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on working from home

For me the current passion for working from home worries me and I have enough experience of it, going back as far as the early 1980s, to think that I might have a point.

My first experience of working from home as an employee of a large corporation was back in 1982. I worked in London which was a three hour round trip commute away, and, for six weeks, was assigned to work with a supplier based on stop up the railway line from home. Because of issues of commercial confidentiality the supplier did not want me on site more that necessary and so I worked from home.

It was a nightmare in many ways. My wife felt that my presence meant that she could just talk to me whenever a thought entered her head and the inevitable list of garden and household jobs was right there under my nose; “I’ll just take a break and mow the lawn” type of thing. Yes, I did get all of the work that I was being paid for done, but, in general, I hated it and the one lesson that I did learn was that I could use the opportunity to time shift, that is to take an hour off for some DIY during the day and make time up in the evening for example.

Of course that was pre-internet and mobile ‘phones. Im did have a portable typewriter that I used for some reports, but a lot of my written work was done longhand and forwarded to the typing pool (remember them anyone?) at the office.

Later I became an early adopter for working from home when office space was at a premium and I was working all over the UK. By then I was on my second marriage, there were no children at home and I had a wife who understood that there were times when I needed to be left alone. Again I often did personal stuff during the day and work at night, but y then I was a fully equipped road carrier with cell ‘phone and GPRS equipped laptop.

Around the mid 1990s some of the implications of remote working were coming to the fore as it became more common and a working party was set up to look at the pros and cons as well as to try and draft some good practice notes along with a company policy. One of the key issues that came out of that was the employer’s liability. There is a duty of care and whilst we had all of the necessary workstation and VDU stuff in place for employees in the workplace, how did you cope with people working, unsupervised, from home off the dining table or with the laptop on their lap as they sprawl on the sofa? You can moan all you like about jobsworth H&S people, and I do, but the law is the law and their are people queuing up for big scalps.

The other big issue about working from home, for the employee and employer, is the lack of dynamics that you get when people are collected in one place. There is a lot to be gained from teams being together and the interchanges with others in those water cooler moments. Scatter the buggers all around the country and you have lost that. I don’t know how you measure it, but, over time, you will miss it. As a team leader you get a lot from seeing your people in action, it speaks volumes and helps to pick the real stars from the poseurs. Yes, you can judge on results alone, but, if you do, you will promote the wrong people too often.

Looking at working from home from the customer perspective it is already apparent to me that there are times when it is just not working well enough. This may just be due to policies and procedures combined with technology issues, but it has been a lot harder to get problems solved since lockdown started. Take one of my clients who has three times had the wrong item picked and shipped. Every time the supplier has made exactly the same mistake, but each time customer service have been called the person responding has been working from home and unable to do anything other than to tell my client how to return the item for a credit. At no time have either of us been able to speak to anyone who is actually there to try and resolve the problem. In the end we bought the item direct from the US and they got it right first time.

For some sectors there is no excuse for continuing to allow working from home now. The Civil Service being one; that large chunks of them are apparently working from home still is a scandal. Remote working in various forms is a viable tool in this day and age for the right jobs, sales teams being a classic example, but for much of what used to go on in the office we need to see people back and their desks. Working in a mask is a pain, but I do it as do many others.

We are in a time of great change and need to adapt. It may be that some businesses will feel that they can allow more people to work from home and will come up with policies and practices that work for them. If they can make it work then fine, but I think that, for now, we need to see a lot more bums on their original office seats.

PS: If you are working from home have a search through the old posts here for my top tips for home workers.

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