Photo of a desk with a laptop and mug on it

Four challenges of working from home, and how to overcome them

So, you’re a home-worker

When I began working at Eco Web Hosting in February 2015, my now Udemy-famous boss Rob offered the job as a work-from-home position, (with the condition that I relocate). Five days later, I found myself sat on an East Coast Main Line train on a pile of my bags, with my bike propped against my thigh as I swapped Nottingham for Cambridge.

Working remotely has plenty of perks. A Stanford University 2003 study by Nicholas Bloom and others found homeworkers were more productive than office workers (good for business), and their job satisfaction higher (good for employees). For Rob, too, he could spend more time with his family. For me, I could go and visit family and friends during the week, so long as they had a quiet space and an internet connection.

Remote work, however, is not without its challenges. The long-term benefits of home-working have been supported by studies such as Nicholas Bloom’s, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience (and some online research, which doesn’t allow me to plagiarise Baz Luhrmann’s turn of Mary Schmich’s phrase so readily).

I will dispense this advice now.

Know yourself: Are you an integrator or a segmentor?

Home-workers add work into an environment that is otherwise reserved for relaxing, resting and socialising. When I first started home-working, I would wake up late, knowing that there was some flexibility for me to make the time up later, and then work doubly as late into the evening to compensate.

Suffice to say this was not healthy, and my working days ended up spanning from 10:00 am – 11:00 pm, and sometimes beyond. I was exhausted, depressed, and after some time, unproductive.

I had bought into an idea that work and leisure would mingle effortlessly with one another purely by virtue of working at home, only to discover that I had allowed work to completely take over. The idea I had bought into is one that works for many, the integrators. I however am a segmentor.

Integrators like to manage the demands of work and home life by blending them together. They may need to do the shopping first, then write a marketing e-mail. They’ll make dinner, then write a bug-fix and answer some e-mails.

Segmentors on the other hand would rather compartmentalise work and leisure into distinct parts of the day. For them, leisure or other responsibilities during work time is disruptive, and work during leisure time is stressful and draining.

As my first year at Eco Web Hosting went on (also helped by the addition of new staff to ease the workload), I was able to develop better self-discipline during the day, and be more frank with Rob and the team about expectations outside of working hours.

The result? I became less-stressed out, and more productive. It’s not necessarily a silver-bullet, but knowing what to expect from your day lets you concentrate on making the best of it.

Lesson #1: Understand your working preferences and talk with your team to agree on boundaries.

Accommodate yourself: Find flow

Flow is that illusive state where you lose focus on everything but what you’re doing. Whether it’s running a marathon, watching a film or writing a WordPress theme, you’re completely immersed in it. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a fantastic TED talk in which he claims it is the secret to happiness. If nothing else, it feels like the key to fulfilling work.

When I first moved to Cambridge, I lived in a house share where a slightly eccentric landlady would appear at random hours with old sofas, bike wheels, a man who lived in the shed for two weeks, and on one occasion, four chickens, to live in the back garden.

My workspace was at a desk in my room at the front of the house. One morning, I was sat at my laptop, engrossed in writing a CRM to help us offer support, when I saw one of the chickens, freely clucking around the driveway. An escapee!

I spent 20 minutes chasing it around the front of the house (I am from suburban Wolverhampton, and have never had to chase a chicken before), as the Benny Hill theme in my mind’s ear soundtracked events.

Though I lost 20 minutes chasing the chicken, it took me a further 40 before I was as engrossed in my work as I was before. It was on this day, I decided my house was not a good working environment.

There is a romanticised image of the home-worker perpetrated cruelly by stock photo vendors, which is that they get to spend the day working in hip coffee shops on their MacBooks. After the chicken incident, I tried this. It turns out though, that coffee shops (especially in Cambridge) are expensive, have rubbish Wi-Fi, and are filled with noisy people.

Interruptions are costly. The 40 minutes I lost after completing the poultry pursuit and the frequent Wi-Fi outages of Nero, Costa and company resulted in me losing flow.

I later moved into a house with the same housemates, now friends, and no chickens. I also found a co-working space with coffee and other home-workers, eager to be social, but also to pursue flow. The co-working space has sadly now closed, but I now work from a dedicated spot at home, my housemate’s office, or my girlfriend’s house, and I haven’t looked back.

Lesson #2: Work somewhere you can find flow.

Organise yourself: Give ideas form

Working from home requires self-organisation. No one wants to be harangued by a busybody supervisor peering over your shoulder to check up on you, and at home, no such busybody supervisor exists (hopefully).

This places you in a position of trust. Most people I know want to do their best work off their own back, but the best of intentions can be derailed by poor planning.

By 2017, after a few more hires, and having learnt PHP, my role had become a developer role. My own organisational challenges at Eco Web Hosting generally came in the form of interruptions to my intended focus.

I would talk about a project, not note it anywhere but a skeletal to-do list on my laptop, and set out in earnest to complete it. My relative inexperience at that time meant that I would run into unexpected obstacles, and those would lead me down proverbial rabbit holes of PHP quirks, plus of course, as a junior developer, there would always be bugs to squash.

By the time I had got past an obstacle, I would find I’d lost sight of the initial idea, and my skeletal plan had morphed into something same, same, but different.

Poor planning can result in two things:

  1. Context switching (changing between different tasks)
  2. Scope creep (your task mutating into more than originally planned)

Context switching is costly. It takes time to find the illusive state of flow. Context switching interrupts that, eating up the time it takes to regain that flow again from your day. It’s also really annoying, feeling something akin to someone knocking down a house of cards you’ve built as you proudly place the last Jack of Clubs at the top.

Scope creep can occur when a project’s details are not planned clearly from the start, or if it is, but that plan is ignored. This can be a little more insidious and difficult to detect if there is no clear plan to start with.

Both context switching and scope creep are nightmares of anyone tasked with managing their own time effectively. Here’s how to mitigate it.

On a basic level, it can be as simple as making sure you have a workspace that it clear and ready for you at the start of each day (as per finding flow).

When dealing with ideas, which don’t have intrinsic form, giving them a (virtual) physical form is a good place to begin.

The most effective way I’ve found to deal with my organisational challenges is to type out plans, what they involve, and set target dates for each step using Trello (project management software with a generous free tier).

Other project management software, such as Asana, is of course available, or if you’re old school, good old pen and paper. I opt for Trello because it’s less wasteful on paper, and keeps the team up-to-date with what I’m up to as I go.

The important thing is to make things you implicitly think about a project explicit, because the human mind tends to subtly change things if left to its own devices.

Lesson #3: Use tools like Trello to organise your ideas, plans and projects.

It doesn’t have to be just yourself: Make time to talk

It’s now 2019, and having acquired a Tak, a Mike, a Chris, a Leon and a Ben, there are seven of us at Eco Web Hosting.

With all of us working remotely, as we developed more distinct roles, we’ve needed to find ways to coordinate ourselves.

We began chatting on Google Hangouts every day, and would have periodic face-to-face meet-ups. We later moved to the soon-to-be-defunct HipChat, and more recently, to the surprisingly versatile Discord (great for video calls, though their 2,000 character message limit is a pain).

From a practical perspective, having a means of constant communication was particularly convenient, as quick questions could unobtrusively be answered.

Face-to-face meetups allowed us to better and more effectively able to communicate bigger ideas about our respective budding sections of the company, and where we wanted it to go. Also, happily, I rather like my workmates, so it was good to hang out.

From a morale perspective, though, it feels good to have contact with other people during the day. Working remotely can be a lonely experience. Feeling isolated is no way to live, or to work, but Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2018 report found that isolation was the joint-biggest struggle in working remotely.

With loneliness being a behind a myriad of health problems, from depression to an increased predisposition to heart disease, maintaining quality interactions should be high on the list of priorities of remote workers and companies alike.

We now touch base every morning with a standup call. The call is a 30-minute catch-up where each of us has a turn to talk about what we did the previous day, what we’re up to the day ahead, and share our wit and wisdom with one another.

No one enjoys sprawling meetings that lack focus, so our standup is brief. This alone isn’t the same as spending the day in company, so I try to make sure I work around my girlfriend, friends or family at least a few days a week.

Mediated chat still misses the nuances of in-person interaction, so of course, we at Eco Web Hosting do occasionally find time for to get together in person too.

The EWH (and Code Stars) team
Ed (from our sister company Code Stars), Leon, Chris, Mike, Ben, Tak & Andy

Co-working spaces are on the rise and rise, so do some research into your area to see what’s available.

Lesson #4: Quality human interaction is absolutely essential to live and work well.

Take-home lessons

The freedom that comes with working from home removes some of the restrictions of office-based work, freeing you to structure your day in a way that works for you. For me, that meant some trial and error to figure out what exactly that required.

There is a balance to each aspect.

Being able to work any time shouldn’t mean working all the time. Being able to work anywhere, doesn’t necessarily mean you should work anywhere. Freedom from micromanagement comes with a need to self-manage effectively. Finally, working remotely can be a little… well… remote, unless you add meaningful interactions into your day.

These are just my experiences. Working from home is as popular as it’s ever been, and is ever-more possible thanks to faster, more widespread broadband and 4G coverage.

Are you a remote worker? What are your experiences?

Further reading

Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J. and Ying, Z. (2014). Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment *. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, [online] 130(1), pp.165-218. Available at: https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/does-working-home-work-evidence-chinese-experiment [Accessed 30 Jan. 2019].

Campaign to End Loneliness. (2019). The facts on loneliness – Campaign to End Loneliness. [online] Available at: https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/the-facts-on-loneliness/ [Accessed 30 Jan. 2019].

Griffis, H (2018), State of Remote Work 2018 Report: What It’s Like to be a Remote Worker in 2018 [online] Buffer. Available at: https://open.buffer.com/state-remote-work-2018/ [Accessed 30 Jan. 2019].

Grippo, A. (2017), Should You Set Clear Work-Home Boundaries? [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-wide-wide-world-psychology/201705/should-you-set-clear-work-home-boundaries [Accessed 30 Jan. 2019].

Park, Y., Fritz, C. and Jex, S. (2011). Relationships between work-home segmentation and psychological detachment from work: The role of communication technology use at home. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, [online] 16(4), pp.457-467. Available at: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0023594 [Accessed 30 Jan. 2019].

Pozin, I. (2015), There’s No Such Thing as Multitasking [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ilyapozin/2015/01/07/theres-no-such-thing-as-multitasking/#59f2b96b2225 [Accessed 30 Jan. 2019].