Monica Duke is a colleague of mine at UKOLN, and a good friend too. She helped me out with a guest blog post when I first started the blog (Brie and Bakeries: a Postcard from the North) and she has been a supportive co-remote worker ever since. Both Monica and I have young(ish) children and know that juggling work and home is enough to bring anyone out in a sweat! In this guest post she has written about how remote working can be a real saviour at tricky times, like school holidays!
School holidays can be a little challenging for working parents. I am fortunate to have an excellent and affordable holiday club local to me, but this is closed for the first two weeks of the summer holiday, leaving a bit of a gap which I cannot always fill by taking holiday myself. I am a long-standing home worker, and I know from previous attempts that working at home with my child ‘playing quietly’ in the background doesn’t really work well for us. My need to concentrate while working does not sit well with constant interruptions of requests for food, setting up of the DVD player or the wii, or declarations of boredom. My child is now seven. She should know better. But she doesn’t.
So it was with relief that I booked her onto a one-week Stagecoach workshop an activity she has enjoyed before. However when the workshop closest to us was undersubscribed and didn’t run, I had to look further afield to another workshop held in the nearby town of Keighley. Running between 10.00 and 4.00, the sessions would give me just enough cover to fulfil my quota of hours for the week (I work part-time). It looked perfect except for one snag. The drive there and back, undertaken twice daily, 30 minutes each way, did not fit neatly into my calculations. Two hours of driving would have eaten too much into my time, and the leftover hours would hardly provide a solid block of working time. I’d need to set off back when I’d hardly got started. Moreover, neither all that driving nor the extra cost of fuel appealed to me, after enjoying years of home-working comfort without the tedium of a daily commute.
It was with a little trepidation, peppered with a dose of excitement, that I settled on the experimental course of basing myself in Keighley for that week, testing my remote working abilities to the full. The main two requirements I identified during my planning stage were a relatively peaceful location to work from, and to be able to go online periodically during the day. My initial investigations into wireless options in the area turned up some promising potential locations, using findgoodcustomerservice.com and wificafespots.com By listing the availability of power sources in locations, one of those sites also brought to my notice one other need that I had overlooked and which I knew would be essential – a power source to keep my laptop going. My plan overall appeared feasible, so off I went.
Keighley is a medium-size West Yorkshire town, which I had visited before, but which I did not know particularly well. Once I’d arrived on the first morning, a flaw in my planning quickly became apparent: I’d overlooked the need to park my car for five to six hours each day. Although Keighley has one each of the main supermarket chains, their car parks appeared to operate on a pay and display basis, or are limited to short-term parking only. A couple other council-owned town centre car parks had plenty of space (for example the Scott Street car park) but also required payment. At 50 pence for half an hour the parking charges were on the modest side, but I decided I’d rather save my pennies for coffee purchases to buy myself time to sit in cafes with wireless. The town centre also offers plenty of on-street free parking, but this is restricted to 30 min or 1 hour slots. In my mission to keep costs down, I considered moving my car every hour to the next slot round the corner, but the need to start up and shut down my laptop to move the car each time would not have been conducive to productive working. For the benefit of anyone who may follow in my footsteps, I will reveal that I eventually tracked down a couple of good free places to park, for example parking is free on Spring Gardens Lane, only 2-3 minutes’ walk from the centre. Parking challenges aside, my week in Keighley was quite successful. Here are the highlights.
First mention must go to the fantastic Café Central at Central Hall on Alice street. Central Hall is an accessible community space for people, organisations and businesses, located inside a renovated former Methodist chapel. The café at Central Hall has free wireless and plenty of power points. The atmosphere is very pleasant, and the coffee is eminently affordable (and good). Example prices are: cup of tea for 90p, coffees for £1.30 to £1.60 with the most expensive drink being a hot chocolate with all the trimmings for £2.00. The staff were very friendly. Food options included sandwiches, salads and jacket potatoes, again all reasonably priced (£2.50 – £4.00). In the interests of research, I did try their cake which was excellent and also keenly priced. The only downside is that the café closes at 2.00 pm. However the centre itself is open till four, and staff seemed happy to allow me to continue working at the café tables for as long as I needed. This has to be my number one recommendation for working in Keighley, I would happily go back to working there.
I struck lucky with the weather that week, with balmy temperatures and the sun making quite a few appearances. This led me to look for an outside venue in which to sit to have my packed lunch (another of my cost-containing measures), so on my short lunch-break I took myself off to Cliffe Castle park. This is another very pleasant Keighley spot indeed, close to the town centre, and what’s more, it has free parking. The entrance at the bottom end of the park is within walking distance of the centre, although the car park is 2 minutes’ drive a little way up a steepish hill. The only drawback here was that there is major refurbishment going on so no toilets were open, necessitating a speedy return to Central Hall (toilets became the second item on my list of must-haves that I’d failed to consider in my planning stage!).
Although the central hall café was meeting all my needs, somewhat inevitably as a UKOLN veteran, I had identified the central library as a venue to be evaluated as a potential work place. The downstairs area was pretty busy, so I settled down in the upstairs section, an architecturally interesting space, which houses the Keighley local studies library for Bradford district. I would love to report that this was a positive experience, but alas it was not to be, as I encountered hitches both connecting to the wireless and to the power sockets.
Written instructions for connecting to the wireless were available, but despite following them and being fairly confident with changing my wireless configuration setup, I couldn’t get the proxy settings to work. The library also requires users to connect to the power outlets using a surge-protector type of device, provided by the library. There was a little delay in sourcing one of these for me, then further hesitation trying to get it to work. Despite my assurances that I was happy to run on battery, I was informed that use of the surge protector was stipulated for all laptop use. The staff had a kindly, helpful attitude, but they appeared to be well out of their comfort zone helping with these issues, and seemed overstretched. It didn’t help that a group of young men using some of the computer terminals seemed intent on causing distractions and pestering the staff. The wireless handout did give strict instructions that the staff could not help with wireless issues, which does makes the situation clear, but is of limited help. These restrictions in the available help and limitations in staff knowledge are presumably due to resourcing implications. Unfortunately I was left with an overall impression that this was only a half-hearted attempt at providing a wireless service for users of the library, and really not good enough for a modern library.
After the third day of my adventures in Keighley, I was getting driving fatigue, so I was relieved when another parent offered to do the Stagecoach run and I could work at home. This also co-incided with a conference call I needed to take with a larger group of people – I had successfully made one-to-one skype calls from the café, but was quite relieved to take this one from home.
My last day of the experiment was Friday, so in the interests of research, I took the opportunity to check out another venue that I had spotted on my way to the post office. The Keighley post office, near the bus station, was a very busy place. I need to post expense claims back to the office now and then, so the local post office service is something I am interested in exploring for work purposes too. I do tend to put off posting claims because I don’t fancy time wasted in our local post office queue. On my first attempt at using the Keighley post office I gave up due to some very long queues, but on my second try a member of staff introduced me to their automated machines. I hadn’t seen these before, and quite liked the idea. They made the process easy if all you need is to post one or two envelopes; I wish our local post office would get some.
My next call was the Buddha Land Kadampa Buddhist Centre which is found on the other side of the Bus Station, opposite to the Post Office. The centre has a World Peace Community Café, with free wireless and more excellent coffee. And more nice cake. I only spent a short time there and didn’t actually test the wireless, but the café seemed peaceful enough for working, and is welcoming and attractive. It is in an interesting building too. There are lunch time meditations for £2 if you fancied trying out something different in your lunch break. One of the downsides of homeworking that I have always felt keenly , compared to being based on a University campus, is access to facilities such as sports and other organised activities. Activities that can be accessed easily for a short period would provide an ideal short break.
My general happiness with the Central Hall facilities meant that I didn’t need to explore all the potential café options that my research online on foot and driving around in the car had thrown up. However I conclude this post by listing a few of these places for completeness. Reporting from personal experience will have to be left as a task for the reader.
The Gregg’s at the bus station had a sign up advertising wireless, but there is nowhere to sit inside or out, and I think I’d have to be pretty desperate to try and work from the bus station. I guess it might be ok if you were just checking mail on a mobile device.
The Livery Rooms is a Wetherspoons located between Central Hall and Keighley Library – I know from my local Whethespoons that the coffee and food are cheap (although I don’t rate the coffee at my local branch much). Wificafespots says there is no power there. Moghul’s and Mc Donald’s are also listed as having good wireless but no power. Further afield are another Whetherspoon’s, The Myrtle Grove in Bingley, and The Manor Hotel which sounded lovely, but maybe a bit pricey.
So what is my assessment of this experience overall? How successful was it? I’m proposing two measures of success: was I productive (i.e. could I continue to do my work as well as if I’d stayed at home) and did I feel enriched? The latter is an important factor – consider this report in the Guardian, which appeared shortly after my week, and suggests that working from home “can be seriously bad for your your health”, quoting a study that reports “lack of human interaction can affect health as badly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.”
Overall I would rate my experience as very successful. Ignoring the initial blip with my navigation and hunting for parking, which ate up a chunk of my first day, the remaining hours were characterised with peaceful working, fuelled by good coffee. I had planned a chunk of work specifically for that week, which I had thought would fit in well with the conditions of working. As it turned out other tasks came up that I needed to respond to, so my plan for work changed. I was able to be flexible and accommodate the new needs even with my arrangements; as mentioned I managed a couple of Skype calls while on the move.
Did I feel enriched? As I jotted down notes on my experience for this blog post, the olympics were playing behind me, projected (unobtrusively) on the Central Café wall. Heather Stanning and Helen Glover were winning Britain’s first gold medal for canoeing. I allowed myself a pause to drink in the emotion of the moment. I have a strict and very necesseray ‘no-telly-during-working–hours’ rule at home, so I would have surely missed this experience under my day to day arrangments. Keighley is a very ethnically and socially diverse town, its inhabitants are more interesting than the stereotypically predominantly-white, middle-class, university-employed residents of the market town that I live in. It has a bigger range of shops and facilities. The people I got to speak to, staff serving in the cafes or shops, or passers-by helping with directions, were helpful and friendly. I like change and exploring new things. Having this work experience in a different location left me feeling invigorated and positive, almost like being on holiday.
Overall I would rate the experiment successful on both counts, and I would definitely look forward to a repeat, this time being even better-informed, and less hesitant about what to expect. I felt I learnt loads of lessons about remote working, but if I had to sum up my two top tips, they would be:
- Research beforehand, search online as a minimum; scout the locations in person if possible.
- Availability of parking and toilets is just as important as power and wireless!
Finally, I’m quite curious to know if any of Marieke’s followers are familiar with this area of Yorkshire – it occurred to me afterwards that it might have been helpful to ask for suggestions and tips in the planning stage through her blog or on twitter. I am writing this blog post partly in the hope that the information might be useful to someone else, and also because I’d be interested to learn of any other likely nearby venues I’ve missed. Please do drop us a line or a comment if there is any more information that you can add.
Map location for these events.