I mentioned in a previous blog post (http://wp.me/p1kusD-2U ) that I had recently started working remotely. After over 15 years of traditional office-based work as a commercial lawyer this is a new experience and one that has taken a little getting used to.
Like many people working in large corporate organisations I had had some experience of the occasional day or two working from home. Early in my career this meant painfully slow dial up connections to the office network for strictly limited periods just to check emails, download documents and then work offline. Generally more time would be spent getting the connection up, fiddling with the dongle and code generator, and waiting for things to download than actually working. If it was a planned day away from the office by far the most effective approach would be to print off as many of the documents I needed and carry them with me, perhaps marking up by hand rather than braving it with remote access. It certainly wasn’t something that looked to be a realistic option for more than the odd day here or there.
In any case, working from home just has too many distractions. Some are psychological and personal – after years of wearing school uniform and a suit to work, it takes a while to feel in the right frame of mind for work if slobbing around the house in my dressing gown. Even if there is a mild frisson to doing a conference call while inappropriately attired. Then there are all the distractions of home. Not (at least for me) the joys of Jeremy Kyle, but the pottering around to turn the washing over, start cooking dinner and other minor household chores. Or, more realistically for me, thinking I ought to be doing those things and getting distracted from work by procrastinating about them.
The other concern was about being isolated and turning into a hermit. Some years back in my young and responsibility-free days I took a week off and spent the first three days playing Civilization on my PC. I was so inactive those few days that I thought my self-winding watch had broken, only gradually realising that it had just stopped because I’d done so little. I sounded like a teenager whose voice was breaking when I tried to remedy this sloth by calling a friend to see if they were around for a drink, so silent had those days been.
I’ve been fortunate in that the law firms I’ve worked in have not been the worst in respect of “presenteeism” or the need to be seen to be there for people to think you are performing. However, in more recent jobs, where I have had only small teams or been working mainly on my own trying to build a new area of practice without having other colleagues who knew what I was doing, being visible was important.
So, working from home as a lifestyle choice never really appealed as a practical option. That is, until earlier this year. After a period of 4 months of unemployment I’d concluded that there were unlikely to be many opportunities for me in Leeds and that I would probably have to relocate back down South for work, at least during the week. Then, I got a job which, although based in Berkshire involved me having a client base that was all overseas. So, there was not really a great deal of point in me relocating to Berkshire (other than for a couple of weeks at the beginning to get to know my boss and colleagues) as all my work would be done over the phone or by computer. This meant that I could stay at home with Mrs B and OMB. But, while not having to live 200 miles away was great, all the same problems remained about home working.
Fortunately, a few minutes walk from home a new community enterprise centre had just opened up. Headingley Enterprise and Art (HEART) – http://www.heartcentre.org.uk/ . For a similar cost to getting a suitable work desk, chair and other office equipment at home, it provides a comfortable setting for working remotely. I have colleagues in that I work around a wide range of other people even if we are doing very different things either for other employers or on a self-employed basis. It means there’s someone to have a bit of a chat with or to blow off steam to when you’ve just been on an infuriating conference call. In some ways it is better than having “real” work colleagues in the office because you aren’t ever going to be competing for promotion with the people you’ve just moaned about a client to! The mix is about 50:50 between self-employed/small businesses like the couple of students who run club nights, the management consultant and the architect, and other remote workers for larger businesses. There’s also an excellent café and meeting rooms.
Before starting at HEART I was mildly sceptical about whether there was a real need for such centres. I had done a lot of work with the variety of regeneration bodies (particularly the RDAs) and social enterprises established under the previous government.These seemed to love turning old schools into trendy enterprise centres or creative hubs in areas where there didn’t seem to be a lot of demand while spending a fortune on building new schools. However, from experience, I can see that this could be a possible model for making remote working a much more realistic opportunity for more people. It would be worth the new Local Enterprise Partnerships and the Enterprise Zones promoting remote working in this way, particularly, as for me, they offer the prospect of enabling relocation of jobs from the South to the North.
Many large businesses are starting to offer more remote and flexible working opportunities motivated principally by the cost of running office space, particularly where their present premises are too small to provide everyone with a desk. Indeed the business I am seconded to at the moment is in that situation so that most of the permanent employees are encouraged to work remotely a couple of days a week. Unlike the old days of glacially slow dial up connections, broadband internet is pretty fast and reliable. Even though I use the WiFi connection to access a corporate VPN (which slows thing down substantially) I have sufficient bandwidth to enable videoconferencing while sharing documents or viewing the desktops of the other participants. If employers were able to pay for employees to use remote offices like HEART it would make remote working much more attractive and improve many people’s work-life balances by cutting out their commuting time. Working late is much easier to do, when needed, if you still finish before the time your commute home would normally end.
So, if you are considering working remotely or setting up a business to run from home, I recommend looking to see if you have a similar centre nearby. A final big positive in favour of HEART for me is that it allows me to compartmentalise work and home. When your office is at home it can be too easy to have no separation of home and work life. That is bad for productivity during the day when you are mixing chores with work and bad for your leisure in the evenings and weekends when it is too easy to “just check a few emails”, particularly if your colleagues and clients know that you are always at work even if you don’t use a BlackBerry.