I’ve been working from home for 12 years. And this is what I’ve learnt
You have now spent several weeks working from home. You have enjoyed some aspects of it, and not liked some others.
But studies tell us that some of you are already considering on continuing to work remotely even after your city lifts the current lockdown measures. Experts are predicting that COVID-19 has permanently changed the future of work, and that the workplace will not look the same again.
IT giant, Tata Consultancy Services, has already set work from home targets. As many as 75 percent of its workforce could be working from home by 2025.
Before you cast your vote on ‘return to office’ or ‘continue from the home office,’ weigh the options carefully. Whether working from home for an extended period of time suits your profile depends on a number of factors – the nature of your work, the conditions at your remote workplace, the company culture and your personality.
Now is a good time to assess those factors.
My own move – from a newsroom to my study at home
I have spent half of my 25 years of work life working remotely. The move was unsettling for me initially – from noisy, always-on-steroids newsrooms to a quiet study at home. But within a few months I found my rhythm.
So, now when clinical psychologists to CEOs and leadership coaches are dishing out advice on how to make remote working work, I’m tempted to say, “Tell me something new.”
Unlike some other professions, the nature of my work –communications – lends itself well to remote working. Most companies are comfortable with the concept of engaging with agencies where people may not be always available for face-to-face meetings. Virtual agencies for marketing and communications related work have also been around for some time now.
Compared to someone working in my field, a person who sells servers or conducts workshops for a living is bound to feel a greater degree of pain while transitioning to a work-from-home environment. Negotiating a sales deal or conducting a workshop virtually is way harder than taking an interview on the phone or finalising the structure of an article over email.
Nevertheless, many of the difficulties and experiences of remote working cut across professions.
What should you watch out for?
Working remotely over a long period of time, especially if the remote workplace is your home, could put you at a disadvantage. Assess your suitability before you make up your mind.
- Control over time – are you good at managing time and following a daily schedule whether you have pressing work commitments or not?
- FOMO – are you prone to getting edgy and consumed by the fear of missing out? Remember that you will often be far from the scene of action.
- Exchange of ideas – are you in the habit of picking your colleagues’ brain on big and small ideas, or do you prefer brainstorming to quiet moments of reflection?
- Change in pace – does your work involve significant team participation or several decision makers before you can proceed? Your ability to influence your colleagues to act may go down.
- Working when nobody is watching – do you constantly look for motivation from others or tend to fall behind unless challenged?
- Distractions and unwelcome intrusions – do you have young children at home who tend to disrupt your work or do you get house guests from time to time?
- Unhealthy habits – how discplined are you in controlling unnecessary snacking or keeping to a workout schedule since you will be clocking in far fewer steps when working your home? Though not a deal-breaker, it is important to be aware of it.
- Goodbye to your wardrobe – how much do you enjoy dressing up? Imagine not finding many occasions to take out your handbags or shoes.
This article from Harvard Business Review talks about a few other such common problems of remote working.
Ground rules, pacts, goals setting
Once you have assessed how suitable you are to work remotely for an extended period of time, think of what you can do to improve your productivity. Since a number of factors such as the company’s culture or clients’ processes are not in your control, some modifications to your own old habits and working style will help.
When I started working from my home office, I realised that I needed to set some rules for me, my family, my clients and my team.
I made pacts with my children; if I could work undisturbed until 5 pm, I would take them out to the playground in the evening. I pushed back on clients who thought that work from home was equivalent to always available for work.
I set expectations with my team of writers – do not over-commit but once you have agreed to a deadline, you must deliver. My initial list did not include neighbours and friends. But then I quickly realised that some expectations needed to be set with them as well – that I was not available for impromptu tea sessions and outings.
Some common strategies that remote workers apply are maintaining regular workhours, designating a space at home as the office, keeping distractions at bay and staying connected with the team frequently to check on progress and chit chat.
Notes from my personal handbook
Over the years, I have discovered a few hard truths for which I have devised my own solutions.
- Your output matters more now: Your colleagues and clients do not see the effort that you put it; they only see your output. Ensure that you define or redefine the metrics on the basis of which your work will be rated.
- Build strong rapport: Continue to work on building trust and confidence with the extended team, partners and clients. Be quick on phone and email responses, offer help when needed so they know you have a sense of belonging to the team, stay connected through social media – let them know that you are only physically away, not emotionally. Also put time aside in your weekly calendar for some casual conversations with your team.
- Make face-to-face meetings count: Since you have limited time for physical meetings, take these as occasions to add value to the relationship and recharge your mind.
- Focus on goal-setting: When self-motivation is the primary driver, it is best to set tough goals and communicate them to others. Without announcing your goals and deadlines, procrastination could set in.
- Work on self-development: Since there are fewer opportunities to interact with and learn from colleagues, remote workers must put in additional time and effort for self-development. It could be setting aside time to read up on industry developments, joining a course or attending seminars and conferences to brush up on their knowledge and skills.
When I started working from home in 2006, people advised me to not talk about it openly. Work from home was then looked upon as casual work, only for people who were not serious about their career.
That mindset had slowly changed over the years. COVID-19 has accelerated the change.
Companies now realise that both employees and the extended teams can be as productive when they work from home. There is also more empathy for them now. If a crow caws in the background or a child trots in to the room during a video call, it will not attract others’ sneers.
So, if you want to embrace this change, do it mindfully. Know the challenges you may encounter and devise strategies that will work for you.
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