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Balancing work and the rest of life

The role of flexible working

It’s been said that there are not many people who will say on their deathbed:
“I wish I had spent more time at the office”

Yet here we are in a world where UK workers work the longest hours in Europe, and many managers and professionals claim to be working more than 60 hours per week. No doubt there are some people who get a real buzz from doing this – Bill Gates in his autobiography says we’ve all been through a phase of bringing a sleeping bag into the office and snatching sleep under the desks because we’re so captivated by the work.

Is that you? More likely, if you’re sleeping at work it’s because your work-life balance is out of kilter, and you’re trying to fit 25 hours or more into every day. It could be time to work more flexibly, and take more control on all fronts.

Organising our lives around a physical workplace and the 9-5 is no way to be carrying on in the 21st century. Changes in the nature of work and new remote work technologies mean that much of our work can be done anywhere. So why not do it somewhere more congenial?

Homeworking has become mainstream again

Now in the UK, around 3.5 million people are working full-time or part-time from home. Some 56% of self-employed people work from home. According to the Federation of Small Businesses annual survey, 40% of small businesses are home based.

Around 2.5 million people are home-based “teleworkers” – people who work from home using a computer and/or telephone. Though they don't call themselves that, usually. 

The number of teleworkers has been growing at around 13% per year since 1997. Just under a million of these are self-employed. The rest are the fast growing group of employees who are being allowed to go home to work more efficiently – mostly managers and professionals, as it happens.

Of course, not everyone’s doing it to improve their work-life balance. There are economic advantages in reducing property costs, and well documented productivity advantages.

There are also savings from cutting out the commute. In the UK, the average commuter spends more than 4 hours per week behind the wheel going to and from work – equivalent to more than an extra 10% of the working week. Many of those commuting into London and other larger cities are doing 3 to 4 hours per day.

One day per week working from home will eliminate 20% of your commuting, 2 days 40%, and so on. For highly mobile staff, working out of home can also eliminate those wasteful trips to and from the office throughout the day, including the commute trip. Using new technologies, work comes to the worker, not the worker to the work.

When someone works from home, household activity patterns subtly change. Kids who are normally thrown into the car by one parent find they are walked to school by the other – and still everyone arrives at work on time. Learning a language at an evening class or becoming a school governor becomes a possibility, because you are not always dashing from one place to another and are back in control.

Gadgets and gizmos – do you need them?

So what technologies are today’s flexible workers using? Laptops and mobile phones, of course, but also the newer generation of devices such as, tablet PCs, handheld digital assistants, including the current flavour-of-the-month: Blackberries.

The trend is for converged devices that you can both work on and communicate with.
Providing you’ve got a genuine business use for these, and it’s not just inspired by a mania for the latest gadget, they can make a real difference to personal productivity and also to your ability to manage both work life and home life.

What is best for you depends on the nature of your work. But none of them will do you much good if you do not have the ability to connect into your office systems, use key applications remotely and to synchronise your personal device with the office.
And it can turn into the most stressful kind of disaster if you are not backing up all your work and paying attention to security. That is IT security and physical security – thieves like all this kit! So worth thinking through the risks and who is responsible for the insurance.

Telephony is also undergoing a quiet revolution. Broadband – now a must for any remote worker – is enabling the development of “voice over IP”. That is, using the Internet to make telephone calls. Quality is now pretty good, and the market is getting seriously competitive. This not only has cost advantages, but it means it is much easier to integrate a home phone with the office systems. Now you can seamlessly transfer calls back and forwards, and your home office is fully integrated.

Hard on the heels of this is desktop videoconferencing. Costs are now plummeting and the new office and desktop systems are bringing it within the reach of home-based workers. Integrate it with other audio and web conferencing applications, and travelling for routine meetings becomes a thing of the past as you collaborate online in real time.

Always in touch….

There’s a down side to this. People often imagine that the danger is isolation. Managers used to retreat to the home to get things done and avoid the interruptions at the office. But now with seamless communications the interruptions follow them wherever they are, as the workplace bursts out of its physical boundaries.

And it bursts the temporal boundaries too – every evening wives and husbands are ignoring each other and their families to attend to those urgent emails and reports. In a strange way Bill Gates was right – only now the office is coming home to sleep with us, not the other way round.

One of the US pioneers of telecommuting, Gil Gordon, has written a book called “Turn it off!” That’s the key to achieving work-life balance: Go home, tune in, then don't forget to turn off.

January 2011





"When someone works from home, household activity patterns subtly change. Kids who are normally thrown into the car by one parent find they are walked to school by the other – and still everyone arrives at work on time"




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