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Making home working work!


I was chatting to a personal acquaintance recently about work and we got on to the subject of home working.  The organisation she worked for was going through a period of change and they were planning on moving some of their office staff to home working on a permanent basis.  She was after my views on how we manage to make that work effectively at Astun. This blog, which is very much a manager's perspective, is what I told her!

Before we get on to to the two key themes of this blog - the Technical and Cultural - a quick bit about Astun first!

1. Astun's circumstances

We employ around 21 people, of which 6 or so work from an office in Epsom, and the rest work from home on a permanent basis.  From my home in Bristol, I line manage 13 of those people, 3 of which are office based, the rest primarily work in the UK, as far north as Tyneside & Lancaster and as far south as Southampton.  I have one member of the team who is based in Seville in Spain.
Team Astun!

2. Technical

Use of technology is key for remote working and in my view, you've got to have this sort of stuff in place as a prerequisite to make it work effectively.

Decent internet connections

Probably stating the obvious here, but really everybody needs good broadband in place.  I don't think employers can directly pay for employees broadband because it is likely also to be used for personal use, but here staff working from home can claim back a nominal (80p per day) expense as a working from home allowance to contribute to costs.

VPN

Your IT people will probably need to set up virtual private networks, allowing people to remotely access corporate information sources.

Video conferencing

This is essential.  Everybody (including those in the office) have webcams & Bluetooth headsets and instead of face to face meetings, we have face to face conference calls.  There are various tools you can use (Microsoft Lync / Skype; Google Chat / Meet etc), but the point is if you need to speak to somebody a video conference should just be a click away.  Seeing somebody's face is important in lots of ways.  It can be quite isolating working from home, and face to face calls make you feel like you are working with others in similar circumstances.  But also from a general communications practice, the verbal clues you get from peoples faces (nods or shakes of the heads; smiles; looks of confusion etc) make it a much better communication tool than just a voice call.   From a manager's perspective you also get a better sense of the emotional well being of people working for you if you can see them.

Video conferencing is essential!

In addition to video conferencing we also use telephone conferencing for customer calls.

Chat room  / instant messaging

This is another key one.  All home workers (and office workers for that matter) are on an instant message chat room all day which serves a function a bit like a virtual office.  We start and end our working days by joining / leaving the chat room (with usual good mornings / good nights / regional weather comparisons etc).  It's where we go to seek help from colleagues questions about stuff ("anybody know anything about abc") or post requests for a quick video conference.  In addition to being a useful practical tool for everybody, from a managers perspective the chatter on it gives me a pretty good idea of what everyone is working on in any given day.   History of chat on the room is also available so it serves as an archive purpose also - we therefore make minimal use of email for internal purposes.  We also actually have multiple rooms set up, generally around departmental functions, plus one called Frivolity.  The latter is where people post (usually awful) jokes, links to things that they might find amusing, comments on the latest idiotic Trump tweet etc.  Again it is serving the purpose of what 'normal' conversation is like in an office.

Collaborative office tools 

We use centrally 'cloud hosted' tools for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations etc, not locally installed software.  In our case it is Google Docs / Sheets / Slides; if you use MS Office, then you'd be talking about Office 365, rather than software installed on individual machines.  The point is that multiple people can collaborate on the same material at the same time and seeing each others edits in real time, rather than email attachment ping pong.

Using it all together!  

In reality we use all of this together at the same time.  So I might message a colleague on the chat room, start up a video conference, copy web URLs that we might be referencing in our discussion into the chat room, start up a collaborative doc for us to write notes on whilst in our call, or use a collaborative spreadsheet to discuss financials etc.

3. Cultural

With all the tech in place, you would be fairly logistically well set up for remote working.  Alongside that, there are some cultural things that, whilst not exclusive to home working, and pretty essential to get right too!

People

People who work permanently from home have to be conscientious and self motivated and I'd only ever let somebody work from home, or recruit into a home working position, if I was pretty sure that that was the case.  We tend to have fairly experienced people working for us at Astun; but if you had people who would struggle with the temptation of surfing the web all day, then probably home working is not for them.  At the end of the day, you have to be able to trust the team to be getting on with what they should be working on!  Incidentally our operations team all complete time sheets, but the rationale for that is not for monitoring the home workers, but for customer billing purposes.

Rewarding work

The second important thing is to make sure they all find the work they are doing rewarding.  People will be naturally self motivated if they enjoy their work; if they don't then motivation will be an issue, which is the last thing you want for home workers.  Most people realise that at the end of the day no job is perfect and we cannot just be given the things we love to work on; equally though, kicking off individual staff reviews with "what do you enjoy most (and indeed least) about your work" is a good place to start, and if you can then fine tune who is working on what within the team, you can aim to make everybody's work as rewarding as possible.

Communication

The technologies above are key to good communication, but obviously you also need the communication itself.  We all start the week with a video conference with the whole operations team of 15 on the call.  There is a fixed agenda, but the purpose of the call is to review all the work we currently have in operations and set people off on the right track for the rest of the week.  Some sub-teams who are involved in technical collaboration also have a daily video conference, maybe only for half an hour, but to review specific technical issues on a daily basis.  Having these regular points of communication is not only essential to keeping the business ticking along as it should, but it also helps to alleviate one of the commonly cited downsides of home working - which is the risk of feeling isolated from what else is happening in the workplace.  The regular comms, along with how we use the chat room discussed earlier, are a massive help in this regard.

Recognising that people are working from HOME!

Video conferencing complete with pets!
People who work from home are working in an environment that is also where they live, usually with other people, pets etc!  Its not unusual to be on a conference call with a dog snoring or barking at the postman in the background; or seeing a cat climb over the bookcase behind your colleague in a video conference. Home workers with families, may have the noise of kids coming home from school mid afternoon.   Whilst a decent home environment (a study or office) is ideal, home workers cannot expect (or be expected) to insist on complete and utter silence from their families during working hours.  Managers and colleagues should not see that as a lack of professionalism - its just the way it is, and sometimes a good source of entertainment.  Equally though, organising work around it is sensible - I tend to have all any customer calls between 9am and 3:30pm to avoid background noise once the kids are home from school.

Work-life balance

Quiet for Gmail App
It's also important to promote a healthy work-life balance.  Again this is not exclusive to home workers, but whilst office workers leave their place of work at the end of day, the boundaries between the place of work and home are more blurred for home workers.  Its important that home workers have a clear finish to their day, and that there is not an expectation on them to be putting in additional out of hours' work just because it might be easier for them to do so. 

Of course, office workers can often get work emails on their phones at any time of day or night, and that's not necessarily helpful either.  In fact, we've installed an app on all our employees phones that forces email quiet time from early evening to the following morning and all of weekends, to remove the temptation / expectation of providing out of hours email responses. 


Equality and fairness

Just because somebody is working from home, does not mean that employers have less obligations in things like health and safety, equal opportunities etc.   If somebody worked in an office and had a chair that was broken, or causing them back pain etc., you'd immediately replace it.  We take the same view with equipment, office furniture etc. for home workers when it comes to stuff they need.   Equally we try and make sure that office workers are not disadvantaged compared to those working from home. 

Physical meet ups

Finally, all of the above is fine, but once in a while you all need to get together in person.  Once every quarter, we have a two day get together at our office (for meetings / workshops / presentations etc), and all get together in the evening for drinks / food etc.  Its usually a pretty jolly affair, but is really important for bonding of a remote team, and everybody seems to enjoy it.  We also make extra effort at Christmas, and usually have some added activity (e.g. go-karting, archery etc) which is always fun.

4. Conclusions

At the end of the day, working from home is not going to suit every member of staff or indeed every workplace but at Astun we find it works pretty well.  There are lots of advantages to both the individual home worker and the organisation.  Of course needing to pay for less office space is one for the organisation, but for Astun I'd say the biggest advantage is that we can and do employ the people who we consider to be the best in their fields.  When an organisation fully embraces home working, geography is not a barrier to that.

We hope that you have enjoyed this blog and can pick up a few tips and tricks for making home working work for your organisation.  We'll post another blog at some point in the future from the perspective of the home worker rather than the manager focusing more on some of the personal tips and tricks of making home working work!

Good luck!

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