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Equitable home-working: things I wish I had known 3 years ago

In 2017 I spent nearly a year putting together a plan for transitioning ALT, the organisation I lead, from being office based (since 1993) to operating as a geographically distributed team. Executing the plan took another year… . Along the way to becoming not only a virtual team but also the employer of a (small) workforce that would be permanently home-based, I found out the answers to questions such as…

  • why do you need a physical address and how long does it take to sort out a PO Box that works (nearly a year…)?
  • what kind of policies do you need for GDPR for homeworkers?
  • how much does the equipment for homeworking cost?
  • what skills do homeworkers need?
  • which home-working policies actually work for permanent home-workers?
  • what’s the difference when everyone is home-based?
  • how long does the initial enthusiasm last?

I had time to make a plan… rather than having to make the transition to homeworking with no notice as many CEOs are having to this year. Making a planned transition to becoming a distributed organisation meant that I had time to put in place a consultation process that involved the Board that governs ALT, all employees, HR professionals, lawyers, auditors and unions. The end result was a smooth transition with nearly all employees on board making the change successfully – and many of us now have a couple of years of working from home full-time under our belt.

I now share that expertise with others who are on the same path, and continue to write a monthly blog series on leading virtual teams with Martin Hawksey. Talking about how to make a success of becoming a virtual team as made me reflect on what I wish I had known about three years ago… and I have come up with a few:

A dedicated workspace is a must (for us).

When I re-wrote our existing flexible working policy into a new home-working policy, one of the key questions we considered was the difference between being home-based and working remotely. We already had policies that covered things like working whilst travelling, occasional team days and so forth, so the question was whether to require employees to be permanently home-based rather than giving choice as to where they would be based, like a shared remote working space, a cafe or similar. We considered the nature of the work we do, the frequency with which we would require staff to be online working synchronously, implications of handling personal and financial information and what support we could offer to establish a functioning, long-term workspace at home. On balance, the conclusion we came to is to require employees to work from home on a permanent basis, with flexible working for when travel or similar is required.

We developed a dedicated home-working risk assessment and annual review process, based on more traditional display-screen equipment guidance and our internal processes. And we offered equipment, a monthly home-working allowance and individual support for everyone.

As part of the recruitment process, we set clear expectations about a dedicated work space at home and provide a self-assessment for prospective employees to reflect on the reality of working from home permanently with the support we can provide. In an ideal world, I’d love to be able to support individuals working in whatever environment suits them best and offer complete flexibility, but given that we don’t have the resources to do that being transparent and clear from the outset really helps set expectations and share responsibility for making working from home as equitable as we can.

There are barriers (for everyone).

Reading many of the headlines that are currently in the news about the difficulties of working from home resonates with me. Domestic abuse. Childcare. Shared homes. Limited space. Lack of equipment. Poor connectivity. Zoom backgrounds. Interruptions. Even if your domestic circumstances permit it in theory, working from home in the long term is different from doing it for a limited period or few days a week.

I can readily understand and rejoice with those who are enjoying no more commuting. Having to travel regularly when in fact you could do your work as well or better from home is a huge burden on personal and family life as well as having a practical impact. The pandemic has shown that in many cases, work could continue from home and commuting could be drastically reduced. There are consequences for the individual, the organisation and not least all the economies that depend on regular commuters, and there are big upsides.

If the last few years of leading a team of home-workers has taught me anything it is that there are barriers to home-working for everyone at some point. For example a house move, a change in personal circumstances (welcome to home-working whilst getting divorced!), illness, changes in physical or mental health and work-focused changes such as joining a distributed organisation, taking on a new role, parental leave and so forth.

I really underestimated how much these factors could impact upon working from home over time and how quickly the ability to work from home becomes impacted on when you are not able to leave home and come to work physically. Supporting staff through a myriad of different situations has given me a new found respect for everyone who makes working from home work for them in the long term.

Homeworking is (more) personal.

Ever since I was 17 I had a job of one sort or another, many of which came with uniforms or (formal) dress codes. Getting ready for work was a thing. It still is even though like many I distinctly ‘dress down’ in comparison to what many other CEOs who work in a more traditional setting might wear.

But regardless of what I am wearing, I still get ready for work, I still mentally switch from being ‘at home’ to ‘working’ as I climb up the stairs to my study. I need a bit of distance between home life and work even if working from home becomes ever more personal.

Over time, I’ve become more comfortable with creating a version of my home, a part which I am comfortable to share with complete strangers – which many of my meetings are with. In return, I get glimpses of unfamiliar kitchens and bedrooms, toddlers and cats.

It’s a tough situation when it’s hot or when you are having a bad day. It is a real challenge when things go south and you find yourself amidst a crisis. And we all have been having a lot of crisis recently.

My vision of working from home had more do with freedom and flexibility and less with keeping safe in a pandemic – but regardless of circumstance, there are days when professionalism and detachment are needed as well as compassion and care. Others will probably have similar experiences to draw on, times when there was someone in distress on the other end of that Zoom call, times when they needed you to fight their corner or defend them or negotiate. When I deal with things that are tough I sometimes wish I wasn’t at home, all up close and personal with whatever disaster has struck.

There are days when I feel vulnerable as a home-worker in ways that make me miss working in a dedicated work environment, a place I could leave at the end of the day to retreat home to relative safety. When I could leave work at work more easily.

After three years, I love working from home. I feel privileged to be able to make it work. That said, the longer I work from home the more I realise equitable home-working is still quite a way off.