Home Work

Home working is such a brilliant thing, isn’t it? I am blessed to have a home-based contract, which means that I have the shortest commute to work known to humankind. I struggle from the kitchen to the office, mug in hand, surrounded by hordes of no one and log in to my computer. Outside January has arrived in force and snow is beginning to pile up on the ground, with the promise of blizzards by Friday.

I wasn’t always sure that I liked the idea of home working, but today I am going to tell you what it is like, and why it suits me.

I was supposed to go to Head Office today, but cancelled. We are doing on-line meetings instead (it’s a fancy, high-tech name for a telephone call, in some cases). I am so grateful, and hesitate to rub your noses in it, but thought I would anyway.

There are probably plenty of articles about the pros and cons of home based working, referring to social isolation and the difficulty of switching off from work at the end of the day as negatives. Certainly when I was offered the post three years ago I was not at all certain it was a good idea. Despite being socially inept, I know I become depressed when not out and about with humans. Sigoth dreads it because he otherwise comes home to a wreck of a creature, unable to have rational conversation.

I sat in the interview and actually said I wasn’t sure about the contract being home-based.

“Oh,” said Boss-to-Be, “don’t worry, you won’t be home much!”

She was right of course. Sometimes I am not home at all for weeks. It’s exhausting. It means hotels and eating at that special table at the back reserved for business customers on their own, out of the way and forgotten, too dark to read. You eat and leave as quickly as possible. You then go back to your room and watch junk TV or do more work; either way your brain is abused. Living in a hotel all week is unpleasant. In fact it is the least enjoyable thing, for me, about being a home based worker.

Even if colleagues are also around, and you spend an evening with them, inevitably you talk a lot about work. Sometimes you make decisions as if in a meeting, and that risks missing out people who didn’t happen to be staying over that night. It can be tricky. At the very least, the risk that you don’t switch off at home is multiplied when you stay away and have other colleagues for company all evening.

What Boss-to-Be didn’t explain, though, was that the company is geared around home-based workers. We are over 50% of the workforce. This means that all the technology and planning and assumptions are based on people working from home. The difference is amazing.

In previous jobs I have Worked At Home (WAH) for a day a week when possible. It was a chance to catch up on things without so many interruptions. It was peaceful and serene. I would write up reports or analyse data or just catch up on admin. If anyone called, they would preface every conversation with “Sorry to call you at home,” as if I was on holiday. It could be irritating, but it was also a blessing because they didn’t call unless it was really important. It was incredible how many times I picked the day nothing important happened to work at home. Whenever I was in the office I was bombarded with calls and questions. On WAH days it seemed they didn’t arise, in the way that there’s usually no news at Christmas. Interesting.

Now I have a contract which says I am home-based. The company provides me with a computer and broadband and phone. All I need to do is find space for a desk and chair, which can be difficult, and they do the rest. I am on the phone all the time, if I am not on webinars. If you looked at my diary you wouldn’t know where I was, only that I had meetings booked or not. It makes no difference most of the time, and this is because almost everyone else is doing the same thing.

The team I joined was quite new, and we learned together. There is a different rhythm to working remotely, to holding meetings where you can’t see expression or read body language. You have to have more directive chairing because people can’t judge when to speak so easily. A classic example is that it’s no good asking “Who’s here?” on a telecom because people don’t know when to speak and either say their names all at once or wait too long. We find it’s easier to run down the list, like school register. Equally the chair has to ask people in turn if they have anything to add. On the one hand it is easier to drift off if the subject is not keeping your attention; on the other hand you need to concentrate very hard not to miss anything, which is more demanding than sitting in a room passing round the biscuits someone has brought in.

Most interestingly we also found tha some meetings had to be in person. The more creative, problem-solving meetings, and some of the team meetings, simply need human contact to maintain relationships and to spark ideas. So we have a mix.

It’s true that I find some disadvantages too. I hate to leave my desk even to boil the kettle or nip to the loo. There’s no one to cover me while I’m gone. I also lose track of the time and either start early or work late without realising. The temptation to check something in the evening or at the weekend has to be resisted. Self discipline is important. I have learned to manage myself better than I did before.

However, on the plus side, being at home means I can get the boiler serviced without taking a morning off. I can put laundry on before I start work and then hang it up at lunchtime, or while I make a cup of tea. I can work slightly odd hours (meetings aside) to suit myself, so if I need to take mother to the doctor, or talk to her care manager, it fits more easily into my day. I can eat my own food, and don’t have to make a packed lunch or buy a terrible sandwich. I can write my blog in the time I would usually be commuting (hello there!). Sometimes I even manage a half hour of yoga. I achieve greater balance, and not just by standing on one foot like a tree in an earthquake.

When I started working at home I faced the change with trepidation. The old, old lesson is that change can be good, but we let fear get in our way.

How do you work best, and what have you tried that worked or didn’t?

Meanwhile I count my blessings and am grateful, which is pretty much all we can ask for.


30DC-04: A picture of your night

I couldn’t work out what this meant. Had someone spelt knight wrong? Did they want a photo of a dark sky?

Then I wondered if it meant “how do you spend your evening?” and that made more sense.

Patently I spend my evening sitting with my computer, in denial about the real world. I avoid household chores, commitments to voluntary work or friends or family, making phone calls, organising necessities such as paying bills or arranging plumbers/joiners/Aga engineers/doctor’s appointments etc. Truly I am so in denial I am swimming with the crocodiles.



Ada Lovelace Day – thankfulness

I planned a month or so ago to put up a post on Ada Lovelace Day in celebration of the women I know who work in IT and related fields, and to share something about women who inspired me earlier in life to follow the path I chose. And there have been and are so many.

But then I also just heard of the death of a friend, and I want to take some time remembering her too – so this will be shorter than planned, and that may also not be a bad thing.

Since I started working in IT in the late 1980s I have met a huge number of wonderful women who humbled me with their skills, knowledge and brilliance. I feel lucky to have known so many – and having worked in voluntary and latterly public sector, I find we have a high proportion of women doing technical jobs. It has not been, in my experience, odd to have female technicians, programmers or IT managers. As with many other areas of expertise, women are better represented than statistics would seem to imply.

I fell into IT by accident, so can’t claim to great inspiration at an early age, but I stayed because it wasn’t all spotty youths conforming to stereotypes. I found that being good at logic suddenly was useful and valued. I found that I could help people find a way to manage all the new technology by interpreting it for them. And most of all I got to play at building computer systems and networks, which turned out to be fun. I was only thankful I didn’t have to spend lots of time programming!

In terms of figures that inspired me, aside from immediate contacts, I would like to draw attention to Steve Shirley. I doubt I can say anything more about her here, except that I attended a presentation she once gave and have never forgotten the possibilities it opened up inside me.

So, among many others, thanks not only to the current amazing women in my workplace, both Alisons, Astell, Liz, Kath, Damaris, Claire, Laura, Helen, Linda and Sara  but also to Brenda, Sylvia, Sara, Gill, Odette, Jeniffer, Maggie, Joan, Fiona, Jo, Sue and most especially to Teresa, Ann, Joy and Karen P. Although you will almost certainly never read this – thank you.

Darkness falls

There have been comments recently on the dangers of cloud computing for data security and accessibility. At the same time we have been exercised over ways to safeguard our data, including ways to keep it up-to-date by deleting older versions. And Charlie Stross has posted about why using Open Source is another way of protecting data from short-lived, commercially oriented file formats. Finally the British Library has weighed in by making public noises about the essentially ephemeral nature of our digital lives. I have to say that I used to work with staff in a Library in London, where they kept a great deal of historical material from the 17th century onwards. The Librarian was very concerned about the reliability of compact disks for storing archived data as they were only expected to last a few years; his was a mind that thought in centuries. On the other hand, he was just as concerned with modern paper – the acid content is so much higher that the paper becomes brittle and yellowed after relatively few years; certainly my paperbacks from my yoof are almost unreadable. But back to the point…

We are faced with walking the tightrope between the dignity of privacy and the ignominy of being forgotten.

The Domesday Book is a thousand years old and still relatively accessible – so long as you speak the language. Some of its contents are quite personal and include detailed financial information. Of course, the anticipated readership was somewhat smaller than the modern global on-line community. Modern day public servants prefer not to release their financial details to public scrutiny.

Digital information is inherently risky. It can be deleted in an instant, and although it can often be inconveniently retrieved by computer forensic techniques, the bulk of deleted data is not considered worth the time and expense to do so; once it is gone, it is gone for good, potentially leaving us the poorer (as in the case of authors like Charlie Stross). Until we understand how to value our digital data and act appropriately to protect the valuable elements, we may be leaving our descendants facing a black hole in the historical narrative.

Why should we strive to save the millions of pages of self-indulgent angst comprising the majority of the information superhighway (as it used to be called)? How could we find the digital Anne Frank or Samuel Pepys amidst the hormone-fuelled deluge? I would suggest that just because we can’t answer the question now doesn’t get us off the hook with regard to our responsibilities to future readers.

How history remembers us, how posterity embraces us, depends on us ensuring our voices are heard. The minutiae of our lives, so mundane now, may offer immensely satisfying material to historians in the future; we cannot say. Our photographs and art, videos, music, vox pops, and even blogs, reveal us to a wondering world. So long as humans remain curious and restless, they are likely to want to learn about their forebears. Probably we will not ever know their verdict – indeed, there will be many of them, changing from generation to generation, just as our own view of the past differs from the view the more recent past has of those before them. Let us have a presence and not go quietly into the dark, but rage and storm across the void, shouting, screaming our names, demanding to be remembered. At the very least, let us learn to do back-ups.


Last night I set up on-line billing for my gas account (we have only just started using gas in our house, but that’s another story). Rather than bits of tree being pulped, pressed, printed and posted, I will receive future demands for money via electrons and electrickery. Now demands with menaces will be less "We know where you live" and more "We know where you sign on (and who your friends are on Friendface or whatever)".

And so the brave new world of instant communication marches ever forward.

One of the reasons this struck me as worth a comment is that I have also been reminiscing over old television programmes with friends recently, and then I fell over an article by Ursula K LeGuin on the social function of reading. The article talks about the importance of a communal experience to bind society together. This made me think about how the rise of instant cheap global communication seems to have shattered our communal spaces.

Nothing new in that thought, I agree, but that does not invalidate it.

It is true that technology seems to acquire a life of its own once it is released into society. For instance, consider that the telephone was envisaged as a way of broadcasting concerts direct to people in their homes rather than providing point-to-point conversations; and that videos were expected to be used for renting films rather than time-shifting our TV viewing. I like the idea of the subversiveness of technology but that very unpredictability also gives it a threatening edge, and until we get to grips with the shiny new world the Internet can give us, it will continue to scare and confuse many of us for some time.

After all, can your Granny text? 

Hark! Babbage is spinning in his grave

Sometimes I find the people I work with can be alarmingly illogical. At the risk of sounding like a pointy-eared Vulcan, what are they thinking?!

An example of a conversation I had a while ago….

Me: Hello. I understand you need us to develop a module in the computer system to record assets and manage planned maintenance?

User: Yes, we want the system to warn us when something is due to be serviced or if it has recently been repaired with a service so we don’t duplicate the work.

Me: OK. Where do you have this information at the moment?

User: In a spreadsheet.

Me (suppressing anxiety): OK, so we need to get that data into the main system, and design some screens so you can update it. Then it will hold all the information in one place.

User: Oh no, we don’t want to type into the main system.

Me (suppressing increasing anxiety): Well, if you don’t put it into the main system it can’t produce the warning.

User: We don’t like using the main system. It’s too hard!

Me (wheedling): But we’ll design it with you so you can use it easily….

User: No, it’s too hard.

Me (firmly): Then I can’t get it to give you the information. I’m sorry, it’s just not possible.

User: OK, we’ll just type in the ones that have the warning on them.

Me: ….

User: What?

Me (slowly): If you already know which ones have a warning – why do you want me to design a system to tell you?

User: Is that a problem?

In the words of the great Charles Babbage “On two occasions I have been asked, ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.