I just had my third teleconference today, at the end of a typical work day that started in the morning with a call and ended with one. The difference with many of my friends is that I took the calls at home.
As the owner of a small business, I have been working primarily from home for more than 11 years, since I left my job as a technology correspondent at The Straits Times in 2008.
Techgoondu has a service office in Suntec City, which offers options for hot desking, but as I’ve always explained to friends, I concentrate better when I’m alone. Plus, the broadband is faster at home.
When I say I work from home, I actually mean I work not from an office. I also work at cafes, in hotel rooms when I travel and at my parents’ place when I have to attend to the kids in the day. Most importantly, I have more control over my time, while being just as productive.
I say that with many caveats, of course. First, you have to have discipline, something alien to me usually but which I had learnt much from a previous job built around deadlines and story counts.
You need to have clearly set goals for each day, week, month, quarter and year so you don’t lose your way.
Sure, you can take a break or even spend time at a Starbucks for a cuppa but you cannot lose sight of what you want to achieve, be it to complete an article or send over a business proposal.
Now, the coronavirus crisis is forcing many to work from home in recent weeks. Predictably, some are beginning to dread it, as seen in an article in The New York Times two days ago.
Despite surveys to the contrary, the writer goes on to say that working from home isn’t all it’s made out to be. It means being away from the social interactions in the office that often fuel creativity, he argues.
The problem with such an argument is that it compares working from home with the office as if the two are mutually exclusive. The best form of work style today is one that is flexible, where meetings take place both in person and in a virtual conference room.
It is one where you can meet at a cafe – perhaps even a bar, if you’re not signing a long contract – instead of being in a meeting room with a Powerpoint on a projector screen.
The office has long ceased to be the only place that one can do business. Nor is it always the most productive, either. Think of the times you’ve rushed into the office in the morning, only to go grab a coffee after clocking in.
The way people work has changed as well. Remember those open-plan offices that were all the rage just a few years ago? You know, the idea that without walls, people would be more open to interacting and new ideas would germinate?
Well, in a number of workplaces, people actually have less interaction or less meaningful interaction with such designs, according to the Harvard Business Review.
People decide if and when they want to interact, it says, adding that they choose the channels – face-to-face, videoconference, phone, social media, e-mail, messaging and others – based on what works best.
“Even in open spaces with colleagues in close proximity, people who want to eschew interactions have an amazing capacity to do so,” the report from 2019 explains.
“They avoid eye contact, discover an immediate need to use the bathroom or take a walk, or become so engrossed in their tasks that they are selectively deaf (perhaps with the help of headphones),” it adds.
The study may be about open-plan offices but the conclusion is pretty clear for just about any office – people, not the place, are most important in deciding how much interaction there is.
The many digital channels available today offer additional options. It means there are more opportunities – not less – to get in touch with your co-workers and collaborators. Choice is a good thing.
Ironically, not that long ago, the idea of working remotely would have been welcomed with open arms.
Before laptops were as powerful and light today, trudging to the office in a long commute from home was dreary enough, not to think about the long meetings with people you don’t really want to hang around with longer than you need to.
Today’s technologies, from smart devices to videoconferencing tools, offer an alternative. No, you don’t have to veer all the way to the other end – that is, working all alone without meeting anyone in person – but you can take advantage of the flexibility that wasn’t available before.
I think back about a supervisor in my old workplace who used to ask where everyone was at 8:30am in the morning, regardless of the late nights some reporters had the night before or were about to have later in the day.
How does being physically in an office make a worker more useful or productive? Unlike the old days, when people clocked in and clocked out on time, work cycles have changed.
Today, there isn’t a time when you truly get off work, because you’re just a call away. This flexibility should work both ways – workers should be allowed to manage their time as well.
Not everyone has the luxury of working from home, for sure. And it’s not always easy to work from home, it’s true.
For starters, you need a proper space to be focused. You’ll have to learn to separate work from family life – I seldom walk back into my study room in the evenings these days, except to return to work.
Working from home isn’t a perfect substitute to working in an office, certainly not when it is thrust on people during a crisis. Think beyond the current coronavirus situation, however, and it’s clear it is the way forward.
By offering more flexibility, it adds to the richness of a working life that is already changing with today’s rapid digitisation and gig economy.