield, it could be between 2 and 4 hours. In my mind, that time is totally wasted.
Some might say that their commute is useful for reading, catching up on the news or working through email on their phone or laptop. Some treat the commute home as a chance to decompress from the rigours of the working day. For my part, I see time spent travelling as effectively ‘stolen’ from my day.
When I’m working from home, I’ll log-on by 6 am and spend half an hour working through email and other tasks that benefit from the lack of interruptions from others. Then I take a walk for 45 minutes or an hour. I’ll be showered, fed and watered and at my desk at the same time as those who have commuted into the office. The time I might have used in commuting has been used for real benefit.
There is less chance of distraction, interruption or of getting drawn into conversations
Some fear the isolation of working from home, but it aids my concentration. I am less susceptible to getting distracted by others stopping by my desk for a conversation, and my attention isn’t diverted by events around me. Most of the time I like to have music playing in the background, and I can do this without wearing headphones which in itself seems equally isolating as being alone.
The technologies used routinely in work mean that I can easily be contacted by phone or instant message, and I use these liberally myself throughout the working day. These tools tend to filter out a certain amount of needless distraction and ensure that if someone gets in touch there’s a good reason for it.
I don’t feel isolated and routinely take part in conference calls and similar ‘meetings’ throughout the day. These provide ample contact with my colleagues to ensure I’m part of a team, and we all get together regularly anyway, meeting face to face at least once per month. Unlike meetings in person, conference calls don’t stretch to fill the allocated time, and this too ensures that as little time is wasted as possible.
I don’t have to create meaningless busy-work when working from home
There is an inevitable pressure as a contractor to be seen as being productive and busy at all times, especially when visible to the client. This is wrong in my view since in line with my ethos of doing a good job and being paid fairly for it, I firmly believe in working as efficiently as possible. I see no reason why a task should grow or take longer than necessary, and I don’t believe that hours of work equates directly to the quality of output.
When I’m in an office, I feel compelled to appear busy at all times. Driven by this need, I end up searching for trivial or meaningless work to fill my time. Tasks I would otherwise do quickly, stretch out and take longer so as to justify my existence.
When I’m working from home, I do what needs to be done to the best of my ability and then I move on to the next thing. If I’ve delivered all that’s asked of me, and a little more besides (to give good value to my client) then I have no qualms in moving on to something else to use my time effectively and positively.
I can work on multiple projects around my main work
This could be perceived as taking liberties, but I don’t see it as such. Working from home is a means of unlocking my time to be used on multiple projects and tasks besides my day-job. Without the pressure to appear busy to anyone, and only a desire to maximise the use of my time, I can batch tasks, work on different projects and get admin tasks done in a modular fashion.
If I were in a client office, I might take out 20 minutes to leave my desk to do some telephone banking. When I’m working from home, I can make the call in parallel with another task, from my desk without having to seek privacy or leave my desk for fear of annoying co-workers.
I can more easily stick to my diet and fit in exercise around work
Working from home makes it far easier to stick with eating the healthy food I want to eat, as I can prepare and eat it when I want. I could pack food to take in to work, but again that would use time needlessly. There’s also less temptation from the inevitable birthday doughnuts that appear in office kitchens.
Exercise can be slotted in around work more easily when time allows. I can head to the gym at lunchtime, workout and be back at my desk inside an hour. Doing so makes me feel energised and positive which contributes to the quality of my work.
The consensus amongst co-workers seems to be that when working at home we tend to take less time off for lunch than we would if were working in the office. I realise this depends on individual preference and many eat at their desk while working. I think it’s healthier and more balanced to take a lunch break and use the time positively, even if that is just for a brisk walk. When I’m working from home, it’s easier to do just that.
I’m around my kids before and after school
Of course, home school is now a reality for most families and while my kids are fortunately old enough not to need too much supervision, it's still useful to be home to keep an eye on them and help resolve issues with the printer or Zoom!
Working at home has always been beneficial for seeing more of my kids. One of my most important roles in life is in being there for my family. Working from home meant I could take my kids to school, pick them up or simply be around when the older ones came in from school rather than them returning to an empty house. They’ve become used to me working from home and respect that I’m not merely there in service of them, and that I need to be given space and quiet to work. They also value that I’m there though, and we all seem to appreciate being around each other as much as we are.
It allows me to play a part in keeping the household ticking over
Working from home isn’t merely an excuse for me to do the laundry alongside my work, but it does make it far easier to stay on top of the household chores. It means that I can play my equal part in keeping the home running, and I’m there to take deliveries, to enable repairmen to come to the house when needed, and so-on.
Accepting deliveries is a bit of a mixed-blessing and in the run-up to Christmas, our hallway can resemble a parcel warehouse since local couriers have come to know that I’m a home worker and often leave parcels with me for neighbours who are out at work during the day. Taken as a whole though, working from home makes it far easier to keep the home ticking over without having to take days off or seek special permission so I can get someone around to fix a leaking tap.
Having shared some of the benefits, here are the drawbacks and concerns that many expresses about working from home.
Isn’t it a lonely existence, lacking in social contact?
This is an inevitable side-effect of working from home, and isolation could be an issue for those who need to be surrounded by others. If you’re self-sufficient and independently-motivated (as I consider myself to be), then you don’t need company to get through the day. I get plenty of social interaction on a daily basis from conference calls and telephone conversations, from going to the gym and in my life outside work.
The lack of social chit-chat during work aids me in being productive and in freeing up time to get more out of my day (by fitting in extra work on other projects and doing exercise). I consider it a fair trade-off.
I wouldn’t get anything done if I worked from home
This is often expressed by those who encounter me working from home and who couldn’t contemplate doing the same. Presumably, they feel that they lack the discipline and would get distracted by what was going on around them, the lure of the TV or the demands of their kids. Not all jobs will be suited to working from home either.
The key to making it work is discipline. Working from home gives you the freedom and responsibility to plan and use your time effectively and productively. You have to keep yourself accountable in how you spend your time as there’s nobody else there to do it for you.
Do you need a dedicated space for working from home?
The simple answer is that you don’t, but it helps if you do. I’ve tried working from the kitchen table in the midst of the family home, but it makes it easier to get distracted or drawn into discussions with family when they’re around. There’s a lot to be said also for having a proper desk, chair and computer monitor too, as dining tables aren’t designed to be sat-at, 8-hours per day.
I have a desk in a corner of the open-plan living space, facing into a corner which is my designated workspace. I keep it free from clutter, and the family recognise that when I’m at my desk, I’m working and not to be distracted or disturbed.
I realise that some of the benefits I’ve stated may seem superficial, but it’s important to remember that we spend a large portion of our time working; a number of trivial benefits can combine to make a significant contribution to the overall quality of our life.
The original title for this piece was centred on the notion of a perfect ‘creative’ environment, but I realise that our work may not always be of the creative sort. Regardless of what kind of work you do, creative or otherwise I believe that working from home can offer significant benefits if your work allows it. These benefits aren’t just in terms of how effectively you do your job, but in the positive contributions that it can make to your overall quality of life.