Thoughts and deliberations as we dip our toe into the world of remote working in search of work/life balance utopia.
Casting my mind back to October 2000, I was busy working away on the first website for Enovate. I started the business working from home and spent the next 3 years part-time while studying for a degree and thereafter 6 further years working from home and growing the business. So in many ways I feel like the business came from what you could call “remote working” roots. There was no office, just me in a spare room working from home and generally loving every minute of it.
Fast forward to 2020 we have a team of 10 and a lovely, bright, open plan office on a university campus in Chelmsford City centre. Life is good, but could it be better? Traffic jams, train delays, and the Great British weather are all too frequent topics that disrupt the daily commute many staff have to make to reach the office each day and for what? To sit in front of a computer, monitors and keyboard that could equally be located in their own home. Granted they would no longer have their colleagues to turn to and ask a quick question but there’s a lot to be said for getting 1-2 hours of your life back each day not to mention arriving at work feeling refreshed and ready to go rather than tired, weary and frustrated after a draining commute.
Since late last year we’ve been working towards more of a remote working approach for the agency, that will begin with a trial on the 1st of April 2020. I’ve just spent a trial week working from home myself so feel well placed to share my thoughts and concerns around such a change in working practice.
Let’s start with the basics
What are the advantages and disadvantages of remote working, both from the perspective of a business owner and a staff member within that business:
Advantages of remote working:
- Potential for lower costs for the business due to a smaller office or no office at all
- Greater staff retention due to the benefit of remote working and zero commuting
- Cost saving for staff who no longer need to commute and pay the costs that go with that
- A happier and healthier team who replace the time they previously spent commuting with exercising, spending time with family or taking up new hobbies
- A more productive workforce who value the trust their employer has placed in them
- Ability for staff to tailor their working day around their lives and Circadian rhythm
Disadvantages of remote working:
- Drop in productivity for those staff that lack motivation, focus and the will power to work effectively from home
- Difficulty with reinforcing that sense of belonging, teamwork and culture that comes from being in a communal office space
- Potential initial one-off equipment costs if staff require laptops to replace current desktop computers
- Office infrastructure such as servers may need to find a new home in the cloud if no office will be retained, which may increase costs
- Legacy systems may need migrating to more cloud-based alternatives to enable remote working
- Telephone systems may need adapting or migrating for remote working access
- Collaboration can be more time-consuming and difficult
We started the process of introducing remote working by sending staff a questionnaire so we could understand what individual preferences were, the questions included:
- Would you like to work remotely?
- If working remotely how frequently would you like to meet up with colleagues?
- Why do you want to work remotely?
- Do you have a suitable space to work remotely from?
- What equipment do you need to be able to work from home efficiently?
- Do you have any concerns about working remotely?
- How would you like to replicate the ease of communicating with colleagues in a remote setup?
The results were overwhelmingly in favour of remote working but also showed a need for a balance — a hybrid of remote working and some office-based days. Staff were concerned about the isolation of remote working and wanted the option of being able to be office-based some of the time.
Remote working trial week
As I mentioned, I’ve just completed a week’s trial working from home. I perhaps went into it with a rather overconfident attitude; “I’ve worked from home for 9 years straight, I’m a pro at this!”. Two hours in I reminded myself that that was over 10 years ago!
I did feel very isolated straight from the get go, the first morning was quite slow, mostly because I was battling with a tricky devops problem and I missed being able to turn to a colleague and have a mini-rant about my frustrations.
Before long it was time for our daily stand-up and using a webcam it was great to see some friendly faces again and I realised just how important an ingredient video conferencing would be in anyshift to remote working.
With my tricky devops problem now behind me, the afternoon flew by, without the distractions of the office I found myself able to delve into work with much longer periods of concentration than would be the norm in the office. As a result I neglected my inbox a little. I soon caught up, but it just reinforced the fact that I was all the more able to get “in the zone” while working remotely.
On the last day of the week I’d woken up abnormally early, soon after 4am! It was odd timing but I was well and truly awake. Whilst I could have just lied there in bed catching up on news or perusing social media to while away the time I realised there was nothing to stop me jumping straight into my workday and that’s exactly what I did! I was at my desk ready and raring to go at 5am! Two hours later I’d got two very productive hours of work done with zero distractions or interruptions and it was only 7am! I had to head into the office for a meeting later in the morning, but come the end of the day I was impressed at how I’d managed to be a lot more productive by breaking up my day into chunks of work as and when they suited my capacity for work. It was an odd day and I definitely won’t be making a habit of starting work at 5am but when your circadian rhythm puts you in work mode at 5am, remote working gives you the flexibility to capitalise. In contrast, I can imagine the day would have been much more of a struggle had I tried to achieve a more normal day at the office.
So what did I learn from my week working remotely?
The value of video conference calls, being able to see someone’s face seems to warm the soul and should be encouraged when working remotely.
Being able to structure my day to suit my capacity and appetite for work made me more productive on days that could have been a real struggle.
Being able to break off for a few minutes and talk to my wife and/or the kids allowed me to return to “work” feeling, bizarrely, more refreshed than I would have expected for such a short break.
Remote working forced me to take more breaks as I was missing out on the office tea/coffee rounds so needed to take a break to make my own drinks (oh, the hardship!). This was a positive as each time I returned to work more focussed and motivated.
Not being able to eavesdrop on conversations between colleagues in the office meant there were a couple of instances when problems spiralled. Had I been in the office I would have nipped them in the bud as I would have overheard the conversation.
A mindset shift is required in colleagues and clients, who can sometimes feel reluctant to make contact when someone is working from home. Almost as if working from home is a conscious choice to avoid interruptions. But that’s not the motivation, it's just a different approach to working.
What made the trial a success?
I moved my entire office setup home, yes the desk and chair too! I didn’t want working from home to be a compromise in any way in terms of equipment, comfort or space.
I used a spare room as my trial office, it sits in a corner of the house with a hallway between it and the children’s rooms on the same floor along with a door I kept closed most of the time. So it was nice and quiet and somewhat isolated from the hubbub of the household.
I made sure I could achieve everything I needed to while working from home. I had multiple VPNs setup so there would never be an occasion when I would need to defer some action until I was back in the office.
I did a fair bit of preparation over the preceding weekend so from day one I was able to be productive and not lose hours with setup and such like.
I’ve got a fast broadband connection at home so my internet connection was on a par with what I was used to in the office, no twiddling of thumbs required.
We already have internal chat in place that is well utilised by all staff so that was easy for everyone to use to keep in touch with me and vice versa.
Other tips for working from home
- Ensure your family and friends are onboard with you working from home, some partners might see you working from home as a great opportunity for some free childcare. Friends might see it as a great opportunity to drop in or call you whenever they please. If it’s not cool in the office it’s not cool when working from home!
For business owners:
- Be clear in terms of your expectations when staff are working from home, we’re working on documenting these to avoid any assumptions. It’s mostly common sense e.g. don’t become nocturnal, etc. But it doesn’t hurt to define them somewhere for newcomers to the business too.
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