‘If you need me, I’ll be in my home office.’
If there’s any early morning email likely to produce a severe outbreak of tut-tuts and head shaking, it’s that one. The association between working from home and skiving runs deep.
For a long time, it was code for ‘I’ve decided to take the day off, so I can catch up with Game of Thrones and buy that flat-pack from Ikea’.
Yet increasingly, employers are recognising that occasionally allowing staff to work from home results in happier, more productive teams and opens the door to the many talented people for whom flexible working is a Godsend - and a deal breaker.
Jessica Williams started PA recruitment firm Sidekicks in 2015 after a career as an executive assistant. From the very beginning, she knew she wanted flexible working practices to be at the heart of how the company operated.
‘As a PA I got used to working flexibly, travelling with people who were working from trains, from planes, from home. If they were in London in the office, they might want me for 60 hours this week, or next week I could scale back a bit. It became very natural, on-demand working. So when I set up the company I couldn’t see why it needed to be a different way,’ Williams says.
Sidekicks now employs 8 people, including two with young children, one who was heavily pregnant when she was hired and another who had spent nine years out of the workplace. Everyone comes in for two days a week, but the rest of the time ‘we all tend to go off and do our own thing’.
Having worked across large corporates and now running her own business, Williams sees flexible working as the future. ‘Even a few years ago when working for a large US bank in Canary Wharf, it was pretty difficult to get someone to work from home even a day a week. Now it’s becoming much more prevalent,’ says Williams.
‘Before it was seen as skiving off, now I honestly believe because we’re so mobile we’ll be looking back in five or six years’ time and thinking it’s absolutely bonkers that people used to get on a train every day and go to the office, then get on a train and go back home. It doesn’t make sense. There are so many things a business can do if you don’t have the overheads of a central location and a desk for every member of staff.’
If flexible working suits you, that’s good news. But it’s not just a question of not turning up one day. There are things you can do as an employee to make it work.
1. Be clear from the start
Setting ground rules is mainly the employer’s territory, but effective communication of those rules is a two-way process. As an employee, it’s up to you to make sure you know what they will expect and allow.
If in doubt about the ground rules, ask. ‘But you didn’t say I still had to come into the office for meetings’ isn’t a great excuse.
2. Who you gonna call?
If you’re going to be away from the team, it’s up to you to keep the channels of communications open. Email only takes you so far, so make sure you make a habit of calling whenever you need something.
‘I would go as far as to say that even if you don’t need [a call with your team or boss], make sure you put one in your diary every morning,’ says Julia Mitchell, CEO of Toast, a PR firm with two directors, 15 freelancers and a virtual PA.
‘It helps anchor your day and gives you a social aspect that keeps you sane.’ Additional contact through Skype, email or Slack brainstorms and at social events is also good for team spirit.
Keeping your home life and work life separate when they take place at the same venue isn’t easy. It helps to create a neat, tidy space, away from distractions, so you can work away. Think Roald Dahl’s shed.
4. Plan, plan, plan
There are different reasons for wanting to work from home from time to time, and that affects which days you should do it on.
If it’s for the sake of your emotional wellbeing or mental health, for instance, then waking up feeling you can’t face the morning rush hour is a sensible reason to stay put.
If it’s because you want to crack on with a particularly chunky piece of work – ironically, given the association with skiving, many of us get far more done when we’re free from office distractions – then it’s wise to pick your days in advance.
‘Save "thinking work" for the days when you know you have a clear run and won't be disturbed as much,’ Mitchell advises.
5. It’s all about trust
Working from home can be great for productivity and wellbeing – so long as you are actually working. As a result, it depends on the trust of your employer.
Be sure not to violate that trust, because you’ll find a lot easier to lose than to get back. So if you do feel like a day off, just do the decent thing and book one in advance.
This article was originally published in August 2016.