10 March 2020

Working from home: the ultimate guide

World events and workers’ demands for flexibility are making home working more commonplace than ever. But you need more than permission to make it a success; tech tools, collaborative relationships, and clear expectations are all essential to making home working work for you

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Jon Oxtoby

Jon Oxtoby

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Future of Work Leadership and management Strategy culture and values

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The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, and workers’ growing demands for flexibility and autonomy, are combining to make home working more common than ever. But you can’t just close your office and expect people to be productive; tech tools, collaborative relationships, and clear expectations are all essential to making working from home a success

Do you dream of working from home? Does the idea of no more sitting in traffic on the commute fill you with joy?

If so, you’re not alone. In 2018, 4.2 million workers in the UK worked from home, and 92% of millennials identify flexible working as a top priority when job hunting.

Organisations are realising the benefits of allowing all employees to work from home too, rather than making it a perk that comes with senior management positions. In fact, nearly two thirds of respondents to a 2016 global survey said that they were more productive as remote workers than they had been in an office.

So, is home working about to become the norm for everyone? Especially when there is strong evidence that home working makes employees happier as well as more productive?

Possibly, though it’s not as simple as setting up on the kitchen table in your slippers and logging on. In this article, we’ll take a detailed look at how employees and organisations can make working from home a success for everyone.

 

Technology

For the vast majority of roles it’s almost impossible to work from home without the right technology. But what tech do you need to work from home effectively?

A stable, high-speed internet connection

Many of the tools that home workers use to connect with their colleagues (which, as we’ll see, is essential) require considerable internet bandwidth. For example, a group video call on Microsoft Teams at maximum resolution requires 1Mbps upload and 2Mbps download speed. Most broadband providers advertise speeds far above that but speed can still vary widely for individual households, so it’s worth checking what speed you get at present.

If your internet connection isn’t great, your organisation will need to consider whether they will cover the cost of providing you with high-speed broadband to enable you to work from home.

The right hardware

Although many employers provide laptops, some might ask you to use your own device. It can be more convenient – after all, you already know how to use your computer. However, you’ll need to ensure that it is secure enough for you to work on business projects, especially if your work includes handling sensitive data.

Software

You’ll also need to make sure that you have the right software to do your work properly. This ranges from essential productivity tools such as Microsoft Office to access to files and software such as your HR system or client database.

Crucially, your organisation also needs to invest in software that enables you to talk to your fellow employees – whether they’re in the office or working remotely like you are. Apps such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Google Hangouts provide video calling, chat, and file-sharing functionality that is essential for connecting home-working employees with their colleagues.

Mobile phone?

Unless your role involves making lots of phone calls, or regular international calls that would rack up costly bills, you may not need a mobile phone to work from home successfully. Increasingly, internet-based tools like Microsoft Teams or Webex are the preferred option for communicating with colleagues and clients.

But think twice before downloading work communications apps to your personal phone. Without strong security, your mobile phone is as vulnerable to hackers looking to steal sensitive data as your computer is. Your organisation may prefer to invest in a mobile device for you where they can guarantee a secure connection to work files and systems, or to invest in a security app for your phone.

 

Collaboration and relationship building

According to Buffer, the two biggest struggles for remote workers are loneliness and collaborating and communicating with others. It’s not hard to see why; home workers aren’t physically with their colleagues, so it’s easy to miss out on all the little interactions that help teams to bond. Home workers even report missing out on important meetings, and instead are ‘caught up’ on them later over the phone. So how can you improve matters, if you’re the one working from home?

(If you’re a manager who has a team with home workers in it, you’ll find our guide to managing remote teams helpful).

Get comfortable using technology to communicate

It’s important that you know how to use the comms tools at your disposal – and make a conscious effort to use them and stay connected with your teams.

Drop messages to your colleagues, and don’t be afraid to talk about the weather, the weekend, or your favourite Netflix box set. Since you’re not there for the impromptu chat at the coffee machine, you have to actively make up for it. This is especially true if your entire team is remote – if that’s the case, a dedicated non-work group chat channel can help everyone feel part of the team and improve your working relationships.

Make it personal

Written communication like email, and even instant messenger chats, can only go so far in helping you form deep relationships with colleagues. After all, there’s an enormous amount of communication which happens around the words you use – body language, facial expressions, even the tone of voice you use to speak all play a big role.

So if there’s ever a chance to see someone’s face, take it. That means using video calls instead of messaging, or even meeting face to face. If you’re the only home worker in your team, try to go into the office at least once a week to see people – perhaps for an important meeting, or even just for lunch. If your entire team is remote, build time in to meet up face to face at a location that’s convenient for all.

Maintaining the organisation’s culture

Your organisation’s culture is essentially how your organisation ‘feels’ to do business with, or to work for. Your organisation should be ensuring that culture isn’t lost, even if a majority of employees work remotely.

An organisation’s leaders play a big role in setting the vision for its culture, so their active involvement is essential. Do your leaders live your organisation’s values? And do they deliberately get in touch to involve employees in the life of the organisation?

Being a great line manager is notoriously tricky, but it’s even harder to get right when you’re managing people remotely. As a home-working employee, you should expect your line manager to schedule regular check-ins to ensure that you’re happy, up to speed on everything, and aligned with what everyone else is working on. They can’t do all the work though. It’s also on you to make an active effort to involve yourself in the day-to-day lives of your colleagues. Remember, when it comes to being part of a dispersed team, over-communication is almost impossible.

Organisations who get it right

If your organisation is struggling to keep its culture alive for home workers, look to examples of companies who have cultivated a great culture, despite their entire workforce being remote.

One example is software company Basecamp. Among other initiatives, they have banned mandatory meetings, to make sure that nobody’s time is wasted. Managers are also tasked with encouraging employees to use all their leave.

Another organisation, Automattic – creators of WordPress – don’t use email at all internally. All their communications take place on a custom-built blog and chat tool where employees can subscribe to the feeds they want to hear about.

Whether a few or all of your team work from home, the principles remain the same: to develop a great organisational culture, think creatively about how best to live your values and ensure that all employees, in the office or out, are actively involved.

 

Working expectations

A 2019 study found that an incredible 93% of financial services professionals in the UK regularly work over their contracted hours, and a big factor in this was the expectation that they were ‘always available.’ When you’re working from home the risk of overworking – leading to burnout and stress – is magnified. What can you do to resolve the problem?

Communicate your working hours

It’s increasingly common to find a range of different working patterns in an organisation; while one person might work a four-day week, someone else might do three days in the office and two days at home, and so on. If people are confused about when you are actually working, it’s likely that they’ll ask you for things when you’re not working, which pressures many people into working overtime. Try putting your working hours in your email signature, and setting an out-of-office message when you aren’t at work – and asking others to do the same.

Leaders need to set a precedent

If you’re regularly working overtime and your manager hasn’t asked you about it, you have a problem. Line managers and senior management should be watching for signs of people working longer than their contracted hours, and scheduling conversations with employees who are regularly overworking.

They should also be leading by example, by setting clear boundaries around their own work time and avoiding burnout themselves.

But employees must also take responsibility

Much as your employer should set reasonable working expectations, it’s also important to manage your own time if you are working from home. Create a routine, including a time to start work, time for breaks, and a finish time – and stick to it. And whatever you do, do not work when you have said you’re not available – that just sets expectations that you’re always available.

What about location?

The location of your ‘home office’ is likely to have a significant impact on your productivity levels and creativity. For instance, if you’re working from home so you can provide support to your partner with a young baby, avoid setting up your desk in the same room as the baby is playing in. Apart from the health and safety risks of Lego on the floor, it’s unlikely that you’ll be focused enough to do your work effectively.

Choose a room that’s quiet, clear of clutter and distractions, and that’s well-lit. The dining room will often do, if you don’t have a dedicated home office. For variety, you might like to decamp to a nearby coffee shop or co-working space once or twice a week.

You might also want to invest in a separate screen, mouse and keyboard to prevent musculoskeletal problems associated with laptop use. You may not know that, in the UK, your employer is obliged to carry out a risk assessment of your home-working environment, just as if you were working in the office (the Health and Safety Executive also has a useful checklist you can follow).

 

Environmental impact

One of the biggest attractions of working from home is eliminating the dreaded commute. If you travel by car, you’ll spend less money on fuel, you don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to beat the traffic, and you’re also helping to reduce your – and your employer’s – carbon footprint.

Of course, you’re just one person. But global change is made up of lots of individuals making small changes. If more and more people worked from home:

  • There would be fewer cars on the road, reducing emissions and fossil-fuel consumption, helping to slow global warming
  • It would also reduce traffic, improving journey times and fuel efficiency for those still on the roads
  • Wear and tear on roads would be reduced too, enabling communities to spend less money on road maintenance and more on other services
  • Home workers are more likely to eat a home-made lunch, rather than shop-bought food in plastic packaging, reducing the environmental impact of their food
  • Employers with substantial numbers of home workers could be able to reduce their office space, meaning they spend less money on heating and lighting, as well as building rent

It’s worth bearing in mind that unless someone is already at home during the day, home workers will incur the extra cost (and carbon footprint) of heating and lighting their homes, as well as the power their laptop and phone will use. Choosing a supplier that sources its energy from renewable sources will help to mitigate that environmental impact.

 

Wellbeing

The vast majority (97%) of respondents to the Flexjobs 2018 Annual Survey said that a job with flexibility would have a huge improvement or positive impact on their overall quality of life. And studies have proven that home workers report higher morale and reduced stress.

But there are some drawbacks. Loneliness is one acknowledged risk, but some home workers also report worrying that their office-based colleagues don’t believe that they are as productive as them.

You’ll also be more reliant on technology and mobile devices to keep in touch, but studies – such as one by the US American Psychological Association in 2017 – link increased use of mobile devices to higher stress levels.

Finally, working from home long-term requires a lot of discipline. Although the distractions of the workplace are gone, the home is full of its own distractions – the TV, children, even the doorbell. On top of this, home workers need to be independent, setting their own schedule and holding themselves accountable for the work they are doing.

So how do you manage your wellbeing as a home worker?

1. Create a routine

The first step is to create a routine, and stick to it. Ideally that routine will include interactions with others – a regular call with your colleagues, or your line manager, for example. If there’s nobody to talk to (maybe everyone is simply busy) consider the bold step of going to a coffee shop and talking to a complete stranger.

Creating a routine doesn’t mean you have to stick to it every day. After all, flexibility is one of the benefits of working from home. But if you have a routine, you’ll understand the consequences of flexing your work around personal errands or commitments, and you’ll be less likely to fall behind on your to-do list.

2. Don’t forget to go outside

If you’re not careful, working at home can mean spending an entire day inside. That’s not good for your physical or mental health. Building a walk into your routine will ensure that you get some fresh air, which can make you feel more energised and be more productive, too.

If you’re stuck on a task, don’t be afraid either of stepping away from your desk for 10 minutes for a walk around the block – you may find inspiration strikes sooner than if you were stuck at your desk.

3. Get used to switching off

Even if you have a dedicated office space at home, it can be easy to remain in ‘work mode’ even after you’ve stopped for the day. Building routines or rituals into your day that help you delineate the space between work and play is important for combating this. Basecamp, for example, suggests that their employees have ‘work slippers’ and ‘play slippers’ to help them move between work and home.

 

Conclusion

Home working is definitely not about sitting at the kitchen table in your pyjamas, idly checking emails. What we’ve talked about in this article shows that home working takes careful planning, the right attitude, and the right support from your employer to deliver on its promises of greater satisfaction and freedom for the individual. Another truth to realise is that, ultimately, home working is not for everyone.

Is it for you? Think about your role, and what motivates you. Will the freedom to work at home help you work better and more happily? If you’re the kind of person who craves conversation and the company of others, then working at home full time might not be for you. But working remotely a couple of days a week, for example, could be a boon for your productivity, wellbeing and happiness, so long as you are disciplined and have the tools and infrastructure in place to collaborate effectively.

The key to finding the right rhythm for you is to have an open conversation with your line manager, or another individual who can support you to work from home. Discuss with them why you believe working from home will benefit you, and your employer, and ask them for their help championing your cause and building the structure to make home working a success. That’s the best way to get all the benefits of working from home, while minimising the risks.

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