Making Homeworking Work

Having worked from home for over 10 years with two national companies before I started Silk Helix, I’m strongly in favour of working from home. I’ve been there, got the t-shirt and I’m still wearing it! That said, some effort is needed to make it work as it didn’t work equally in the companies I previously worked for.

Currently people are being ordered to work from home to reduce the risks of Covid-19. This seems to me to be a good idea, even if all it does is reduce the risk of everyone catching it and being ill at the same time. If you want my advice on reducing the risks and managing Covid-19 as part of business continuity planning take a look at my video.

It’s certainly true that Covid-19 has changed peoples minds about homeworking. Many who were adamant it could not work are now finding themselves having to. That said, saying “stay at home and work” isn’t the end of it as some effort needs to go into making it work. And with a little thought, it can work. In fact my hope is that a positive outcome of this crisis (if indeed there can ever be a positive out of a health crisis) is more support for homeworking. 

When I was working remotely for those national companies, I was based in Essex, covering a regional role for my employers who were based a 3 plus hours drive from me. One of them did it really successfully, I felt very integrated and part of the team. The other, I never really felt part of the company, I felt out on my own, a significant risk of homeworking. 

What makes it work? 

Communication – regular communication is vital! In the company that I worked for that made it work, we had regular team conference calls and webinars as well as face to face meetings and training. Whilst currently working from home is being introduced to avoid face to face contact, long term this is important.

Availability of others to speak to, along with regular and consistent communication with managers, is important to making homeworkers feel part of the team and supported. As with management and team work within an office, being able to ask questions, discuss and get support is vital to performance. With homeworking you lose the ability to “lean across the desk” or spot someone who may look like they are struggling. Responding to communication and being available reduces the risks of isolation.

Working from home worked for me when I felt part of a team, when I could speak to a colleague easily. I was doing this before messaging apps were prevalent in the workplace, we did have to pick up the phone. Even if you need to speak to someone, using messaging to find the best person to speak to in that moment is useful. 

Equipment – It might seem like this should go without saying, but the right equipment for the job is crucial. Adequate internet connection and IT equipment that can handle the type and amount of tasks being completed. It can be easy to send someone out with a laptop without really thinking about what they need. Do they need a webcam? Do they need a good quality headset? Is their Internet connectivity suitable? Do your software systems support remote access, whether that be over VPN or perhaps via an app or secure web connection?

Induction – Whilst this may not be relevant in the current situation, long term, making homeworking work requires induction plans that take account of the needs of homeworkers. When working from home, not seeing people face to face, not hearing things going on in the office can slow down the process of integrating into a new company. This must be actively addressed, and can be. This may include a number of days actively working in an office or with colleagues. 

When we start a new job, much of the culture of the company becomes known through a natural process of what we see and hear. This doesn’t happen as quickly and easily with home workers. Finding out who the “go to” person is and where to get help can be more difficult. A buddy system or central person can really help to overcome this. When I first started the job in which home working worked well, I spent most of the first month either in the office or with other homeworkers. I was given a person, one of the admin team (a person who had a good knowledge of the company and who’s who), she was my go to person. If I didn’t know who to ask she could help me. 

Feedback – Reviewing work and providing feedback is even more important in homeworking. When in the office, overhearing what others do, picking up new ideas, different ways and being questioned often happens naturally. When people are dispersed at home this can be lost if not actively worked on. Having ways of monitoring output, reviewing and providing feedback in a way that works for the job role is vital. 

How do I know if people are working? 

This is the most common question I’m asked and it’s also another reason I’m an advocate of homeworking. Homeworking focuses the minds on output, not time spent at a desk. When the question is asked about monitoring work at home, this comes from a view that someone viably in the office at their desk is working. This is not necessarily true as many of us can tell stories of people sat at their desk browsing the Internet or procrastinating in another way. If we know exactly what we expect from someone we can measure whether they achieve this. This may not be possible on a by the day or by the hour but could be project X must be completed in 3 months. This is still and output and someone would still have to work consistently to achieve this. How we monitor and what we monitor is, of course, specific to the organisation and job the person does.  

Conclusion 

Homeworking has plenty of benefits, beyond the scope of this blog to list them all. It can work well, it can increase productivity and reduce costs. However, this does require active decision to make it work. If you’ve suddenly moved to homeworking, make sure people have all the equipment to do the job, then get communication right. Keep people communicating. This is particularly important in the current climate where there may be personal isolation as well as the need to make homeworking work for your staff and, crucially, your business! 

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