With the evolution of technology and changing perception, working from home is possible and may often be preferable for some people. But before embarking on a remote work arrangement, understand the differences from working in an office and how they must be addressed.
In my last corporate role, I primarily worked from home. This went on for nearly six years. During the first few years, I traveled extensively to the corporate office (a direct three-hour plane trip) as well as to regional offices (varying from a one-hour to a six-hour trip with multiple stops). And while there are certainly benefits working from home, there can be drawbacks as well. And working from home requires higher levels of self-discipline, focus, and organization.
Benefits of working from home
Flexibility. While being one of the primary benefits of working from home, flexibility can also get you into trouble if not managed properly. Having the ability to get things done around the house or run a quick errand during the workday is convenient, but can easily distract from you from getting the job done.
Greater independence. When you work from home, you don’t have someone looking over your shoulder (at least not literally). If you walk away from your desk, nobody will know. Depending on your role, you may even have the ability to work when you want for at least part of your day.
Time savings. For many, not having to commute into an office is the biggest reason for wanting to work from home. When I worked in Chicago, we had employees with a 2 hour commute each way. Trading that commute for a walk from the bedroom to the office more than justifies the challenges of working from home.
Cost savings. In addition to the time savings, not having a daily commute can also be a significant cost savings. The cost of public transportation, gas, parking, wear and tear all add up. Other cost savings result from going out to lunch less often and the not having to wear a specific business wardrobe.
Challenges of working from home
Distractions. When you work from home, you may find it easy to get pulled into household chores. It’s hard not to notice that big pile of laundry. Keeping your focus during the workday is essential. And if you have children, you’ll need to have alternative child care available. You can’t assume that you’ll be able to take care of the kids and work.
Lack of face-to-face interaction. Not sitting next to your co-workers and not being in the same office as your supervisor is the greatest challenge when working from home. The lack of face-to-face interaction drives most of the other issues you will encounter when working remotely.
Missing out on impromptu discussions. Much of the discussions (and decision-making) that happen in a company often occurs during impromptu meetings. Whether a few people gather in someone’s office or a conference room, this is where things happen. When you work remotely, it can be difficult to participate in these discussions. As such, when you don’t participate, you can find yourself cut out of key decisions, or missing important information.
Office social environment. Similarly, when working from home, it can be difficult to be a part of the office social environment. Company culture is one of the greatest contributing factors to employee satisfaction. And building relationships within a company is essential. When you work from home, and maybe even more significantly, when you work in a separate city, connecting with other employees socially may be difficult.
Difficulty walking away. When your office is in your home, you may find it difficult to stop working. Actually, I’ve seen this as much or more than people having trouble working enough. When your computer is only a few steps away, it’s all too easy to keep checking your email at all hours or keep working on a project well after normal working hours. While that can be a good thing, it can also be disruptive to your life if not managed and controlled.
Perception. While some companies have embraced the use of remote workers, not everyone believes that people working from home are as efficient as those in an office. It’s not uncommon to find supervisors who discriminate against remote workers. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t comfortable managing employees remotely, other times it might be because they want to be working from home themselves. Also, because of the challenges building relationships, supervisors may just feel more comfortable with employees that work in the office because they know them better.
Keys to making work from home successful
Establish a dedicated work space at home. It’s fine to move around your house and work in different locations through the workday, otherwise it can get pretty boring. But you still need a dedicated space just for work. You need a place with your PCs set up, with a phone, and a good chair. Just like you would have in an office, make sure you have what you need to work.
Schedule frequent, recurring communication with peers, reports, and supervisors. When I worked from home I had a number of regularly scheduled calls. I started each morning with a group call with my peers as well as my supervisor. I followed that with a group call with the team that reported to me. And lastly, I had weekly one-on-one calls with my direct reports as well as my supervisor. Ideally, these calls lasted between 15 minutes and one hour. Just long enough to keep everyone on the same page. But not so long as to interfere with everyone’s day. While it may seem like all I did was have phone calls, when you aren’t physically sitting in the same office with others, I found frequent, recurring calls to be the best way to stay engaged.
Travel to the physical office as needed. I learned early on that it can be difficult to effectively communicate through a speakerphone. People on each end cannot always hear each other, but even more challenging is missing out on being able to read people in the room as you speak. This meant that if I had something important to discuss, or if I knew that I would need to convince people of my perspective, I tried to make sure I was in the room presenting, not on a speakerphone, or even video.
Realize that working from home is a privilege and treat it as such. If working from home is what you want, make sure you don’t squander the opportunity. I saw situations where people working from home couldn’t be reached during the workday. You need to treat working from home just like working in an office. Make sure you are accountable. Make sure you are completing your requirements. If anything, I suggest overachieving when working from home. Take away any excuse that management would have for rescinding your ability to work from home.
For me, the independence and flexibility of working from home far exceeded the challenges. Even though I had to travel weekly for a period of time, I was still able to be at home more than I was away and more than if I had worked in a local office. When you work from home, realize the limitations, but embrace the positives. For the right person, in the right environment, working from home can be a wonderful experience.
Readers, do you have any experience working from home either yourself or someone you are close to? What is your company’s view on remote workers?