The ins and outs of home working

By Garry Gibson on 23rd August 2019

Intro

I’ve been a full-time employee of PDMS, a technology company based in the Isle of Man for just over twelve years now, currently as a Solution Architect, but I have a little secret…

I don’t actually live in the Isle of Man. Never have.

I actually live on the north Kent coast in a small seaside town called Herne Bay and for eleven years I spent four hours a day, every day, commuting into London and back. My own mental self-protection prevents me from adding up all the hours and money spent commuting but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot on both counts!

For the last six years I’ve worked from home and it’s been quite an adjustment. Here’s my take on it all, along with some tips we picked up along the way.

Technology

Remote working technology is fairly ubiquitous nowadays with video conferencing and fast home broadband.

At PDMS we already had a technical head start owing to our disaster recovery policy, where all employees have laptops and office infrastructure, so we can continue to work from home should the office be unavailable. This means we already had a great setup to support staff ‘dialling in’ from outside the corporate network.

All our meeting rooms are ‘wired for sound’ with specialised video conferencing equipment. This includes 360⁰ cameras that focus on whoever is talking and better microphones. It’s almost like being in the room! Software-wise, we started off using Skype for video conferencing but recently Microsoft Teams has overtaken it and seems to be better behaved. It also has whizzy features like automatically blurring your background when on camera. (And yes, my cat has appeared on video conferences!)

Pro tip: Always invest in the best microphone set up you can but please be aware that microphones love to pick up any noise that isn’t speech. So, coughs, notebook rustling, cups being put down and so on all drown out the sound of someone speaking!

Trust

While a growing number of (predominantly tech) companies are wholly remote with all of their workforce working remotely, I suspect that a growing number of people working from home are like me, employed by a traditional office-based company.

For that to work there is one key element which without it would make homeworking impossible – trust.

Some ‘bums on seats’ managers think that if they can’t see their staff, they can’t manage them. I’m very lucky that PDMS operates on a basis of trust, which enables me to operate out of sight without any issues.

In theory, I could spend all day messing about online or watching TV, but not only would that feel like I was stealing, I also wouldn’t have anything to show for my time. Working at home has shifted my focus from being at work to being able to simply work – it’s about the results rather than the location and once gotten used to it’s very liberating.

Pro tip: Trust is something that can be lost very quickly, so don’t take advantage and give all home workers a bad reputation! 

Live at work

Of course, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns as working at home means you’re also living at work. For example; during my Christmas break a ‘bug’ was discovered in a project I was working on. Normally, it would have to wait until I was back in the office, but as my office is in my house and I was still in my house, it was far too easy to get sucked back into work. Whereas if I had to travel into the office to help, I doubt my phone would have rung.

Sometimes it can also be quite difficult to ‘leave’ work at the end of the working day, as I’m still in the same physical place. It might sound silly, but it has to be a conscious act to stop work and finish for the day.

Pro tip: Work (roughly) the same office hours as everyone else. If people can’t see your desk they need to know when you’re available. It also helps to have a regular ‘end of the day’ time too.

Dedicated space

I’m lucky enough to have a dedicated room at home which is primarily used as my office. It sounds trivial, but it’s important. There’s a door that separates work life from home life. It allows me to switch my mental model to being at work and makes it obvious to anyone else at home that I’m working and not available for chores etc. (Oh no!)

It also means I can leave my desk set up with laptop, external monitor, notebook and phone etc. and not have to clear it away at the end of the day to make room for laying the dining table for dinner. (Apart from any sensitive information which lives in the lockable filing cabinet.)

Pro tip: Try to set-aside a dedicated space for working from, it really helps with context switching.

Big blue room

One thing I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that it’s too easy to get stuck in a mental rut and end up not leaving the house for days at a time. Once I noticed this happening to me, I started making a conscious effort to go outside into the ’big blue’ room every day.

Initially it felt like I was skiving from work but now I don’t worry about it quite so much, and I often pop out at lunchtime and work later if needs be.

Another important aspect of going outside is speaking to other people. Real people. It can be weird not speaking to strangers face-to-face for a few days and I suspect it’s important for our mental health.

Pro tip: Get out more. Seriously. And don’t feel bad about it. 

Communication

There seems to be two distinct camps when it comes to communicating with those in the office. Developers seem happier with a text-based chat session, and management seem to prefer phone calls. At PDMS, we’re using Microsoft Teams more now and it sits nicely in the middle, with text chats between teams making it easier for people to dip in and out of conversations as required.

If you’re in the minority in working from home then ‘out of sight, out of mind’ needs to be consciously tackled by both sides. It’s not that those in the office are ignoring you on purpose, but you’re not physically there and most of them are. It just means that you have to be your own self-promotion department!

Pro tipTry to find out how people prefer to communicate and use those channels to remind them that you exist. But not too much! Nobody wants an Outlook rule tuning them out.

Another pro tipBe flexible in how people can communicate with you. Make it as easy for them as possible. For example, I’m happy for people to call or text my mobile whenever they like.

So, is it all work it?

Working from home needs the job, employer and employee to all be aligned in order to succeed. Luckily in my case they are, and after the initial year or two of adjustments, it’s working well for all involved.

Although, my wife says I’m still in the way between 17:00 and 19:00. In my defence, I’m still not used to being in the house at that time instead of sat on train on the way home!

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