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.