Working from home can make you fat (just ask Santa Claus)

Photo by Bruce Mars from Pexels

At the time of writing this story there are just 135 shopping days left until Christmas, assuming you’re happy to do your Christmas shopping online — a trend which has shown no sign of abating over the last decade (more on Christmas later).

Something else interesting has been happening in the past decade — there’s been a marked trend towards working from home (WFH). Studies in the UK and across the western world have shown growth in the numbers of people regularly working from home of over 20% pa.

The Business Case for Working from Home (WFH)

The drivers and potential benefits are relatively easy to understand:

  • The introduction of increasingly family-friendly government work and HR policies.
  • Increased domestic pressures on families, coupled with ever demanding jobs.
  • Globalisation and outsourcing.
  • The increasing ubiquity, reliability and falling costs of enabling technology (e.g. high speed internet, video conferencing, telephony, secure remote access).
  • A desire to reduce costs on both the organisation’s part (e.g. fewer people in the office means a lower requirement for office space) and on the part of the worker (time and money spent commuting, expensive suits, lunches, etc.).
  • Some people claim to be able to focus better at home, whilst others simply feel special and trusted by being allowed to do so by their employer.
  • The ability to WFH has a legitimate place in providing business continuity should the worst happen to the office (I used it as a contingency against the 2012 London Olympics causing travel chaos for commuters in The City, for example).
  • It can also be a factor in attracting and retaining the best staff, too.

So in principle at least, the reasons for WFH and the associated benefits are well known and proven.

Collaboration and Globalisation

Globalisation and outsourcing mean teams are now rarely co-located on the same continent, let alone in the same building. If you’re running a video conference across multiple time zones, attended by people in London, Hong Kong, India and the US, do you really want to have to do that at midnight from the office, knowing you’ve got a two-hour commute in the rain at the end of it, after the tube has stopped running and there are no taxis? These days you’ll probably just look to host it at home from your laptop and enable the other participants to do the same.

Even during a more traditional 9–5 working day there’s no doubt that being able to escape the noise and interruptions of the office and find some contiguous and quiet blocks of time (e.g. to review documentation or write a report) is an attractive proposition. WFH is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to do so.

Of course there are plenty of reasons for people not to WFH. Some people will always try to abuse the privilege. But as long as you consider each request on its merits (essentially by ensuring that the nature of the work to be done can be performed as effectively or better remotely), and you fundamentally trust the individual, I see few reasons why it shouldn’t be employed to good effect on projects where people need to collaborate.

So, there are clear economic benefits to all parties, increasingly few technical impediments, and on occasion, WFH can actually support the essential business of collaboration.

And the Boss?

I still have this nagging question in my mind, though — can the boss himself/herself work from home and still be effective?

It’s not that the guy at the top is necessarily any more valuable as a team member than the next person, but he/she is usually more visible to stakeholders, and expected to be so. They’re the go-to person when something goes wrong, or someone needs advice, or a decision needs to be made. They need to be readily available, and that can cause a problem when he/she suddenly decides to WFH, in the process becoming, well, instantly less visible.

The person at the top sets an example, a standard, the culture to which the enterprise operates. There can be some downsides if you’re the boss and you work remotely:

  • Relationships can suffer and it becomes harder to integrate new starters.
  • If you’re not there, you could be the last to know when there’s an issue.
  • If neither you or your key people are around when something does go wrong, you’ll be less effective at handling issues as they arise.
  • If you work from home, you can’t then deny other requests to do so.
  • Having a geographically dispersed team (even by a few yds or a couple of floors) increases the management challenge.
  • Overall it could create the impression that you’re not in control, or you don’t care.

Ultimately, your overall effectiveness and personal brand can take a hit.

Top Tips for Managing from Home

If you absolutely must do it, here are my tips for managers working from home, many of which apply equally to anyone working remotely:

  • Be contactable — all the time, all day. I can’t stress this enough. Give your team and sponsor as many ways to contact you as you can. Publish a dedicated landline number for them to contact you on and always, always answer it. Enable call waiting. Leave your cellphone switched on. Be available on Skype (or that Slack thing everyone under 30 years old uses these days). Do whatever works for you. Ensure you have a desktop client that’s compatible with your organisation’s own video conferencing infrastructure.
  • If you’re going to be using video, it goes without saying, don’t do so in your dressing gown at 10am whilst eating your toast — you wouldn’t do it in the office so don’t do it at home.
  • You’ll be spending a lot of time on the phone — invest in a decent wireless headset that’s compatible with your fixed landline, Skype/Slack (or whatever you use) and your mobile. You may look and feel like a bit of a Muppet, but after several hours on the phone it will be the best £100 (or dollars) you’ve ever spent, I promise.
  • Don’t try to chair meetings from home if everyone else is sat back at the office in the conference room. It simply doesn’t work. You need to be in the room to have any chance of keeping control of those sorts of meetings. By all means run telephone conference calls remotely, but if everyone else will be there in person, you need to be, too.
  • Try and make a point of proactively checking in with every member of your project team at least once during the day, and do the same with your senior. It sends a strong message that you’re still engaged and on the case, being proactive.
  • Don’t deny your team members legitimate requests to do the same and WFH from time-to-time. Make sure they’re supported to do so so. Give them access to the right tools, and clearly set out what you’re expecting of them.

More generically, no matter what your role, if you are going to work from home:

  • Be clear on your reasons for doing so. Set yourself clear objectives for the day and make sure they are the sort of things that can be best achieved remotely. If they can’t, change the objectives or change your location. You’ll ultimately be more effective and less exposed to accusations that you’re slacking.
  • Set aside your own space to work — a study or spare room is best so you can close the door. You need to exclude all domestic noise (like Barney the dog barking at the postman) and ensure the family know not to interrupt you.
  • Have a proper breakfast, at your usual time, and make sure there’s not too much delicious food in the fridge. No, really — wandering between the study and the kitchen, then munching on whatever free food you find there is one of the biggest productivity killers there is, and it makes you fat (see, I told you). Take scheduled breaks and stay focused on work (not snacking) in between.
  • If you do have to go out briefly, be honest and open about it. Don’t make-and-take calls from the car, the doctor’s waiting room, or from outside the school gates at home time. Make sure people know you’ll be off the grid for an hour and again when you’re back up.

Do You Believe in Santa Claus?

I promised you more on Christmas at the start of this story. Why? Well, it occurs to me that every year Santa Claus (should you be a believer), delivers (literally) the world’s most challenging logistics project. He does so with a very small workforce (elves and reindeer, mostly), using limited obvious resources or budget, across multiple time zones, to an increasingly demanding and cynical customer base (over 7 billion of us at the last count — most of which don’t submit their requirements until a month before the live date).

Despite these challenges, he does so on time, every year, without fail. Every year we trust in his ability to do so, to the point where we faithfully promise our children he’ll be here, on time and to spec. Oh, and for 364 days a year… he works from home. Like me, he could probably do with losing a few lbs, too.

PS: Whether you’re a believer or not, please make yourself a diary note in December to sit down with your children (no matter how old they are) and watch the 1994 movie A Miracle on 34th Street. It partly inspired this story (well, at least those last two paragraphs). You’ll like it, I promise (just stay away from the fridge and don’t try and watch it whilst you’re supposed to be working from home).