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The call from RTE came at 18:00 on Thursday evening. Could I do a ‘slot’ on the following Saturday morning? The Topic: Working from home. In the radio business ‘long-range planning’ extends to about 48 hours – so it’s not unusual to get a last-minute call to action. The industrial relations consultant Dr. Liam Doherty (he’s great fun) argues that the only reason for going on radio is to keep someone else off air. So I said yes – and had to scramble to pull something together.
Not A New idea: Working from home is hardly a revolutionary new idea. The system where Merchants ‘put out’ materials to be worked on in the home was in place for hundreds of years. It changed in the 18th Century when the advent of steam made it economically viable to bring people into central locations (factories) to harness this new power. The banks and insurance companies later ‘aped’ this structure and essentially became the white-collar factories that they are today.
Personal Story: When I started working as a management consultant, we operated from a shared office on Northumberland Road in Ballsbridge. 20+ years ago, consulting was an ‘image business’ and you needed a good address – to make it seem that you weren’t coming up with brilliant ideas in your box bedroom. With the advent of the Internet, people now regularly work from home (or from Starbucks) and customers may actually resent ‘paying the overhead’ on a glamorous city centre office. So, should more people be encouraged to work from home? To come to a reasoned conclusion – you have to weight up the advantages & disadvantages from the employee and the company perspective. Here’s some ideas…
Shorter Commuting: Huge savings in time and in money e.g. petrol, wear & tear on a car. Example: A recent commute from Clontarf to Castleknock (about 10 miles) took me 2 hours in the Dublin traffic. That’s a lot of dead time if you had to do this every single day.
Less Stress: Stress is not the absolute amount of work you do – but the sense that you are in control of this. Psychologically, people feel more in control working from home – even for 1 day a week. Being able to run errands e.g. to pop around to the Supermarket – if you need to – decreases stress (and increases productivity).
Dress Code: You can ‘work happily in your dog walking gear’ (albeit some people still like to don the uniform). Less dry-cleaning bills! Less make-up (my lipstick bill has fallen dramatically).
Family Contact: There’s an opportunity to see more of your family e.g. have lunch with your partner. For working women, in particular, it might lower the guilt thermometer (a tiny bit; that needle seems pretty ‘stuck’).
Personal Space: Your home office can have a great layout. Put the copier where you want it, blast out Michael Bublé or fill the walls with pictures of your Granny skydiving. Offices can be noisy places. In one of the Big 5 legal firms in Dublin – the desks are so close, staff are offered earmuffs to help them work in peace (I’m not joking).
Lower Costs: Commuting costs and food (lunch at €10 per day = €2500 pa = €4K gross). You can probably shave some costs by making your own skinny latte.
Downside for Staff: It’s not all good news. There’s a couple of counter-indicators:
Great Tools: People think that having access to high Internet speeds is only a problem in rural Ireland. A friend recently bought a new house in Rathfarnham and he had to drive to the local pub to get the Internet for almost 6 months. I know, I know. It sounds like a line from Father Ted – but this was actually the case.
Mental Health: Like Chimpanzees, humans enjoy social groupings. Some of our mental health comes from positive interaction with others. My guess is that this applies even more to younger workers who enjoy the social aspects of working. If you already have a solid social circle – e.g. 3 kids and 2 goldfish, then this may not be as important.
Always On: Working from home requires a degree of discipline to avoid some spill-over (a) you are ‘always on’ and never off work – albeit this point can also apply to office workers (b) Some people find it hard to ‘get going’ and keep putting on another wash, or spend the afternoon watching Jeremy Kyle. It’s useful to establish boundaries around this. It might seem a bit harsh, but I never encouraged my kids to come into the office during the day – unless it was something important. The Internet video that went viral (the guy completing the Skype interview in Korea) shows the importance of having boundaries.
Hidden Costs: There can be ‘hidden costs e.g. who’s responsible for computer maintenance and stationary? What about heat and light? Sometimes, people are overjoyed to ‘get the gig at home’ and don’t contract well around this.
Lower Visibility: One BIG (but hidden) downside is that home workers can become ‘invisible.’ They don’t know the inside gossip and opportunities. As a result, they can be by-passed or overlooked. Don’t hide your talent under a bushel!
Employer Perspective: From an employer’s perspective, what’s the skinny? Well – surprise surprise, there are also advantages and disadvantages to be navigated.
Higher Productivity: A recent HBR article found that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than staff in the office —meaning that the employer got almost an extra day a week in productivity. Less distractions. Less sick days + shorter breaks = a win-win solution.
Lower Costs: 70 Square foot per person costs between €4,000 and €16,000 per annum, depending on the office location and fit out. Some companies now use a Hot Desk system where people don’t have individualized spaces but ‘plug and play’ from a free slot – in much the same way as we rent hotel rooms for a single night. By rotating days off, the employer needs less office space and can save significant costs.
It’s Possible: Technology for conference calls is getting better and cheaper. A variety of mobile technologies (laptops, mobile phones) have made this possible. But just because a technology is available, doesn’t mean that people will use it. Some people don’t use Skype – not because of the technology – but because they don’t like looking at a picture of themselves on the screen (before i get a flood of emails – I know you can turn this off).
Staff Retention: People are reluctant to ‘go back’ to a full 9-5 commute. Offering employer differentiation can lead to reduced turnover. While the cost of labour turnover is seldom measured – substantial recruitment and training lead times represent an enormous cost in some businesses. In the War for Talent – getting good people can really give you an edge. Working from home – even for part of the week – might just be a lure.
Downside for Employers
Ceding Control: The biggest downside for Managers is learning to let go. There are some Dinosaur Managers who want people at their desk every single day at the crack of dawn. It’s presenteeism. Some years back, I completed a project in Pakistan Railways for the World Bank. Outside one of the offices, I noticed a guy continually pressing the same key on an old-fashioned typewriter. He’d actually worn out one key on the typewriter from ‘false typing’ trying to look busy. The exact same point applies in all companies. Unless they complete a very measurable job e.g. writing X lines of computer code, it’s impossible to fully ‘supervise’ knowledge workers – people with enormous discretion about how they perform their role. ‘They’re at their desk, therefore I’m in control’ is a nonsense idea.
Lower Innovation: A lot of innovation is driven by team-working and shared spaces/collaboration. Some of this can be planned. Some is ad-hoc and can be lost when people work from home. Arguably, some productivity is driven by competition with peers and this may also be sacrificed (solution: plan central ‘events’ that everyone attends).
Information Security: You have to ensure that the systems being used are data protected e.g. the transfer of emails, access to files by visitors to the home and so on.
Organising Meetings: It can be tricky to line up all the diaries. This is sometimes done through mandatory attendance on particular days e.g. Wednesday.
The Conclusion: Overall, I’m sold on the idea that staff should work from home a couple of days a week where this is possible. Great work can be done in almost any location. Just recently, I did an excellent job for a client (even if I say so myself) – while sitting in McDonalds in Finglas sipping a skinny latte. The quality of the work is seldom a function of the decor of the office (unless the place is really bad). The upsides of working from home (at least some of the time), far outweigh the downsides. Why not try it on an experimental basis and then make up your own mind.
PS Lighter Notes: From Aidan Cahill: Yearly Dementia Test! (only 4 questions this year). Yep, it’s that time of year again for us to take our annual senior citizen test. Exercise of the brain is as important as exercise of the muscles. As we grow older, it’s important to keep mentally alert. Use it or lose it!
Here’s a very private way to gauge how your memory compares to your last test. Some may think it is too easy, but the ones with memory problems may have difficulty. Take this test to determine if you’re losing it or not. The spaces below are so you don’t see the answers until you’ve answered.
OK, RELAX now, clear your mind and begin.
#1. What do you put in a toaster?
Answer: ‘Bread.’ If you said ‘toast’, just give up now and go do something else. And, try not to hurt yourself. If you said, bread, go to Question #2.
#2. Say ‘silk’ ten times. Now spell ‘silk.’ What do cows drink?
Answer: Cows drink water. If you said ‘milk,’ don’t attempt the next question. Your brain is already over-stressed and may even overheat. Content yourself with reading more appropriate literature such as Women’s Weekly or Auto World. However, if you correctly said ‘water’, proceed to Question #3.
# 3. If a red house is made from red bricks and a blue house is made from blue bricks and a pink house is made from pink bricks and a black house is made from black bricks, what is a green house made from?
Answer: Greenhouses are made from glass. If you said ‘green bricks’, why are you still reading this? PLEASE, go and lie down! But, if you said ‘glass,’ go on to Question #4.
# 4. Please do not use a calculator for this, as it would be cheating:
You are driving a bus from New York City to Philadelphia.
In Staten Island, 17 people got on the bus.
In New Brunswick, 6 people get off the bus and 9 people get on.
In Windsor, 2 people get off and 4 get on.
In Trenton, 11 people get off and 16 people get on.
In Bristol, 3 people get off and 5 people get on.
And, in Camden, 6 people get off and 3 get on.
You then arrive at Philadelphia Station.
Without going back to review, how old is the bus driver?
Answer: Oh, for crying out loud! Don’t you remember your own age? It was YOU driving the bus! If you pass this along to your friends, pray they do better than you.
PS: 95% of people fail most of the questions! Sorry for all the spaces. You’d be tempted to cheat otherwise. If you had fun with this, send it on; I did.
Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.