‘Working remotely has made me a monster’, reads the intriguing opening line to Jo Ellison’s Financial Times article on remote working.
In a sea of reports claiming that flexible working is more productive, less stressful and increasingly the most important thing we ‘millennials’ seek in a job, Jo’s piece certainly goes against the tide.
To me, it reads like the brain dump of someone who is clearly rushed off her feet and very good at her job – written perhaps after a frustrating week where she is craving the greener grass of the ‘simpler’ office environment.
I feel your pain Jo: remote working does have its challenges. But it has its advantages too and I’d like to take you through them:
Whether you're working from home or working remotely – it’s all hard work.
Firstly, kudos to you for having such a successful career as a reporter. As someone who’s wanted to be a journalist since her teens, you are the type of woman I look up to and the fact you’re doing it with children is just - wow.
Being a reporter is an incredibly hard job with lots of running around, feeling like a headless chicken. But I don't believe being out of the office is what's making your time so challenging: whether you’re submitting work using the free WiFi at Wetherspoons or sat at your desk with your colleague next to you – it will remain a tough job to do.
By its very essence, your career requires you to be able work while out and about. Becoming accustomed to remote working and having adaptable hours does not cause the stress in this role, in fact it should help take some pressure off.
Not working in the same office doesn’t mean you’re not working in the same team.
So, what about if the whole team is working remotely, doesn’t that make it harder to get things done? You certainly seem to think so, Jo, but as someone who works as part of several teams like this, I know that not to be the case.
It takes time to get used to this set-up, sure, but it is amazing what a difference can be made by allowing everybody to work hours that suit their life, the trust and respect you have for one another grows quickly.
It's important to make sure you set aside time for 'catch-ups', to update each other on what you’re doing and run ideas past one another. We often find ourselves 'brainstorming' during phone calls, and it's even important to just make sure you’re all okay.
In my experience, this is something that often gets overlooked when you're working together for 40, busy hours a week - so there is an argument to say that communication has improved since I branched out on my own.
For me, working remotely has seen an end to the pointless, hour-long meetings, where nothing actually gets decided, followed by a round of emails with the agenda typed up by some poor sod who drew the short straw and some ignoramus only then deciding to raise an important issue... so you have to arrange yet another meeting.
Being away from each other makes us, in my opinion, more succinct in our work and more organised. You plan your time more efficiently because you know you aren’t going to be able to just lean across your desk to ask a question, or change your mind on what you’re doing.
What’s more, once you’ve had those catch-up calls you can go away and get the job done. When I was in an office, I’d get back from a meeting and there’d be someone waiting at my desk to ask me a question. POOF – the moment was gone, the ideas and motivation I had evaporated in a second.
Remote working promotes independence and the chance to show your own initiative, you place a real trust that everyone in your team will get their job done. I thrive so much better when someone shows that faith in me, instead of having someone looking over my shoulder all the time.
What makes remote working work best? Good communication.
I actually prefer talking via email because it gives you a trail that you can follow. When you’ve done your work, you can go back through it and check you’ve done everything that is being asked of you.
Jo, you mention in your piece that emails have become short and reduced to emojis. But, in my opinion, that might not be a bad thing - no-one appreciates a rambling, self-absorbed waffle when a few lines will do. Instead, write down what they need to know, add in a 'hope you're well, because we all appreciate manners, and it's job done.
And if you really don’t like emails, there’s plenty of other options like Slack, WhatsApp... the list goes on. We’re in an fast-changing, digital world, where new ideas appear every-day to help you with your work - there’s no excuse really for not finding something to make your life easier.
I’m a slave for you, my phone.
What this regular communication does mean, is a deluge of notifications on your phone. Sometimes emails are just so hard to ignore, and it’s even worse for me because, as a Social Media Consultant, I’ve got the little Twitter icon constantly popping up too.
But Jo, I’m afraid this has got nothing to do with remote working either – the answer, actually, lies in finding a system that works for you.
I was given the sound advice to be more disciplined on checking my emails. It’s incredibly tempting to read and reply as soon as they come in, but that breaks the flow of your work and makes you less productive.
So, I try to follow the lead of a recruitment agent I know who checks his emails twice a day, once at lunchtime and once at close of play. I’d be lying if I said I don’t keep an eye out for any coming in from my boss – but in general it’s a great rule to keep.
And in the evening, when I am focusing on being with my son and partner, I make an effort to put my phone away. The other day, my two-year old son Harry took it off me saying ‘phone away’ and I think that was the stab in the heart I needed to break the habit of having it constantly attached to my hand.
Whatever it is that’s popping up on your phone really can wait, the world isn’t going to fall apart if it doesn't hear from you until the morning... and if it's really important, they'll call.
Work/life balance: the holy grail.
Which leads me on to my next point – family time.
For so many of us, remote working with flexible hours is the answer to being able to spend more time with your family, to stave of the guilt off being a working parent, while also keeping up that career that you've worked so hard for.
I’m sad to hear, Jo, that you haven’t experienced the benefit of that yet - there is no worse feeling than having your child right next to you and not being able to give them your full attention.
Recently, I was speaking to a friend who works in local media and he too has struggled to find the balance between an amazing career and spending time with his young child. The hours are long and the travelling tiring – meaning he doesn't get to be with her for as long as he'd like.
Having struggled with PND last year, I made a commitment to allocating Fridays for me and my son. In cutting the working week by a day, I am able to switch off my laptop and have special time with him. Because, after all, being a Mum is more important than the rest of it.
Believe me, making a commitment to keeping family and work time separate is a challenge, and I understand that this isn’t always going to be possible for you because of your job. But when there are times that you can do it, you should definitely take advantage, it’s totally worth the few drawbacks of remote working.
This plan doesn't always run smoothly every week, the picture on this blog is from two Fridays ago when I needed to get some content scheduled for a client. It was a short job, so I popped on Lightning McQueen to distract my toddler...
Do you know what he did? He came and sat next to me, he passed me our blanket to put over both our knees and he held my hand. I continued my work, one-handed, while he watched the film, talking to me about it the whole time.
It took twice as long as it should have, but Harry and I had our morning together and he knew I was there for him. He’s going to grow up knowing that his Mummy sometimes has to work, but that she does it because she’s committed to providing him with a good life, and a good female role model.
Go a little easy on yourself, Jo, because while your kids see you on a laptop they’ll be seeing the same thing too.
The one thing I do miss? An IT department.
There is one thing about remote working I would love to change...
Last week, my computer decided to go on strike on the Wednesday afternoon – annoyingly I was just about to finish work for the week as it was half term and I had family staying. After trying the old ‘switch it off and on again’ method a few times, I gave up and decided to leave it to ‘rest’ overnight.
Thursday came and went, and it wasn’t much better, so in the evening I decided to download an anti-virus and see if that helped. It didn’t… until the next morning when, for some, reason, it finally clicked into action (I think the anti-virus had updated) and I was able to do the last couple of hours work I needed to do.
I HATE it when this happens. I rue the day I decided to work from home and long for the IT team that I used to be able to pop and see whenever something went wrong with my computer.
But, you really do learn to adapt - just like you do when making better use of emails and blocking out time for family. When I was moving house I didn’t have broadband for 3 days, and had to spend all of them working at the nearest Wetherspoons – so it wasn’t too bad!
Remote working a cruel and misleading concept? Jo, with respect, you’re just doing it wrong.
And so, we come to the paragraph that compelled me to write this piece:
‘Has there ever been a concept as cruel and misleading as remote working. 81% believe it would be more productive. What rubbish. The allure of working is a myth built on a lie. The fantasy of slopping around in your pyjamas and being there to see your children? Total nonsense. You half see them over your laptop, as they wonder why you’re always sat at your computer. And then the geography of the office assumes an endless horizon from which there is zero escape.’
As fantastically written as this is, I'm compelled to disagree with the sentiment.
You claim you’re working three times as hard now than when you worked in an office, but I just can’t relate to this I’m afraid. Without a shadow of a doubt, my productivity has improved since I started working from home. And, for the most part, my confidence too.
I can plan my own day, I don’t have to work to other people’s meeting schedules, and I’m not constantly being interrupted by someone coming over to my desk to ask me some inane question.
I used to take my iPod in purely so I could stick my headphones on and shut out the world when I needed to. Tracy and Sharon opposite talking about their weekend plans, Derek asking me to go and approve some artwork, Jo pulling me from my desk to show my face at a meeting that I really didn’t need to attend. (*names are hypothetical!)
When I’m at home I have none of that, I can zone out and focus on the task in hand and it’s honestly the best work I’ve ever done. I get that it’s not suited to everyone, but for me, remote working and flexible hours has been a life-changer - which is why I'm so passionate about making sure anyone who wants that option can have it.
So, Jo, please don’t project your experiences on to others, especially those of us who are working hard to make flexible working an option for all.
Jo’s article can be found here.