COULD WORKING FROM HOME MAKE US HEALTHIER AND WEALTHIER?
When I first moved from a busy London office to a very remote and tranquil part of Cornwall more than 12 years ago, I was personally convinced that it would not take long before many others followed in my footsteps.
Around this time, Superfast Broadband was just beginning to be implemented around the UK, and helpfully it was available in the tiny village we moved to.
Why on earth, I thought, would people choose to commute for hours of their day through polluted motorways, cram themselves onto crowded trains in order to sit in an office and work when they could do that same tasks in a beautiful place of their own choosing, now that technology allowed us to have Skype calls and easy file sharing?
CUT THE COMMUTE
Of course, I was a little ahead of my time. For those first few years, my husband, along with several other workers in our little village ended up commuting in the week to London for months on end, to do work he could have done right here without the six-hour journey. I had young children to care for and thankfully, enough freelance work to keep me going, but I was also offered shifts to do the same work I was doing for much less money from home.
Technology marched on. Skype began to buffer less and eventually gave way to Zoom. Nearly everyone had broadband that was now so fast a few seconds was considered a massive delay. Some companies began hiring freelancers from around the globe, like the US company that hired my husband. But still, in most UK industries, businesses were reluctant to offer regular, long term work to someone who couldn’t physically come in and be in the office.
It made no sense. Why pay costs for expensive office rental, the heating, lighting, desks and myriad of other assorted costs when many staff could just work from home?
ONLINE OR OUT OF TOUCH?
Eventually I decided that it was psychological. Employers needed to physically see their workers working, and staff needed to go into the office to clock their hours. Colleagues needed the daily banter and tea breaks and that was that.
Then came Lockdown.
BRAVE NEW WORK
At first, I thought that this would mean that finally companies were going to witness firsthand how beautifully home working can benefit both workers and employers.
Employers could reduce their overheads. They could also recruit experienced and skilled workers like parents or those from the disabled community who need more flexible arrangements. Staff could save hours and evade the most stressful part of the day — the daily commute, and work to a more flexible timescale.
But as the weeks wore on, I began to doubt my optimism. Yes, a quick google search in mid-May 2020 reveals studies showing half of all workers want to work more flexibly after lockdown ends. Some studies even show companies being more upbeat about the productivity of staff, although around a third it seems feel there has been some negative impact.
Surprisingly, the real backlash has come from workers themselves. Around a third simply feel lonely. Some public policy advisers are also warning companies about reducing office space until they have measured productivity among home workers over a longer period of time.
THE INEVITABLE DRIFT
As both long term home worker and an employer of home workers, I’d concur. At first, many home workers do their utmost to be productive to demonstrate that this new way of working is beneficial all round. But I also know that over time, the productivity of people working from home can fall.
It’s not a case of home workers simply shirking. In order to effectively manage the workflow and tasks of a home worker, the office manager needs to change the way they work, and quickly. Strong routines and procedures must be put in place and adapted until they work. Good software is useful to manage tasks, regular and consistent catch-ups and clear deadlines for everything are vital.
It is all too easy to let these fall away. It’s also really easy for a worker to go off track and waste hours on tasks that are not as urgent as the tasks they have focussed on. It’s also almost impossible to communicate the ‘big picture’ of information picked up through the minutiae of daily conversation. These are the quick mentions that a client is perhaps getting impatient, or that Bob is feeling down because his partner is ill so he may miss his target this month. Teams working in an office have access to a cloud of non-written communication that is enormously helpful. It’s virtually impossible to share all of this in emails or video conference calls.
The point is, although it is not impossible, working from home is harder than it first seems and the truth is, it really is not for everyone.
Except, for now, unless you have to be in the workplace to do your job, home working is for everyone — everyone that is who is still lucky enough to have a job or not be furloughed.
LIVING THE DREAM?
Hopefully what this great challenge will result in are more effective ways for us to work from home. We’ll get better at communicating over video link so homeworkers feel less lonely. We’ll set up online chats to share those small but useful bits of information going around the rest of the team. We’ll get into a rhythm of working where we know what is expected of us and check in with our bosses to make sure we are still on track.
The benefits of making this work, to all of us are huge. Imagine, a revived rural economy, less pollution and lower carbon footprint. More time to be with family and friends, the possibility of going for a quick run and having a shower at lunchtime, and no more stressful commute.
We’re not quite at the utopian dream of happy home workers I had all those years ago, but we’re certainly a lot closer.
ARE YOU MANAGING HOME WORKERS?
Tips to keep things on track…
ARE YOU WORKING FROM HOME?
Tips to make working from home work for you