Working from home - the upsides

Working from home – the upsides

One of the few upsides of the Corona crisis has been that many organizations are now forced to reconsider their traditional work arrangements. A “symptom” of this is that WFH, working from home,  has become a popular acronym.

When I established my consultancy in 2008, I chose to keep my operation to minimal size – hopefully, too small to fail – and to work from my home office. Besides keeping overhead down, my main motivations for flying solo were to maximize efficiency and minimize hassle so I’d be able to concentrate on the things I like to do most and think I do best.

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I am my company’s sole employee, and my business partners include a few end clients but are mostly marketing research agencies and analytics companies scattered throughout the world. I should stress that this would not have been a realistic option if I hadn’t already been an experienced marketing researcher when I set up my company.

Moreover, in previous roles at Nielsen Consumer Research and Kantar Research International, I often worked remote from the companies’ local offices since I had global responsibilities. My last client jobs at Nielsen, for instance, were based in Estonia, Denmark, and South Africa and, in addition, I was part of a multi-country Asia project. None of this work had a connection to my country of residence, apart from my physical presence there.

People were working from home millennia before “telecommuting” was coined by Jack Nilles in 1973, so I cannot call myself a pioneer. Programmers have worked remote since the ’60s. However, most of us physically commute to offices, as I did for the bulk of my career, and may find the idea working remote from home hard to grasp. There are plusses and minuses to anything, to be sure.

WFH is not for everyone and not suited to all occupations. You need to be self-directed and, while part of this comes with experience and maturity, some people are naturally more content working in groups and being assigned tasks. Put simply, the sort of work you do, and your personality will largely determine how appropriate it is for you.

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One significant upside has been greatly increased productivity, at least a doubling in my case. Less noise and far fewer interruptions allow me to concentrate better and structure my day more effectively. This is a big benefit for statisticians and others whose work requires that they block out chunks of time in order to focus.

Much less time is wasted in unnecessary meetings, and my meetings are nearly all conducted by phone, Zoom or Skype. Moreover, my rough estimate is that, excluding travel time, face-to-face meetings, on average, take twice as long as phone meetings to accomplish the same objectives. Let’s also not forget that it’s possible to do a great deal with email alone, a giant step up from those clunky fax machines some of you may recall.

Not having to prepare for and endure long and often grueling commutes is an added benefit. One hour to an external office means ten hours a week directly absorbed by commuting. Depending on one’s circumstances, some of this time can be used productively but a lot will go to waste.

Given the nature of my work, I need to spend a lot of time on self-study. This is harder when you must commute and are subject to the numerous distractions of that work style.

Self-discipline and skill at organizing one’s workday are crucial, as is being able to work autonomously without becoming a hermit. Isolation is not good for you.

Communication can break down more easily under WFH, and you have to be more proactive and cautious about making assumptions.

If one’s job principally involves managing people, remote work arrangements will probably prove more challenging. Remote team meetings tend not to work as smoothly, even with today’s conferencing technology. Furthermore, there’s a “non-verbal” aspect to management that is hard to replicate electronically; those shifting feet and other body language will not be picked up by webcams, for instance.

Likewise, a lot of sales is best conducted face-to-face, and current and prospective clients often expect it. Given this, one might wonder how I can work as a consultant without regularly meeting with clients face-to-face? First, I am not in sales. Also, with the right know-how and experience, it’s actually more effective that way.

Though there are times when face-to-face meetings are truly essential, in my role as a marketing and data science consultant and statistician, I have found that these are rare exceptions. In fact, taking part in meetings too early can cause the conversation to stray towards technical details before the basic issues have been sorted out. Over the years I’ve learned what questions to ask and how to ask them. This can be done remote and email is often best.

Of course, I do join meetings and presentations remotely – sometimes at odd hours and occasionally with the assistance of an interpreter – and now and then meet with clients face-to-face as well. However, considering the cost and downtime that comes with travel, hopping on a plane at a moment’s notice for a two-hour meeting will seldom make sense. Phone, Skype and email are normally sufficient.

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My set up probably would not be right for people who are unusually extraverted and gregarious. They’d soon become bored and restless. Also, individuals whose chief strength is impression management tend to resist telecommuting for reasons that I think should be obvious.

Cabin fever can quickly set in. It’s easy to be chained to your desk 24/7, and small happenings can wipe out that special weekend you’d planned for months. Want to take a real vacation and totally get away from work? Well, I guess that’s hard for most people, thanks to the Smartphone…

Many of us have been working from home all along without calling it that.

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