If you start and end your working day sitting in traffic, being crushed into a tube carriage or waiting for that bus that never arrives, then you will probably find the concept of home working a very attractive one. Even if your journey to work is not particularly challenging you might still be tempted by the obvious benefits of working at home but it is an option that needs to be examined carefully before you take the plunge. The pitfalls of home working can easily turn the dream into a nightmare; but with a little careful planning you can make it a very rewarding experience. Two basic requirements need to be addressed; first, you need to create a clear distinction between your working life and your social/domestic life; and second, you need to ensure that your basic psychological needs are fulfilled.
Identifying a physical space that is totally dedicated to your work, is important; a separate room is ideal because that gives you a physical barrier – a door – between where you work and where you live. If a separate room is not practical then try and create a space that can be hidden from view when you finish for the day; psychologically it is very difficult to stop thinking about (and doing) work when you can see your workspace. Mike, a graphic designer, had been working from home for four years before he eventually addressed his workaholic tendency. He bought himself a large cabinet that housed all his computer hardware and software and because it had doors he was able to simply hide it all way, it was small change with a big impact, ‘I couldn’t sit in my front room without going to the computer and doing just little bit more work. I never stopped; even though I’d split the room into a working area and a living area, I could see my computer and I was drawn to it but the cabinet solved that problem. I set my blackberry alarm for 6pm and at 6pm sharp I close the doors and they stay closed all night’.
The physical barrier makes stopping work more likely, whereas just changing your activity won’t as Debbie, a Clarinet Teacher who sees students in her home, found, ‘Even though I’d turn the TV on at a set time to tell myself it was now private time I’d disregard it and still go on working. It sometimes felt horrible still being in the same place I’d been working all day. I’d sometimes find myself chuntering on in my head and then not be able to sleep.’ Getting your work out of your mind when you stop working is one of the most significant ways to combat workplace stress and the maxim ‘out of sight out of mind’ is a useful one to take on board.
Mike’s remedy was particularly effective because, as well as a physical barrier, he created a temporal one as well; choosing the time you start and end your working day and sticking to those times is a powerful anti stress strategy. Managing stress is one of those basic psychological needs, referred to above, and a key to success in this domain is the creation of an effective barrier between work activities and social/domestic activities. A very common difficulty that home workers face is distractions caused by friends and family failing to respect (or even realise) that you are working. Angie, who ‘looks after the administration side of a Leadership Development business’ has experienced the difficulties of convincing people that she really is working at home, ‘my family don’t think I am working and quite frequently call by and expect a cup of tea. My friends often ask me what I’ve been doing all day; I tell them every time that I have been working but they still ask the same question two days later.’
Angie’s experience is one that many home workers will recognise; what they might not recognise however is the fact that they are often responsible for creating this problem by failing to establish clear physical and temporal distinctions between their working and non-working lives. If you don’t know for sure when you are and when you are not working then your friends and family are certainly not going to know! On the other hand, if you are clear and consistent about when you start and end your working day and you tell others what those times are then they are far more likely to be responsive. If you have children you will almost certainly need to make additional efforts to tackle the problem of distractions; explanations alone will probably not suffice and even creative strategies like rewarding them for not disturbing you will probably be of only limited use, particularly in the school holidays; Angie learnt this the hard way, ‘I have found school holidays a problem. As you work from home you don’t think you need childcare and that you can work around it but you soon find that their demands are very time consuming. I gave up trying to work in the day and had to catch up in the evening’. In situations like this finding the money to pay for childcare might be the only effective remedy.
Distractions frequently have their origin in the psychological needs of the home worker, which can make the problem particularly difficult to resolve. Working from home can be a lonely and isolating experience and people often, albeit unconsciously, encourage others to distract them. Diedre has been working at home as a translator for nearly two years and her experience illustrates how easy it is to give people the wrong message, ‘I was really getting stressed because I could hardly work for an hour without someone ringing the bell or telephoning me for a chat. I was getting so angry with people but I couldn’t tell them because I was really suffering by being alone all day and I couldn’t face losing my friends on top of that. It was through some business coaching that I discovered that my friends were contacting me because they wanted to support me. I had gone on about how lonely I felt being at home all day, so obviously the message I was sending out was please call me’. The loneliness of home working is a very significant stress risk factor and one that needs addressing directly; people’s desire for social contact varies considerably but it is another of those basic psychological needs and you should structure regular social contacts to satisfy it. It might be enough to just arrange a regular lunch date with a friend or you might need something more frequent, the important thing is that you take control and don’t just leave it to chance. Just knowing that you will be enjoying someone’s company at a specified time will reduce that feeling of isolation, which in turn will allow you to put more energy and focus into your work.
Home working has much to offer but it needs planning, if you try to plan it and it still doesn’t work then consider getting professional help from a business coaches, the investment will soon pay for itself and you can then enjoy the benefits like Christopher, a designer, who relishes the fact that, ‘My journey to work takes 3.5 seconds and no traffic jams’.
Chartered Psychologist and Executive Coach
T: 0845 111 6543