Challenges of working from home: the synoptic post

Anthony Haynes writes: Here we collate four posts, each of which deals with a challenge concerning working from home.

Place

Much blogging about working from home (Wfh) is positive in tone: many bloggers (a) advocate that employees should seek the right to work from home and (b) emphasise the potential benefits of wfh.

As someone who works, happily, from a home office a good deal — typically about half the week — I’m aware of the advantages. But wfh isn’t an unmixed blessing: there are challenges too.

The challenges can be divided into those concerning:

  • place
  • equipment
  • people
  • time

Here we itemise the main challenges concerning place. Subsequent posts this week will cover the remaining types.

Challenges concerning place

First, there is the need for a suitable place to work. Most workers from home agree that dedicated space, if not strictly essential, is certainly highly preferable. Using a space, such as the dinner table, that gets shared with other functions, not only leads to practical problems — spillages, work items getting moved, etc. — but also makes demarcation difficulty more generally: being in work mode becomes blurred with family and domestic modes.

Having dedicated space isn’t always possible — not everyone has the luxury of a study or home office. Where dedicated space isn’t available, there are two options:

a) working remotely (i.e., neither in the office nor at home) — for example, finding a suitable cafe or library;

b) establishing symbolic boundaries within the home. For example:

  • designated times
  • signals such as closure of a door
  • using dress (‘When I’m in these clothes, I’m in work mode’)

Even if you do have designated work space at home, symbolic boundaries of this type — especially if your study or office is contiguous with the home — are probably advisable in any case.

Equipment

Yesterday afternoon’s post suggested that, for all its advantages, working from home (wfh) entails some challenges too — of four types, namely those concerning:

  • place
  • equipment
  • people
  • time

Yesterday we considered place; here we consider equipment.

Getting equipped for working from home

Much discussion on the blogosphere concerning wfh focuses on information technology. Specifically, many bloggers identify the need for:

Though such technology may be fine in itself, three challenges arise concerning the contexts in which it is used.

First, it can be difficult to  persuade your stakeholders (for example, clients, associates, or suppliers) to use your preferred platform.

Second, there may be a need to establish usage guidelines — for example, to avoid expectations that you will work 24/7.  For example, Carrie Bedingfield has published a series of posts concerning her relationship to email, including ‘How I’m leaving email behind‘. My own policy is here: ‘Solving the email problem‘.

Note that it can be useful both to (a) have such a policy — for the purposes of self-management — and (b) to share them, in order to manage your stakeholders’ expectations.

Third, the background can intrude unintentionally. For example, if using video comms such as Skype, it is worth considering what will be showing on camera behind or around you. Precisely because direct eye contact is not possible, your interlocutors are likely to spend some call time looking at your surroundings — and decoding the messages they send about you. If have a dedicated work space, it can be worth constructing a backdrop specifically designed to communicate the right impressions during video calls.

Beyond IT

Ergonomics stores offer all manner of equipment for healthier, more comfortable, working. These range from small (though far from valueless) items (ergonomically designed mice, for example, or scissors for left-handers) to large considerations, notably:

  • ergonomically designed chairs
  • adjustable desks

— to which should be added the question of the position of the computer, relative to the user and the light source.

Various recommendations are available online concerning each of these factors. For example, John Soares has provided detailed tips concerning the ergonomics of writing. They are available here: https://productivewriters.com/2011/09/12/writing-ergonomics-posture-alignment-writer/.

I’ve consulted some physiotherapists about this advice. They have tended to endorse it (though some dissent concerning the angle of the upper legs/torso) — but have emphasised that, however advantageous the recommended posture, no single posture is ideal.

Better by far is to vary the posture by working with a variety of pieces of equipment (for example, moving between laptop and desktop)  in a variety of places (for example, different rooms in the house, or sometimes at home and sometimes in a cafe or library).

The same caveat applies to advice from Life Ergonomics on sitting at a desk (https://lifeergonomicscom.wordpress.com/2017/09/14/sitting-at-a-desk-all-day/) and setting up a desk: https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/134432001/posts/4.

People

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’!

Time

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

Today we conclude the series by considering the last of these.

Specific challenges

There are a host of specific challenges concerning time management for home/remote workers — such matters as how avoid procrastination and get started, how to avoid distraction and keep going, and when to take a break or end the working day.

We’ll attempt to deal with such challenges through a series of short, practical, posts throughout the day, drawing on reflection and advice from FJ Wilson Talent Services staff and associates and also from third parties.

General challenges

In addition to specific challenges are some general. Two inter-related challenges concern the need for appropriate rhythms and rituals.

A) RHYTHM: I don’t know that I’ve met anyone, certainly not anyone I’ve worked closely with, who works equally well all through the day.

For example: I’m really not bad in the morning but achieve very little in the first half of the afternoon. Recently I’ve given up even attempting the latter: I go for a swim instead. My overall productivity hasn’t suffered. In contrast, one assistant I hired was dire in the morning: she’d come in to the office with face reminiscent of a dark cloud and often failed to muster even a ‘hello’ in response to my cheery greeting. Yet, overall, she was one of the best colleagues I ever had — and she typically performed well during my early p.m. downturn. I guess that made us an effective team.

What follows from all this? The importance of knowing one’s rhythms and accommodating them as much as possible when formulating the schedule for the working day. That way you can maximise the use you make of your biological prime times, rather than beat yourself up about the troughs.

Josephine Grant has a good post on this — Biological prime time: when are you at your most productive? — on her HR blog.

B) RiTUALS: In the West, especially in contrast to Confucian cultures, rituals are apt to get a bad press. ‘Ritual’ often collocates with ‘mere’, ’empty’, ‘hidebound’; rituals are often seen as irrational, (superstitious, even), cumbersome, and constraining. Talk about rituals for any length of time and chances are that someone will say ‘OCD’.

Yet individuals’ practices relating to creative and productive activities are full of rituals. A footballer might insist on tying the laces of the boot on the left foot before that on the right. In cricket, a batsman occupies the time between one ball and another with a sequence of movements, such as checking one’s gloves and touching one’s cap.

In a previous post I mentioned a man who works in an office in his garden, yet begins each day by donning a suit and driving to the local garage to buy a coffee and a newspaper.

The point is, if it works, it works. End of. Who cares what the basis in ra

 

 

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