Time for another guest blog post. I’ve managed to persuade Paul Boag, user experience designer and founding partner of Web design agency Headscape, to share with us his experience of being a remote worker. Paul is a keen blogger and runs the boagworld.com community for people who run Web sites. Enjoy!!
An increasing number of people are trading in the cubicle for home working. It is seen by many as the ultimate perk. However, is home working really everything it is cracked up to be? I share what I have discovered after 7 years of home working.
Like many people starting a new business, we begun Headscape working from home. It was a great way to keep costs low and ensure those long hours required when starting a business were more bearable. However the real appeal of home working, was the feeling it provided more flexibility.
The dream becomes a nightmare
To begin with it felt like being set free. I could work in my pyjamas, no longer worry about day time deliveries and get to see my new born son whenever I wanted. Unfortunately, like everything, the honeymoon period eventually wore off.
It did not take long for the presence of my new born child to turn from a blessing to a curse. His constant crying made work difficult and my loud conference calls often brought the wrath of my wife because they disturbed ‘nap time’.
I also found myself craving human interaction. Although my wife and son were around, I found I could go days (or in some cases even longer) without seeing another human sole. In fact there was a period of time when I rarely left the house.
Things weren’t much better when friends and family did come to visit. They seemed unable to grasp that I was at work and I suffered from constant interruptions.
Suffering from a lack of self control
However the biggest problem with my new found freedom was that it required a lot of self control. Many people suffer from a lack motivation when they start home working. They become get distracted by day time TV or making ‘yet another cup of tea’. However, I suffered from the opposite problem.
With work so easily accessible and a new business to worry about I found myself constantly drawn back into the office. For a considerable time all I did in my life was work and sleep. It was damaging to both myself and my relationship with the family. Something had to change.
What didn’t work
I decided that what I missed was the structure of office life. I therefore decided to recreate this structure at home. I started work at 9AM and finished at 5.30PM (at least that was the theory). I even dressed for work and at the end of the business day got changed into my casual clothes.
I set rigid boundaries for friends and family too. While I was at work I was off limits and simply would not interact with others. However, I did try and overcome my feels of isolation by experimenting with a plethora of communication tools. My aim was to enable better communication with other members of Headscape.
However ultimately all of these techniques failed. They failed to acknowledge the very nature of home working and left me with the worst aspects of both home and office.
I became increasingly irritable with family, annoyed by the constant interruptions created by the comms tools I had put in place, and trapped by the rigid routine of the 9 to 5.
The secret to home working
At this point you probably suspect I return to office life. However, that is not the case. In fact where most of Headscape now work in an office, I am one of the few hold outs who refuse to give up home working. I love it. It just took me a while to work out how to make it work.
The secret to home working is finding a balance. You need to put boundaries in place that ensure you strike the right work/home balance. However you must also ensure those ‘rules’ are not so restrictive they suck the pleasure out of home working.
Take for example working hours. I required boundaries. On one hand I needed to limit the hours I worked. However, I also had to overcome the guilt I felt when I believed I wasn’t working hard enough.
The answer wasn’t working 9AM to 5PM. This simply imposed an office model on a home environment. Rather I started tracking my time. Each day I work an 8 hour day. However rarely is that in normal business hours.
I tend to start around 9ish, but as anybody who follows me on Twitter knows I often take a nap in the afternoon. This suits my body clock and takes full advantage of my home working environment.
I also feel free to stop when friends or family come around. I often go for coffee or even see a movie with my wife. I then make up the time in evenings or weekends. Because I track the time, I do not need to feel guilty about these distractions.
I know what you are thinking- what if one of my colleagues needs something from me when I am out? Well, I always ensure I am instantly contactable. I have my iphone and will always answer it even if that means walking out of the movie. Also, I normally carry my laptop and 3G modem so I can act on things immediately if they are urgent.
Of course, I am not naive. If you work in customer support or as part of a closely knit team then this would not be possible. However if you do, then home working is probably not ideal anyway.
I think that is the problem with a lot of home working articles. They fail to take into account the huge variety of factors that can affect how you work from home. It is impossible to tell anybody how they should work from home because…
- We all have different characters
- We all have different job requirements
- We all work in different home working environments
That said, I do think there is at least some advice I can give in regards to working environment.
Your working environment
When I first started home working we converted our dining room into an office. I did at least get one thing right. I realised the importance of having a dedicated working environment. You cannot work from your kitchen table when the room is also being used by the family. It just doesn’t work.
However, what I got wrong was the room I picked. Our dinning room was right in the middle of our house, between the kitchen and living room. Only a partition wall divided it from the living room and so I could hear everything happening in the house and vice versa.
Now my office is a converted garage adjoining the house. Its only link is through a heavy fire door and utility room. It is essentially a separate area exclusively for my work.
Pick your working environment carefully. Ensure you have a room away from the rest of the house. It will make a world of difference. Also, spend time and money to ensure it is as nice a place to work as possible. Lots of daylight is the key for me. That and nice furniture. If you don’t make your home office a nice place to work, it will become a prison you learn to hate.
Of course, no matter how nice your home office it will eventually drive you crazy. When you work and live in one place, you eventually feel the need to get out. That is where I am grateful we have a company office too. I have found myself really enjoying the change of environment and the opportunity to speak to real live human beings!
If you don’t have an office, then try working from a coffee shop or even break free from the office model entirely.
Beyond the office
While most companies are considering allowing their employees to home work I am beginning to experiment with leaving the idea of an office behind entirely.
The realisation that there is no need for me to be constrained by any kind of office first struck me when reading ‘The 4 Hour Work Week‘. Although there is a lot in that book I disagree with, I do think it gets one thing right – most of the work we do does not need to be constrained to a particular location.
Take for example this post. I am currently flying at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic on my way to SXSW. I can still blog. In fact Dave and Craig (two of our developers at Headscape) are sitting in front of me installing .net on a mac and Marcus is sitting beside me building a wireframe. As long as we have a computer, we can work anywhere.
This is even easier when I am on the ground! For Â£15 per month I have a 3G modem that allows me web access too. Combined with my iphone and laptop, I have a complete mobile office. I could work from anywhere.
Of course this approach is not without its challenges. My modem may give me web access in the UK, but using it abroad is expensive. That said, there are a growing number of wifi spots internationally so it is a problem that is diminishing.
As with home working the more significant barrier is a mental one. In the same way I had problems working out how best to work from home, I am also having problems knowing the best approach while travelling.
Over the summer I did an experiment in ‘road’ working when I went on holiday to the Highlands of Scotland with the family. I took a week’s holiday and decided to work for a week too, as an experiment. I have to say it didn’t go well. The temptations of the great outdoors and family fun was just too great. I did my weeks work but only just and it was not a pleasurable experience.
That said, I know of others who have got it working for them. I just need to find the right way for me. Perhaps I should get up early but stop after lunch. Perhaps I should take a long siesta in the middle of the day and work later into the evening. The possibilities are endless and one of them will strike the right balance between working and living the life I want to live.
What I am convinced of is that mobile computing has opened up limitless opportunities to work where we want and how we want. All that is holding us back is the status quo and outdated ideologies.