Working from home and gorging on cheese from the fridge

by Ben Ward

After a year working from home again, and occasionally enjoying cheese and biscuits for lunch, I thought I’d share some thoughts about the experience.  Both myself and Karen my wife work mainly from home. I’m a PR trainer and consultant, specialising in while Karen is a local councillor and now chair of the local area committee.

Before I start you’d think that Mayor Boris Johnson would understand to enjoy cheese properly it can’t be eaten straight from the fridge and needs to be at room temperature. So it was really two Boris gaffes in one!

On a more serious note you need to realistic about the benefits and disadvantages of working from home. Much of the commentary I’ve heard like the ‘skiver’s paradise’ from Boris has been quite polarised. I’ve tried to identify some of the benefits and disadvantages of home working from my own personal perspective.

Benefits of working from home

More time. No matter how short your commute working from home will save that time. I was lucky when running Wolfstar as it was only a half hour journey, but twice a day that still adds up to the equivalent of about an extra 30 working days a year (assuming 20 days holiday on top of public holidays and weekends)!

Save money. With no fuel, parking or public transport costs the saving can be considerable. Factor in expensive lunches (even a visit to a supermarket for a cheap, nasty sandwich costs more than it would to make a far tastier one at home) and those over-priced buckets of weak coffee from Starbucks and the savings become even more considerable. Even after you’ve invested in a nice espresso machine and good coffee.

More productive. This is a more complex one because ‘skiving’ can be what actually makes you more productive. Everyone who works in an office knows that there are times you’re on fire and rattle off quality work at a rapid rate. But there are also times when you’re just not as motivated and you suffer from blank screen syndrome. The beauty of working from home is that frequently you can choose to work when you’re feeling productive and ‘skive’ when you aren’t.

Work/life balance and family time. I just interrupted writing this blog post to walk my five year old daughter the five minutes to school for 8:50 when it opens. Something that working from home gives me the ability to do. Just as it’s easier to pick her up at 15:20. It’s also easy to take the odd ten minute break when she’s at home and then resume work. Yesterday I spent a quarter of an hour practising her writing with her and then she was happy to write and draw on her own for awhile. The alternative would be rushed, frantic time in the morning to get her to school in time and me and Karen to the office.

Social interaction. As you can read below this is also one of the disadvantages. But one brilliant way of turning it into an advantage is by using some of the time you’ve saved by not commuting and using it to do voluntary work. It gets you out of the house, meeting new people and potentially learning new skills. It can be anything you want – a campaign group, your local community association, a political party, a charity, a school governor – the list is endless. You benefit and society benefits. A great win for all.

Disadvantages of working from home

Need space. I know there are some people who work from home using the kitchen table or small desk in a bedroom or living room, but that would never work for me. Absolutely the only way I could work from home is because we’ve turned a whole bedroom into a study/home office. You’ve then got the one off expense of converting and equipping that room. This provides enough space for a big desk and storage space. Losing a room is a huge disadvantage (even assuming you’ve got the space to be able to do that) and if I ever return to office working that could be one of the big reasons.

Extra expense. There will be some extra costs such as increased fuel bills (mainly in winter from having the heating on during the day instead of just evenings). You might also have to factor in amending your insurance policy to cover home working (although you’re also reducing the risk of burglary as the home is occupied more of the time) and perhaps upgrading your broadband connection to have a bigger data cap. You’ll also probably have higher phone bills, but this can be mitigated by choosing the right home and mobile packages and by using services like Skype. However, all of these extra costs are likely to be more than compensated by what you are saving.

Social interaction. Depending on your job this isn’t actually a disadvantage. When you work in an office you talk to the same people all the time and get a lot of social interaction so don’t need to create those opportunities. You can get high quality interaction, but with a relatively limited group of people. Work from home and you’ve got to make more effort to get out and meet people for lunch and coffee, but the huge benefit is that it is a much broader more diverse group of people.

Home working from an employer’s perspective

From an individual’s perspective I’d come down slightly in favour of home working, however the advantages from an employer’s perspective are less clear cut.

Firstly, the time saved in commuting comes out of the employee’s time and won’t necessarily result in them spending more time on work related activity.

Secondly, it requires experience and self-discipline to be able to work from home without succumbing to the many distractions such as daytime TV, radio and music, video games, DVDs, Sky+ recordings and that novel you just can’t put down. And that’s only some of the indoor distractions! Many less senior staff don’t have the experience, even with training, to make the most of working from home.

Thirdly, it can seriously impact on good team working. You should be able to get round this by using technology such as shared project management systems, commercial online meeting/confereing systems or simply with Skype or Google+ Hangouts. However, the reality is that people tend not to use these systems properly and it’s the old GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out) problem.

The final big problem is maintaining quality and productivity. Without other team members around to help, support and mentor it is likely that standards can slip and there is far less ‘learning by watching’. That means investing more time and money into training, but with less return as you’re still missing a big element of that ‘passed on’ learning from the skills and experience of other team members.