Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Teleworking - a personal perspective

Sometimes I wonder why I work so often from home because, frankly, sometimes it sucks! At other times, I wonder why the rest of the world does not rush to do it. So in this article I want to share with you both the pluses and minuses of the teleworking life style, focusing especially on the things required to actually make it work.

To do this, I thought that the best approach would be to focus on some of the challenges that must be overcome if teleworking is to work.

Teleworking: The Lonelyness of the Long Distance Teleworker

I have rarely heard lonelyness discussed in the context of teleworking. Yet teleworking can be a lonely and isolating experience.

Think of it this way.

In the normal working life, you say goodby to the family, leave home and go to work. At work you say hi to your co-workers. You sit down and start working. Someone comes up to ask you something. You have a break chatting to colleagues. If, like me, you are still a smoker, then you pop outside to have a smoke often with colleagues. By the end of the day when you come home, you have had hundreds of small personal interactions. Exhausted, you collapse onto the couch in front of the TV and turn into a couch potato.

Contrast this with teleworking. The family leaves. You sit down and spend the rest of day in front of your computer alone. Your only interactions are email traffic and phone calls. At the end of the day your family comes home. You are ready to talk, to interact. They want to unwind, to watch TV.

Now none of this may matter to you. But the point in this story is that if you are a person who does like personal interaction but who wants to telework, then you need to find a way to build personal interaction into your weekly round.

Teleworking: The Need for Discipline

We all require structure in our working lives. In the office this is provided by the routines of daily work. We have to present in a certain way. There are working rules that we must comply with. Often, these things are implicit rather than explicit. But they are always there. We know that they are there and comply without even thinking about it.

At home these rules are all relaxed. Want to dress casually? Do so. Want to want TV? Do so. Weed the garden? Do so. Stay in your pajamas? Do so. Now all this may sound wonderful, but if you are a naturally un-disciplined person like me then you can run into problems. So you need to actively create your own working routines.

In my case, while I normally dress in casual fashion, some days I will put on a suit and tie just to reinforce the fact that I am at work even though I am at home!

Teleworking: Separating Work and Home Life

Going to work creates a natural divide between the home and work environment, a divide lacking for those who work from home. This divide is less than it was simply because the technologies that allow effective teleworking mean that even those working in conventional structures now work increasinglyï¾ at home. But the divide is still important.

The danger for the teleworker in forgetting this divide is that personal and work time can simply blur together, adversely affecting both. When the home and the office are the same, the dividing lines blurred, then it is very easy to start worrying about work matters, about the things that you have not done, during what should be personal time.

In the conventional working environment you generally have to put these worries aside because the office is elsewhere. Somehow, the worries become greater if the office is just down the corridor because you know that you can do something about the outstanding issue just by walking a few places.

Teleworking: Managing Family Expectations

Another linked problem is the need to manage your family's unconscious expectations and reactions to your presence at home. You are there, so you are available to do things that would simply not be possible if you were working elsewhere. Would you mind hanging out the washing? Can you pick me up at such a time? And so on.

Now normally you may be happy to do these things. After all, one of the reasons for teleworking is to give you greater flexibility. But at the end of the day you still have to work so many hours to achieve your targets. And every hour taken out of your normal working day makes that more difficult.

Take my own case as an example. I have a 45 hour weekly time target. This is a real time target, not just elapsed time during the normal working day.

Because of the nature of my work I keep time sheets. When I stop work for whatever reason I log off. So when I pick the girls up from school, tidy up the house so that the cleaners can actually clean, or hang out the washing, all this is dead time from a work perspective. The result is that I find that to achieve my 45 hour target I have to work in the early morning and at at weekends. The family then thinks that I am working excessive hours, that I am always working, when the reality is that I am simply trying to catch up.

Now I am not complaining. The point is that if you want to telework, you have to lay down rules with your family so that they understand that just because you are at home does not mean that you are available for other things. Unless, of course, you wish to be.

Teleworking: Managing Unconscious Work Expectations

Now something of the same type of unconscious expectation applies to the teleworker's work colleagues.

I first came across this problem some years ago when I was working with AT&T preparing their first Australian country plan.

AT&T were in advance of their times in that they were prepared in some cases to allow flexible working arrangements. My direct client, the manager in charge of the project, had been given approval to work from home because she had a new baby. She experienced some real problems because of the unconscious expectation at work that she would in fact be available in the same way as an on-site staff member.

Just to tease this out a little. When people work together, the assumption of almost instant availability is built into the working round. I am working on a problem, an issue comes up, I pop down the corridor or even to the next desk to sort it out. Both formal and informal meetings occur frequently, often at short notice.
Now the gearing of work life to this almost instant availability can be a major problem in the normal office because it can waste a lot of time. For that reason, most time management courses include various ways of minimising the problem. However, It remains a deeply entrenched feature of office life simply because it is so easy and useful.

The off-site teleworker can suffer as a consequence. Bosses and co-workers continue to work as they always have. Because the teleworker is not there, he/she may simply be excluded from relevant meetings. Work and responsibilities flow away from the teleworker to on-site staff. The teleworker becomes isolated and alienated.

In this context, it is not surprising that one area where teleworking has spread successfully is among senior managers and partners in professional services firms because they can control the game to some extent. So long as billings and management tasks are maintained, colleagues and staff have to adjust, to learn how to work with the teleworker.

Ordinary staff do not have this type of power position. The only solution is to ensure that the individual teleworker, his/her managers and the organisation itself work through the issues in advance. As part of this, the teleworker needs to learn how to proactively manage relations with colleagues downwards, sideways and especially up.

Teleworking: When Things Go Wrong

Murphy really was an optimist.

While overseas, burglars stole my wife's new computer. Fortunately, they left the office machines simply because they are older. A few weeks later, my main office machine hit problems requiring a full day to fix. As I write, the fax machine is away being repaired.

The point of these stories is that systems fail. In the conventional organisation, quick back-up including other equipment is usually available, minimising adverse impact. The position for the of-site teleworker is more difficult in that equipment loss or failure brings work to a halt until the problem is rectified.

To avoid unnecessary loss of time, these potential problems need to be addressed up front. This includes the organisation of access to service people, arrangements for replacement equipment if required and the development of protocols in regard to security including just what information can be held on a hard disk.


There is no doubt that teleworking can be of mutual benefit to both employer and employee. However, success requires conscious action by both organisation and individual to ensure best results.


Andrew said...


I found your Teleworking Blog very informative particularly the 'Managing Unconscious Work Expectations, section. I am currently researching the differences in attitudes and behaviors between those individuals that have chosen to work from home and those that have had working from home imposed upon them. This research will form a significant proportion of my dissertation to complete my MSc in Facilities and Asset Management at the Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. I have a two-page questionnaire that contains 12 questions. I would be most grateful if you could find the time to complete one.

If you think you would have the time to participate then please email the following address and I will respond with a copy of the questionnaire in Microsoft Word format.

Jim Belshaw said...

I am glad that you found the post useful, Andrew. I would be happy to fill out the questionnaire and have rsponded direct by email.