Challenges of working from home (3): people

02Anthony Haynes writes: The first post in this series suggested that, for all its advantages, working from home (wfh) entails some challenges too — of four types, namely those concerning:

  • place
  • equipment
  • people
  • time

Previously we’ve considered place and equipment; here we consider people.

Too little social interaction — or too much?

(A) SOCIAL CAPITAL: It’s useful for a moment to explore an analogy between home (or remote) working and unemployment.

Research on the effects of unemployment has established that being out of work is not only an economic phenomenon. For example, in Insights 2016 (Understanding Society), drawing on a UK longitudinal study, Daniel Sage shows how “unemployment has negative effects because of low income but also because of social and psychological factors that are encountered, irrespective of economic ones, such as loss of social contacts, routine and structure, self-esteem etc.”

In general, unemployed people often have lower social capital: they are less well placed to benefit from the insights and information that social networks provide.

The risk for those workers who are in employment but working from home/remotely is of replicating these dangers. If we’re out of the office, we miss out on the water-cooler chat, the impromptu breaks for birthday cakes, joshing over one’s fantasy football team’s performance, etc.

Granted, much of this may be trivial and the lack of interaction may in some ways be welcome: we don’t necessarily like the people we feel constrained to chat to in the bar at a colleague’s leaving-do (or whatever).

Nevertheless, amongst all the trivia, networks provide valuable information — about, for example, changes afoot in the organisation, what other departments are doing, or opportunities within or beyond the organisation. Not being in the office risks missing out on such information.

On the blogosphere, two solutions emerge. The first is the hybrid solution: whilst debate on home-working is sometimes absolutist — assuming a dichotomy between working in the office and working from home (Wfh) — in fact many employees mix the two — for example, Wfh on selected days.

Second, and perhaps less obviously, information technology can be used to facilitate not only the exchange of information but also social interaction. For example, collaborative software such as Slack can be used to provide both channels designated for task management and less formal channels that allow more room for personal asides. Some employees use multiple media — for example, a customer-relation management tool on the one hand, for the exchanging business information, and on the other Skype for holding more humanistic conversations.

Evidently the key point is to recognise that communication has a phatic element: keeping logged on, exchanging information via instant messaging, and so on indicates to one’s colleagues that you’re still there and are open to communicating.

(B) STATUS: A further theme to emerge from the blogosphere is the risk entailed in Wfh of losing status. Being in the office can provide easy opportunities for demonstrating that one’s gainfully employed — the frequent telephone calls, the messy desk suggesting constant activity.

Visibility also helps the employee to be seen as a candidate for opportunities — as, for example, when the boss, wondering who can be appointed to lead a new initiative, gazes across the office and lights upon a contender.

Wfh, in contrast, can bring a risk of being forgotten about, of being left out of the loop, of not being consulted or considered.

The solutions mentioned above seem to pertain here too: working part of the time in the office helps simply to remind people of your existence, whilst keeping the channels open via phatic communication makes it easier for managers to bring you into discussions: it removes the threshold level of energy required to initiate a phone call.

(C) ENCROACHMENT: As well as the danger of insufficient interaction, there is the risk of too much — or of interaction at unwelcome times. That is, members of one’s family or community may fail to observe the boundaries that a home-workers seeks to establish between work and non-work.

On a personal note, I have found that simply explaining to people when you are going to be working and must not be disturbed can be insufficient. To the other parties involved, that might translate not into ‘Right, I won’t disturb X until such-and-such a time’ but merely into ‘Right, when I disturb X I need to begin apologetically’. For example, ‘I’m sorry to disturb you’, ‘I know you’re working but…’, or ‘Just a quick word’.

Such interruptions reduce productivity not just because of the time they take up: they also break the concentration.

Home workers use a variety of tactics to overcome these problems. These include:

  • removing oneself to a location outside the home, where you are harder to find — for example, a local cafe or library;
  • pre-empting the situation: ‘Tomorrow I have a major project deadline. If there’s anything we need to discuss, we need to deal with it today — or it will need to wait until the day after tomorrow’. Positive language here tends to be more effective than negative: for example, ‘please avoid’ works better than ‘don’t’;
  • setting boundaries assertively: for example, interrupting a telephone conversation by saying something like ‘I can’t deal with this until 5 o’clock this afternoon’. It’s important to not to apologise: avoid prefacing your response with ‘Sorry’!



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