More of us are working from home than ever before. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), a new UK record has been set: 4.2 million home workers in the first quarter of 2014. The figure represents almost 14 percent of the country's workforce, although not all of them work from home all the time. Most still mix remote working with office work, or working as they travel. Many work for themselves.
In 2013, Marissa Mayer famously banned all Yahoo! staff from home working, saying that "speed and quality are often sacrificed", and the Yahoo! team worked better when "physically together". Google agrees, but it's a position that Sir Richard Branson opposes. He would like to see fewer restrictions on where we work.
For the sake of balance, we should note that Marissa Mayer has a nursery for her child in the office (a perk many parents dream of), and Sir Richard works from a tropical island (ditto).
The Perils of Working From Home
Over the years, people have told me that working from home is more stressful than working in their office. Their number one concern is a drop in productivity. Distractions drain your energy at the best of times, but when your boss is looking over your shoulder, you can feel an immense pressure to get things done.
When you work from home, there is always something more pressing that needs your attention. If you have a dog, it will bark, or need walking, or want to sit on your knee. If you have a cat, it will want to go outside. Then come inside. Then go outside again. And if you have a toddler, you can forget any notion of routine or schedule at all. You will still need childcare if you want to work.
The less work you do in 'work time', the more starts to get pushed into leisure time. You start to do an hour of work after the kids have gone to bed, assuming you have the energy. Or you write proposals while watching the soaps. Lunch breaks become a distant memory, and you find yourself rising at 5.30am to catch up from the day before.
If left unchecked, work-life balance can be difficult to maintain, particularly in a family home. If one parent is working from home outside regular hours, it leaves the other in charge of the house for longer, meaning fewer rest breaks for both of you.
The best work around is to have a private work space at home, but this means the luxury of an extra bedroom (and, possibly, a lock on the door).
And The Perks
Working from home is a privilege that many employees envy, and it would be unfair to suggest that it's all bad news. I started my company from my kitchen table; I know it's not impossible. (As a caveat, I should add that I had no social life for a couple of years).
But working from home is undoubtedly liberating, and it widens the scope of each day; you can travel, run an urgent errand or make time for a special occasion. While others would need to use a day's leave from a limited supply, you're free to dip in and out.
There are also some cost benefits; you can usually claim towards the cost of your internet access, and you slash the cost of transport to and from an office. The time spent wasted on commuting can also be ploughed into something more productive, or used for an extra hour in bed - an equally valid outcome when you're working long hours.
Best For Business?
In the ONS survey, 63 percent of the people working from home described themselves as self employed. The proportion of home workers may be increasing, but change is being driven by entrepreneurs and freelancers, rather than large corporations.
Employers are often criticised for shying away from home working. The TUC cites a trust issue, and line managers are undoubtedly more comfortable when they can see their team at work. While it's true that some staff are less productive when working remotely, many find that technology connects them to colleagues just as effectively as it would if they were in the same room. Having said all of that, Yahoo! may have had an endemic productivity issue that forced Meyer's hand.
Our trust in cloud computing may have taken a battering after the iCloud debacle, but for fledgeling businesses and established companies, cloud collaboration tools are still a very effective way to engage the workforce. They allow everyone to get on and work together in a flexible, yet structured, way.
Finding a Compromise
I work as a technical writer; my company takes on short-term, contract and freelance work. We're all free to move around the country and work the hours we want to work. We have expectations of each other, and we know that we need to pull our weight. (This is arguably more 'real' to members of a small business than it is in a large one.)
As a company, we embrace the flexibility of remote working, particularly when working with overseas clients. We also have a basic company office which is run on our own terms. It gives us the isolation we need to get things done, and the focus to work to tight deadlines.
Additionally, three years of remote working has left us with some tips to impart:
- We avoid the slow daily commute when working at the office together. Starting at 8am, and finishing early, lets us get more done
- All of us keep weekends free from work activities. This gives us chance to do the chores that would nag us all week if we neglected them, and it stops work bleeding over into family time
- I aim to leave the office at least once per day to refocus
- Our clients are encouraged to use screensharing, Hangouts and Google Drive, rather than organising short on-site meetings. This helps us to make better use of time, and it drastically cuts costs for them too
- We use cloud project management tools, Google Apps and Voice Over IP (VOIP) to work together when we're travelling
- Meetings and project planning sessions are scheduled during periods when we know there will be no distractions
- Our team includes virtual assistants and overseas staff who step in when it's convenient for all of us
- And yes - we still take our work on holiday
If you're planning to work from home, it's best to set aside some private space where you can create an 'office-like' environment. It doesn't have to be formal, and you don't have to follow set conventions. But over time, you'll be glad that you're not staring at the laundry basket, or forever answering the door to well-meaning visitors who saw your car in the driveway.
Working from home isn't for everyone, but a blanket ban isn't the answer either. Freedom can spawn positive culture change at work, and help you claw back time for yourself once work is over. The key is to stay motivated, no matter where you are.