A month on from joining the Housing Online team, Tim outlines the lessons he’s learned from his first few weeks as a home worker.
At the beginning of March this year, after more than twenty years working for a large corporation, I made the switch to a job with Housing Online that involved working remotely with a small team scattered across the country. Instead of a desk in a glass-fronted building alongside around 5,000 other people, I now had to adjust to a commute of about 10m from my bedroom to my new home office.
As it turned out, less than three weeks after starting my new routine, the coronavirus pandemic saw millions of other office workers suddenly forced to become remote workers too.
I was warned when I started my new job that this new way of working might take some adjustment, so with the benefit of my three-week head-start, what advice would I offer to anyone making the adjustment to a home working routine?
Have the right tools
Yes, of course you’ll need to have a computer and a good WI-FI connection, but you shouldn’t assume that you’ll be able to work as normal with just your email and Microsoft Office suite. You don’t have the luxury of sitting across the desk from your closest colleagues now, so good collaboration tools are vital to enable you to work effectively together. In my old job, almost everything was done via email and I never had less than 6,000 unread emails in my mailbox because I was always copied into far more than I could possibly (or usefully) read. Managing email was a full-time job. Now, email is very much a last resort because it simply isn’t a very effective way of communicating with people. We use Slack for messaging and video conferencing, but there are plenty of other options like Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Skype. Anything that enables you to stay easily and lightly in touch with your colleagues as you work.
"Personally, I love the freedom to take a break to get outside and get a run in, unconstrained by the conventions of the normal working day."
Make working comfortable
Spend some money on getting a good chair. Seriously. You can’t work on a laptop at a coffee table for long before you will be crippled with back pain. Get your desk set up right and it will be a whole lot easier to focus on your work. You’re not going to be interrupted as often by all those meetings you used to have, so be sure to make the time to stand up and walk around. When you work at home and your commute is a 10 second stroll, it’s perfectly possible to end the day having recorded fewer than 1000 steps. Make sure you get up and walk around (and not just to the fridge and back!). Personally, I love the freedom to take a break to get outside and get a run in, unconstrained by the conventions of the normal working day.
To a large extent, office buildings are designed to get you through the day feeling busy without ever actually being terribly productive at all. How much can anyone really get done when they spend all day in meetings? It’s harder to hide when you’re working at home and the possible distractions are endless, whether it’s Facebook, Homes Under the Hammer, mopping the kitchen floor or cooking dinner. It’s easier to get more done in a shorter time when you’re at home, but you need to have the discipline to make it work. Find a routine that works for you and stick with it. Don’t let your work life and your home life blur into one amorphous blob with no fixed start or end. You’ll probably work more effectively with a bit of clear compartmentalisation between the two.
Noise cancelling headphones and/or a door that shuts
In my old job, I sometimes used to wear headphones even when I wasn’t listening to anything, just as a visible signal to people not to just walk over and interrupt me. They were a visible sign that I was trying to concentrate. In a home office environment, especially one that you may be sharing with the other quarantined residents of your house, the same is true, although they’re not just a signal to leave you alone but also a way of cocooning yourself away from external distractions. Or just shut the door (although my cat hates that!)
Real world contact
We’re social animals, and no matter how comfortable with your own company you might think you are, after a few days working quietly on your own, you’ll probably find yourself crying out for a bit of honest-to-goodness human contact. Obviously, this one is a little bit trickier at the moment when we’re all being advised to avoid everyone else, but make sure you make the time to talk to actual people, even if that’s the person in the local corner shop. Personally, I say hello to every single animal that I go past when I’m out and about (often before acknowledging any humans with them). Magpies, geese, dogs, cats…. Although maybe that’s just me.
I’m learning something new about home working every day, but even this far into my new arrangement, I already know that I’d struggle to go back to work in a large office environment. Perhaps this is also true for many of those people forced into remote working by the coronavirus. Maybe, just maybe, the way we work will be changed forever by the time we come out the other side of this. A brave new world of home working. Imagine that.