I’ve worked at home since 1998, when I started working as a senior editor for HDT. It wasn’t quite as easy to set up a home office back then. There was no wi-fi, so we had ISDN internet lines run in our house, with ethernet cables in the office and in the living room. We had a separate office phone line installed, as well as a dedicated fax line for the fax machine. We FedExed slides and floppy disks across the country, and I had to argue with our Internet Service Provider about the 10-MB limit on email size. No conference calls via Zoom or Google Hangouts; not even services like freeconferencecall.com.
Yet Newport Communications, the company that owned HDT and several other trucking-related publications at the time, had a surprising number of remote editors. The reason? They wanted to get the best, most experienced trucking editors on their team, even those who didn’t want to move to southern California.
Technology has made it a lot easier since then to work from home, but there are still challenges, even in normal times.
Pros and Cons of Working From Home
There are pros and cons of working at home, as millions of office workers have discovered since mid-March when stay-at-home orders went into effect in efforts to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. As you might guess, I’m biased on the “pros” side.
It can be easier to concentrate and actually make you more productive when you’re not faced with the endless in-person meetings and people sticking their heads in your door or over your cubicle or grabbing you on your way back from the bathroom or breakroom. At my previous company, before I started working from home, when I needed to concentrate to write, I would put my telephone in a drawer, close and lock my office door with a “do not disturb” sign – and still I would get my art director pounding on my door wanting to know when I was going to get him that late copy. (If he would quit interrupting me, of course, it would get done faster.)
The flexibility of being able to be at home is invaluable, when your kid gets off the bus from school, or not having to take half a day off when the dishwasher repair guy says he’ll be there sometime between 8 a.m. and noon and it’s lunchtime and still no sign of him. I love being able to raid the fridge for leftovers for lunch instead of worrying about packing my own or spending money on going out.
Many companies fear that working from home will make their employees less productive. But as ZDNet reported, “research firm Valoir found that the abrupt move to working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has had only had a 1% reduction on work productivity. And more than 40% of workers would prefer to work remotely full time in the future.”
According to this recent NBC News story, a 2015 study found that Chinese call-center employees took fewer breaks and were 13% more productive when working from home.
However, one of the co-authors of that study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, predicted at the end of March that working at home during the pandemic could “create a productivity disaster” for businesses. “We are home working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days.”
“Working from home with your children is a productivity disaster,” Bloom says. “My 4-year-old regularly bursts into the room hoping to find me in a playful mood shouting ‘doodoo!’ – her nickname for me – in the middle of conference calls.”
Nevertheless, several fleets I’ve talked to have told me that even after employees are safely able to return to the office, they are going to revisit their work-from-home policies with the eye toward allowing more people to work remotely in the future.
Roadmaster Group, for instance, has had about 85% of its staff working from home. “Some people are concerned that remote workers’ productivity decreases, but we’ve seen productivity increase,” said CEO John Wilbur in an interview. “It’s really taught us that we can work remotely. Maybe we don’t need as much office space going forward; we could make changes to our model permanently.”
Even in normal times, there can be distractions working at home. It’s easy to procrastinate by throwing in a load of laundry or playing with the dog.
Here are some things I’ve learned that can make working at home work:
Carve out a separate work space
Ideally you would have a separate room, with a door you can close to let family members know you’re not to be interrupted. If not a whole room, a corner, maybe with a folding screen to help divide the space. That doesn’t mean you can’t grab your laptop and work out on the deck for a change of pace (another nice perk of working from home), but you need someplace designated as your “office.” Get yourself set up ergonomically, with a real desk and a real office chair. Make sure you have the supplies you need – paper, pens, stapler, folders, filing cabinet, etc.
Of course, all this may not be easy or even possible for some workers who were sent home in haste to comply with governmental shelter-in-place orders. One of my team must work in the middle of his busy household; when we talk on the phone, I can often hear the clothes dryer rattling in the background. One of my colleagues who’s been working at home at his son’s old desk during this crisis told me his back problems were killing him until he made a trip into the office and brought back his real office chair.
Set Aside Office Hours
Even when I was a freelancer who wasn’t expected to keep regular office hours, I found I was more productive when I set aside scheduled times to be “at work.” If you don’t, it’s easier to get distracted.
When you are working, focus on your work. Trying to do the laundry may mean you get neither your work project nor the laundry done very efficiently; our brains aren’t actually designed for multitasking. In fact, a study by UC Irvine found workers need 15-23 minutes to regain focus after being distracted.
There are plenty of distractions in the office, too, but kids, spouses, pets, household chores, are all things that could pull your focus away from work at home. Ask the people you live with to save non-urgent interruptions for non-work hours.
If you’re not able to have a separate office phone and are relying on your cell phone, use tools such as do not disturb features to keep work time from intruding into personal time. We use Slack for office communication, and I have it “snoozed” in the evenings. My staff knows if there’s truly something urgent they can text my cell, but it needs to be urgent.
At the opposite end of the scale, it’s easy to let the work consume your life because it’s right there. It’s easy to get so focused that you forget to take a break. Make sure to take a 5-10 minute break every couple of hours; set an alarm if you need to. It’s bad for your back to be hunched over all day. Get up and take a short walk, stretch, or get a cup of coffee.
Maintain Human Contact
The biggest downside to working at home is the lack of human contact.
In-person collaboration is necessary for creativity and innovation, says Stanford’s Bloom. His research has shown that face-to-face meetings are essential for developing new ideas and keeping staff motivated and focused. “I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation,” he says.
One thing I have struggled with is getting so focused, if I’m not careful, my communication with my co-workers becomes reduced to emails, texts, and Slack or Microsoft Teams messaging. In normal times, regular travel to industry events and press conferences has helped maintain that needed human contact. We’ve tried to schedule in-person team “summits” every couple of years. At the very least, I’ve discovered, it’s vital to stay in touch via regular conference calls, whether by phone or video, and by picking up the phone occasionally instead of pounding out another e-mail missive.
As the author of this lengthy but fascinating story musing about the fate of the office notes, “No Skype chat can replicate what [Thomas Heatherwick, a British designer] calls the ‘chemistry of the unexpected’ that you get in person.”