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The I.T. Guy: Train the neighbours

So today is Flexible Working Awareness Day, decided by whoever names these days and a great excuse for consultancies, hardware vendors and anyone else to sell hardware and services to organisations wanting home workers. Not all flexible workers operate from home but many do.

So it may be a good time for someone who’s been a home worker to add a few thoughts on what really happens. Elsewhere I’ve written a more serious piece about the nature of flexible working and the training that has to happen both for managers and employees alike. Not everybody is a self-starter and not everybody can manage members of staff they can’t actually see.


Everybody needs good neighbours

And not everybody understands that “working from home” is three words, not just the last two. I’ve been very lucky if I’m honest. I started freelancing and therefore working from home in 1993.

We didn’t do the kitchen table thing when I began, mostly because we had a galley kitchen without a table. The table was in the living room which wasn’t ideal for taking over as an office, so I started in the spare room. We took the door off and balanced it on packing boxes. I was quite proud of the make-do-and-mend attitude this displayed, right until my wife informed me that desks from a certain well-known Swedish furniture maker, recently opened near us, were a) cheap, b) ergonomic and c) just get the bloody door back on, will you?

Even after this, and until the present day, it’s important to manage the fact that I’ve de facto taken over one room in the home as mine rather than for the family. This has included extra power sockets, a desk, storage for work equipment. People with whom you live who find there’s suddenly part of their home that’s less theirs than the rest need tactful handling.

In terms of working time, I was lucky. My wife got it immediately. I wasn’t there to hang out the washing, do the hoovering, any more than she would consider breaking off to do the same from her office.

In the intervening years I’ve learned just how fortunate I am.

When our daughter arrived, my wife joined a local community group, the details are unimportant. There would occasionally be papers to drop off to various places. It has to be acknowledged that many of the members of the group had new babies so zipping out to deliver these documents wasn’t going to be as easy as it might otherwise have been, which is probably why “Guy can do it” became a rallying cry for the chair.

“Guy will be at work,” my wife would defend. “But he works from home,” they countered. “Yes, but he’ll be working,” she countered. “From home, though,” they responded.

Another time, a neighbour decided he needed to get fit. To make this work he’d need someone as a training buddy, and he thought of me. He came up with an idea about us working out together, joining a gym and the great thing – the big advantage – was that he was retired and I was a home worker so we were both in charge of our own time. He was quite bewildered when I told him I had clients and deadlines. He genuinely felt fobbed off.

This is one of the curious, unsaid things about working from home. Friends and neighbours come largely untrained and their expectations can be through the roof. Families can be bad too, colleagues assure me, although happily mine isn’t.

Guilt trip

Even if your family is as co-operative as mine (and always, always make sure they understand you’re not taking this for granted) there’s another enemy lurking around the corner. You’re on your own in the house. You’ve VPN’d successfully into the corporate network, you have all the apps you need available to you and all security. You break off to make a coffee.

And there’s the ironing. Or a kitchen that needs tidying. Dogs needing a walk, a shelf that needs putting up, you can make your own list. I’ve already made it clear that my family doesn’t expect me to see to these things during working hours but that doesn’t mean I don’t guilt-trip the hell out of myself when they’re in front of me and I’m not taking immediate action.

If switching off from being in your own house is one technique you need to learn, then walking out of your office and back into domesticity is another. The computer, the phone, the tablet, may well have that email for which you were waiting in order to finish that report, or an important statistic you needed in order to finish and analyse an important spreadsheet. However, your family is entitled to your time too. Someone once put it to me that your family needs to be treated as your most important client. That helped put it in perspective.

Awareness of the benefits

None of this should put anybody off. If a business or public sector entity wants to institute flexible working, that can be a great thing for both sides. Technology enables the employee to remain part of the team in spite of being off site, there are ecological advantages and there are lifestyle benefits. Speaking for myself, being paid for outcomes rather than for specific hours meant I didn’t miss my daughter’s early years when a lot of fathers don’t get the choice.

Just make sure you train the friends and neighbours as well as the employees.