When Ian Wright started working from his home in London last November, he thought he had the ideal setup.
He could spend time with his two-month-old baby while he worked for his brand-new company, British Business Energy, which helps companies compare rates for electric and gas suppliers. From a two-bedroom home in the borough of Greenwich, he set up at his dining room table with big plans to master being an at-home dad and business owner.
None of it worked. “There was a moment right at the start where hopes and dreams end and reality sets in,” Wright says. “I quickly came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t working.”
Two months later he tried putting the baby in full-time childcare. He returned to the dining room table, certain this time it would work. House repairs, chores, the postman, all of it, just seemed to get in the way. “Those little things would just break up my flow,” Wright says. “You get to the end of the day, and you scratch your head and wonder, where did all the time go?”
A month later, Wright realised he just couldn’t be productive working from home. He rented a desk at a co-working space near the London Bridge, and finally, he was cranking away.
Working from home has its benefits, with research showing that it generally increases happiness and productivity. But a new study also shows that you ought to be careful before making the break with your office.
First, the training
Flexible schedules are likely to become far more commonplace in the coming years; already some companies have adopted “hot-desking” providing fewer desks than there are employees in an effort to save money and encourage remote work days. Laws in the UK allow many workers to ask for more flex time, and companies across the globe are using work-at-home policies as a way to recruit.
But the problems with working from home begin right from the start. That’s because we think everybody can do all aspects of their job away from the office.
That’s what Esther Canonico found in a recently published study of 514 workers. Canonico, a fellow with the London School of Economics Department of Management, says the at-home workers in her study didn’t receive any training or guidance in how to pull off the transition. It added up since nearly half of the 514 people she studied either worked from home full-time or had some flexibility in their schedules.
If you’ve done it yourself, you know that working from home is not as simple as opening your laptop and getting down to business. Training—something some of us loathe and others of us can’t get enough of—can make the difference between failure and success away from the office.
“There is simply not enough active managing of the procedure of working from home,” Canonico said. “What happens when you don’t actively manage the practice, is that it gets out of hand.”
So what, exactly, would that sort of management look like in our lives? Well, for starters, we’d likely be told we need a dedicated office or workspace, with boundaries for our families and other interruptions. That’s easer said than done. (Just ask professor Robert E Kelly, the “BBC dad,” who became an Internet meme after his young children burst into the room during a live TV interview.)
Then there are the everyday pitfalls that can lead to serious career damage or stagnation, Canonico said. For instance, if you aren’t in the office and your presence isn’t felt, you’re likely to miss out on new projects and opportunites as they’re doled out to someone the boss sees every day.
In fact, new research from the University of Arizona shows 40% of employees who were working from home feel disconnected from the company’s strategic direction and one-third feel like they don’t get support from bosses, according to Joe Carella, assistant dean of executive education at University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.
“People working from home become professionally and personally isolated,” Canonico says. “They say ‘out of sight, out of mind’.”
Small steps toward flex
But, you might be thinking, working from home is the holy grail of office life—no required face time, performance judged by results not presence in the office, and no two-hour-a-day commute.
Mitigating the downsides that come with remote work is key. That’s what Tim Campbell has learned as both a part-time at-home employee of Alexander Mann Solutions, a global outsourcing and consultancy firm.
Campbell, who was the 2005 winner of the BBC One show The Apprentice in the UK, has helped advise other businesses during a transition into flexible schedules and was part of his own company’s move two years ago to allow at-home workers. Now, 10% of the firm’s 3,500 employees work from home. It doesn’t always go smoothly.
“We talk about how much more productive workers can be, but we ignore the steps it takes to get there,” Campbell says.
Instead, we ought to think of it like any new venture, with an embedding process. Work from home for two or three days a week at first, before going full-time away from the office. Continually analyse if you’re as productive as you were previously, before the bosses make the determination for you and revoke the privilege—or, worse, write you off as lacking potential.
Find ways to stay relevant in the office. At Alexander Mann, Campbell says that’s done with meetings held by video conferencing, making sure even staffers working at home have regular face time with the bosses. The company also uses a chat service called Yammer that means you’re never far from a conversation with the higher-ups. And it helps to stop by the office now and again and show up in person for the big staff meetings, rather than always be the disconnected voice on the staticky speakerphone.
“The assumption for many people is that when they start working from home they’ll just morph into the same person they were at the office, just in a different environment,” Campbell said. “That can happen, but only with a lot of work to get you there.”
When it doesn’t work
Combining home and office didn’t work for Pedro Caseiro, who tried working out of his London flat after co-founding a company called Obby last year. Looking to save money, he and his partners decided to work from home while developing an app that helps people find classes in things like pottery, cooking, and photography.
Caseiro quickly realised that interruptions, like a visit from the plumber or cooking lunch, added up to too many distractions.
“It’s all these micro things that take time out of your day in a way that wouldn’t happen if you were in an office,” Caseiro says. In June the company committed to an office space.
Caseiro isn’t against working from home, though. In his line of work, Caseiro says many talented web developers expect a flexible, at-home schedule. His main developer, in fact, lives near the beach in sunny southern Portugal, and yet still nails all of his deadlines.
“I look at my own productivity and know I’m better off working out of a traditional office,” Caseiro says. “But I know I also have to be flexible in hiring. I try to look for whether people can do the tasks we need them to do and not think about where they’re going to do them from.”