Tree-felling and the homeworker

Last week I was talking to a colleague who is doing the daily commute from Oxford to London. She looked exhausted, and it turned out to be because of the bad weather: her trains were being cancelled regularly due to flooding, and the round commute was taking her 6 hours.

I was flabbergasted. I asked why she didn’t just call in the office and say that she was working from home – if the trains were cancelled it was unreasonable to expect her to travel for almost as long as her working day to do a job she could easily do remotely.

She replied that she was afraid of what people would think – of what her team and the company would be saying behind her back if she worked from home.

I’ll admit that this did cross my mind when I began working from home four days a week, two years ago. You’ll remember, I had been homeworking one day a week for some time before that, so I was already in a routine of sorts. But I knew that if I got my job done, and made the effort to show to my manager and team that I was working just as hard, if not harder, than before, they would soon come around. The team in Oxford may have wondered why I had the opportunity to do my work remotely at first, but I believe that, by the end, they knew that I really did (and do) put in the same hours – if not more – and the same effort, as in the office.

I have always found that those who question my (or anyone’s) ability to work from home are those who are themselves lacking in self-motivation. They know that they would lack the focus and drive to work when distracted by the potentials of ready snacking and daytime TV. (Seriously, have you watched daytime TV lately? I have – having been on maternity – and Bargain Hunt in a highlight. This should speak volumes!)

Working from home can make all the difference to your work/life balance. There are so many little jobs that can be squeezed into the day in gaps where, in the office, you might be sitting twiddling your thumbs, or chatting to a colleague. Whilst my computer loads up in the morning, rather than sitting staring into space, I put a load of washing in. By lunchtime this is ready to be hung up to dry, and after the afternoon shift, it is often ready to be folded and put away. It may seem a little thing, but having moments to do the chores that otherwise pile up through the week to spoil your weekend  can make an enormous difference to your quality of life.

And happy campers are happy workers! It makes no sense for a company to force its workers to exhaust themselves on the commute, when the outcome is tired, grumpy, and ineffective employees. You are better at your job when you’re well-rested and happy. So many jobs can be performed remotely now – the technical advances all businesses have enjoyed in recent years mean that companies could technically cherry-pick the very best candidates for any job, regardless of where they may live. It should be working to everyone’s advantage. So why isn’t it?

The greatest barrier is mindset. We still have this strange idea that the more hours you are physically at your desk, the more work you do. There’s no benefit to being a time-effective worker or a multi-tasker. Most graduate jobs are salaried, meaning that we have a particular job to do, daily, weekly, monthly, annual tasks that must be completed, and usually within a particular time-frame. Yet we are still judged as good or bad workers based on the number of hours we put in, and not on whether we get the job done. If your colleagues can’t see you at a desk, working, it must mean you’re not doing your job.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

And yet, the proof of your activity should be the felled tree. If your job is done to the expected standard, it makes not the least difference whether you were beavering away at your desk in the city or at your kitchen table. I am writing this whilst eating my lunch, waiting for a Tesco delivery to arrive between 1pm and 2pm, the hour I have allotted myself for lunch. Yesterday I was in the London office, and I made a mistake – a tiny typo – on a document set live to our customers – proof, perhaps, that being at my desk made absolutely no improvements to my standard of work. In fact, had I not been clock-watching, concerned that I might miss my train home, I might have spent a few extra minutes double- and triple-checking my work, and corrected the typo before it went live – who can say?

I do believe that some forward-thinking businesses are beginning to see the benefits of homeworking, and that things are changing, albeit rather slowly. Certainly, there seem to be more people freelancing across all sectors, and more companies using freelancers to boot. But the benefits of a salaried role to those with, for example, families to consider, are not to be underestimated. The government talks of increasing employment figures, and getting more new mothers back to work (don’t get me started on the lack of perceived value to motherhood and child-rearing), and it seems to me that a wider acceptance of homeworking by businesses might be the best way to fulfil these aims.

Meanwhile, it’s up to we employees to make a stand. If the commute during this recent freak bad weather is too much, stand up and say so. Our fellow team-members should be more concerned for our welfare than whether or not they can see our shoulders hunched over a neighbouring desk. Our health is fragile, and not worth risking – our sanity, the same. Any good employer* will agree with as much!

*In case you’re wondering, Macmillan were more than happy for the employee in question to work from home for the rest of the week, until the flooding cleared. Two days of homeworking and the weekend had knocked a decade off when I saw her yesterday!

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3 thoughts on “Tree-felling and the homeworker

  1. Interesting post. I work from home sometimes though I’m an academic, so it’s not a big deal where I work when I’m not teaching. My husband works from home almost all the time, for a big IT company, and has done so for years. doing almost everything (including meetings) online or on the phone. Initially, it was the only way we could live together, as our jobs were too far apart for a daily commute to be viable. Since having kids, though, it has been invaluable being able to share the school run, get the domestic chores done etc. I would say if there are negative aspects, these affect the employee more than the employer – isolation, difficulties keeping work and home separate etc. Employers can potentially save on overheads as well, though my husband gets an allowance towards ours.

  2. I’ve worked at home for many years now, both as an employee and a freelancer. Maybe the company I worked for (a large HR consultancy) were particularly enlightened for the time when I first set up my home office – nearly 20 years ago – but it really was never an issue for them. If there was a meeting I was needed at in person I was there of course, and there was always a ‘hot desk’ if I wanted to go into the office. I think they viewed the arrangement as money and space saving and a sort of acceptable perk of the job as long as I was getting things done properly. No doubt I would’ve had my chain yanked if Bargain Hunt had started to affect my output!

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