Some common pitfalls and what you can do to avoid them
I’ve been working from home for about eighteen months now. While that makes me a comparative novice in many ways, it’s been long enough to identify the good, the bad and the ugly.
Advantages for the worker are clear
- an end to commuting — saving time, money and stress
- increased freedom around working hours
- easier or more flexible childcare
- reduced/zero expenditure on clothes for the office
- no more overpriced sandwiches and coffees
- an end to office politics
- a better work-life balance, in theory
The list continues, and working from home is so highly prized that we’ll take a lower salary, and even sacrifice holidays, in exchange for flexible working. A 2019 survey found that 61% of global companies allow their staff to work remotely for at least some of the time. Since productivity and employee satisfaction increase with remote working and the employer’s costs fall, it’s a situation that’s set to continue.
While some employees may work from home for just one or two days a week, if you’re self-employed or a freelancer, you’re likely to find yourself at home full-time. The advantages and pitfalls are obviously more acute if your entire working life takes place at home.
So, what are the traps you need to avoid?
- No clear delineation between working and non-working hours I teach 4-5 online sessions a day; these are my ‘student contact’ hours. However, I spend further work time on lesson preparation, marking homework, finding resources, marketing, etc. While these hours are not directly ‘paid’, they are necessary for me to do my job. I might start teaching at mid-day, but I’m often at my desk by 9 am trying to get ahead with admin or preparation. It’s easy for an hour or two to slide past unnoticed and suddenly a morning has disappeared. That work-life balance can be elusive.
- No dedicated workspace I’ve been able to create a dedicated ‘office’, but if you work at home by setting up a laptop on the coffee table, separating your work and home life can be really problematic. You may find yourself staring at the same four walls all day, every day, as well as every evening. Not to mention the paperwork and clutter that spill over onto your sofa or kitchen counter. And if it’s there, you’ll keep looking at it — particularly if you’re running your own business and there’s no guaranteed salary cheque at the end of the month.
- Becoming a slave to technology You close the door to your home office, but work follows you in the form of email and apps on your smartphone. I find myself responding to every electronic ‘beep’ in the evening, and I’m even guilty of checking my phone during the night if I wake. (My students are in different time zones so I get messages at all hours.)
- Isolation You may love the idea of an end to office gossip and politics, but the flip side of these is feeling isolated. Disconnection and loneliness are very real problems for home workers. There’s no-one to collaborate with, nobody to brainstorm with. And you don’t have any IT support, either; got a problem? You’d better learn to sort it out yourself.
- Boredom In the worst-case scenario, work has taken over all your waking hours. There’s no need to leave the house for days on end. You have no colleagues, and not even delayed trains to complain about and relieve the monotonous rhythm of your routine. Boredom can grab you by the throat and make you long for variety.
- People not taking your work seriously Or you may find that if you work from home, family and friends don’t consider it work at all. You may long for splendid isolation when your doorbell rings repeatedly. Neighbors have told delivery men they can leave parcels with you. Your mother can’t understand why you won’t go to lunch with her. Your cat refuses to move from your lap — or keyboard. I’m still surprised how many former colleagues assume I wear pyjamas while working, even though they know I’m talking to students on a webcam. (For the record, I don’t…)
To sum up: it’s not right for everyone
Living the dream? Working from home might seem like the holy grail but, as with everything in life, it has its pros and cons. While I enjoy not traveling to a workplace every day, I recognized long ago that I’m an introvert who needs plenty of ‘alone’ time. And I still spend several hours a day talking to students. If you’re an extrovert and you get your energy from being around other people, you may find working remotely or from home very difficult once the initial gloss has worn off.
However, the benefits may still outweigh the drawbacks for you; so how can you make it work?
Take these steps to regain control
- Set clear working hours and try your best to stick to them. This sounds obvious but if you’ve ever worked from home, you’ll know how difficult it can be. Make a conscious decision to be tough on yourself.
- Don’t install email on your mobile phone, or any work-related apps that you’ll be tempted to check constantly. If you really can’t live without these things, consider getting a cheap second phone just for friends and family, and switch off your work mobile in the evenings or at the weekends. Find whatever works for you but don’t be a slave to your smartphone.
- Make yourself a dedicated workspace so you can shut the door on it when your working day is done. If you can’t do this at home, and renting office space is out of the question for your fledgling business, consider working from a coffee shop or other co-working hub, at least a couple of days a week. It will stop your sitting room from becoming your universe and help to mix things up a little.
- Give yourself a proper lunch-break and go for a walk — even fifteen minutes around the block will blow the cobwebs away. Make arrangements to get out of the house to social events or for hobbies in the evenings or at the weekends. If you both work and spend your free time at home, you’ll forget what fresh air is, and in a few months you’ll be climbing those four walls.
- Join an online platform or Facebook page for other home workers. I’ve found an excellent teaching community online and sometimes Skype with fellow teachers to exchange ideas and recreate a staffroom camaraderie.
- Finally, unplug your doorbell and hide if the postman/your neighbor/a family member peers through the window. I have no suggestions about how to avoid your cat…
If we consider how the internet has revolutionized work in the last twenty-five years, we can only begin to imagine the transformations technology will bring in the next couple of decades. Then add to this the evidence we’re seeing of global warming, and the need to reduce our carbon footprint by eliminating millions of unnecessary daily journeys.
There’s no doubt more of us are going to find ourselves in the privileged position of being able to choose where and when we work.
With a little bit of thought, you can make it work for you.