Published on Monday, 19 Dec, 2011
Reflections of a (part time) remote worker
Earlier this year I made the tough decision to commit to moving out of Kent, and up to East Anglia. This obviously tied into decisions about my working life, which up until that point had revolved around heading in to the office in Tunbridge Wells every day for the last 6 years. After some very honest chats with the directors at Lightmaker, it was decided that both parties would give me working remotely a chance.
Whilst it wasn’t to be without its challenges, this arrangement was appealing to me for many reasons. Having done Open University as well as the odd days of working from home previously I knew I could be productive when let out of the big office-shaped cage, but I wasn’t sure whether I would go utterly mad if I was regularly faced with nothing but my own company. I felt lucky to be given the opportunity to test the waters whilst still within the safety net of my supportive existing job.
Like many who make the switch from full time office-based work to a different routine it took me some time to find out how best to make this work for me, and I wanted to share some of my learnings from along the way. As the title of this blog post may have given away, I’m not actually a full time remote worker just yet. I commute to Kent two days a week, and also regularly attend meetings in London around those days, so my time spent in my home office is actually quite infrequent. My experiences therefore revolve more around balancing the in/out of the office challenges rather than going mad from solitude, but hopefully they can help anyone contemplating a similar switch.
If your company doesn’t have many remote workers you may find that you’re faced with a perception that you’ve “gone part time”, or that people don’t think to include you in things any more. Worse, there may also be a perception that you don’t actually do any work because you’re unsupervised. I’ve recently been on annual leave for two weeks, and tweeted during it that I was settling down to watch a film. My friend, the lovely @goo, who hadn’t realised I was on holiday tweeted back “@sjenkinson Working hard then…? lol”. Be careful that your colleagues and your clients have enough awareness of your timetable to separate your working time from your personal time, or your reputation may unintentionally suffer. If you feel like you’re being left out of things you would usually be included in should you be in the office, raise it. Most likely people won’t realise that you had wanted to be included.
Colleagues may also struggle to work with you in an efficient manner (for example scheduling video chats rather than waiting for a slot when you can attend meetings in person). Communication is key. If you use a shared diary make sure your movements are very transparent, and speak to colleagues about prioritising face to face time. A good webcam/headset setup can also go a long way towards easing communication frustrations.
Physically taking yourself away from an office environment can help to alleviate meeting hell. The meetings I attend in person are now condensed into set timeframes, and are now considered more carefully as to whether I’m needed. This has really helped me to escape days full of unnecessary meetings.
Snacks. Keep away. Unless you’ve got a lot more willpower than me (likely), never work in your kitchen. On the positive side, having a proper kitchen to prepare meals in has meant that I eat better at home than in the office, and I save money not buying M&S lunches all the time.
Everyone will joke about you working in your pants all day. You’ll laugh this off, but there will be days when you’re under the weather or over-tired, and you will have to overcome the temptation of not putting any effort in. For me, if I’m not properly dressed I don’t feel in the right mindset to work, so it’s just not an option. Remember that you could also be summoned to a video call at any point! If you’re sat on your sofa, not properly dressed, looking a mess, you’ll do little to erase any wrong perceptions about your work commitment from any doubters.
Working environment – choose your location carefully. Having finally moved into my new house I now have a dedicated office, which I’m tailoring exactly to my work practices. It’s quiet, I have a noticeboard, and I can spread scribbled diagrams and paper all over the surfaces. For the last few months I’ve been using shared office space, which isn’t for me. Similarly, whilst coffee shops are ok on occasion, I couldn’t personally spend a day working in one. Find a place that works for you.
Timings are very important. You may be the sort of person whose schedule and needs change daily, and you work to your own timetable. I need to fit in with the main office timings, and am required to pretty rigidly stick to 9-5:30. As the sole remote worker, if everyone else is starting work at 9am, they expect to be able to get hold of me then too. This was difficult working in a shared office, as most days I was expected to leave when they locked up at 5pm. Again – communication is key – explain to people so that they don’t get frustrated if they unexpectedly can’t get hold of you. Even if I didn’t have to stick to the office timings I would still work to set hours, as I find that a routine helps me. I would probably build in time for non-work activities, like exercise, but it would be a routine none the less.
If your schedule is quite fixed, it can sometimes make it difficult when you need to be flexible. If people need me to be in the office at short notice it can be hard, and likewise if I’ve booked my schedule so that I’m in meetings in the office all day and a client meeting comes up it can be difficult to rearrange things. This is the same as all other commitments though, so just do your best to build in flexibility when you can.
Since working remotely I feel more detached, in a good way. Whilst I would previously fall into working through lunch due to lack of options, I personally find it a lot easier to switch off for a break now that I can get other useful tasks done during my day. This does work both ways though, and I know some people struggle with detaching home and work lives. Try to find a balance that works for you.
Working from home isn’t something that everyone can jump into easily, but an option to trial it and reassess after a few months is a valuable opportunity. If you’re thinking about giving it a go, allow enough time for you to settle in, think carefully about your location, routine and communication, and be honest with yourself if it’s not working – it’s not for everyone!