Home work

Want to work more efficiently with more freedom? Why not do it from home.

By Christina Larmer

Want to work more efficiently with more freedom? Why not do it from home.

This morning, I did an interview for work in my pyjamas. Speaking over the phone with coffee cup in hand, I was able to knock it on the head in 10 minutes flat while the first load of washing made its way through the cycle, and my four-year-old watched Play School in the room beyond. No agonising over what to wear, dashing between daycare and the office, and contemplating the large load of housework that awaits most working parents when they get home.

Working from home is ideal for freelance journalists and working mums, like myself, but we’re not the only ones. Today anybody who has the right job, temperament and set-up can work from home and do it successfully.

With commuting time at a record high, and the work-life balance such a struggle, home working (otherwise known as "telecommuting", "teleworking" or "open-collar working") is an easy, efficient and highly productive way to work, and it’s catching on fast. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, home working is on the increase and today about a quarter of all employed Australians do at least some of their work at home. Of those who mainly work at home (about eight per cent of all employed people), the majority are women, 35 years and over, and have children under the age of 15.

It’s this demographic that particularly appeals to SalesForce, one of Australasia’s largest providers of outsourced call centres, which employ more than 300 home contractors, many of them single mums. It also hires seachangers, the disabled, people with secondary incomes, and those living in rural Australia. It’s about flexibility and valuing performance over presence.

We can work it out

"There’s this myth that Australia has very low unemployment, but that’s in the major cities," says Jacob Murray-White, director of [email protected] "We meet people who are incredibly talented, but move away from the big cities for lifestyle reasons and are isolated from employment opportunities, so we reach out to them and it’s win/win.

"We access a whole new workforce and they avoid some of the more dreary aspects of the average call centre environment. They’re in their own office so they feel in complete control, they’re really focused, and if they feel like taking Friday off, they don’t accept work."

 It wouldn’t be possible, of course, without modern technology. "Just a few short years ago, the only people able to enjoy the benefits of working from home were either self-employed or doing menial contract work – your basic envelope stuffing," write Diana Fitzpatrick and Stephen Fishman in Work From Home Handbook: Flex Your Time, Improve Your Life (USA Today/Nolo). "Today, high-speed internet access, wireless laptops and BlackBerrys for remote email have made it possible for many people to work anytime and anywhere – whether from a home office in Bangor, Maine, or an airport in Bangkok, Thailand."

Or, in Tara Lister’s case, a corner of her dining room in Gunbower, a small Victorian town of just 283 people. "Here you either milk cows or you work in a cheese factory," Lister says. She chose, instead, to work from home for [email protected] As a single mother with 10 years’ call centre experience in Melbourne up her sleeve, she is able to spend more time with her two-year-old and put her skills to good use.

"I love the flexibility and the fact that I can choose my own hours," she says. "Having lived in the city before, I don’t miss travelling, the price of petrol and the parking fines. There’s no uniform and no boss in your face, and I get the freedom to take my son to playgroup and swimming lessons – why wouldn’t you want to work from home?"

Right for you?
Of course it’s not right for everyone, or for every occupation. Some of us need certain people and equipment around us to perform our jobs, others thrive on regular social interaction or just enjoy getting out of the house. "I come across people who really value it because it suits their style of working," says organisational psychologist Dr Peter Cotton. "They get the work done effectively and manage their personal situation better at the same time. On the other hand I was talking to a senior manager who said he couldn’t work at home; it would drive him insane because he needs the structure and to be around people, that’s how he functions."

If it does suit you, the rewards are endless. For starters, commuting to work takes all of 20 seconds. No cramming onto public transport or chewing your nails in traffic. According to Fitzpatrick and Fishman, your average office commute is almost half an hour door-to-door. Over a year that adds up to 240 hours on the road, or the equivalent of six 40-hour working weeks. Imagine what you can do with all that extra time. Then, of course, there are all the cost savings, from takeaway lunches and lattes to transport and fuel. New data from the NRMA reveals that the weekly cost of commuting for many Sydney families is around $520, almost half of the average weekly wage.

Working from home is also great for the environment, your health (less commuter stress and zero chance of catching a co-worker’s cold) and work/life balance because you have greater freedom to tend to family matters, medical appointments or simply shop for groceries when no-one’s about. Best of all, you can actually get a lot more done.

Better workers

More than two-thirds of all US companies offer telework options and they’re not just being nice. Many companies, such as Boeing and IBM, report increases in productivity of around 20 per cent, say Fitzpatrick and Fishman. "At AT&T – a company at the forefront of the telework movement – managers who telework have consistently reported gaining one hour of productive work for every day they work from home."

With my youngest at childcare three days a week, I have learned to put my head down and work solidly on those days, producing the same amount of work I once did in five. That’s fairly typical, says Dr Cotton. "It really suits a lot of people because they do focus much more, and at home you get much more continuity, whereas in some offices, people can be bothering you all the time with phone calls, impromptu meetings and so on."

If you don’t want to be disturbed at home, you can lock the front door, take the phone off the hook and get on with it. And if you’re worried about distractions like Oprah and housework, remember, you’re only as distracted as you choose to be. "No-one forces you to turn the TV on," Dr Cotton says.

Does your boss need convincing?

Working from home is not just for the self-employed. Most companies can benefit from having their staff work from home, at least part-time. Here’s how to win your boss over …

        * They’ll save on office space and other expenses.
        * It’s a great recruiting and retaining tool.
        * It’s great for disabled staff, those on maternity leave and parents.
        * It’s great for carbon credits.
        * It makes staff happier and more efficient.
        * There’s better workplace health and less absenteeism.
How to do it successfully

1. Separate work from home
        "Have a dedicated work space so you have those demarcations in place and are not working on the kitchen table," says Dr Cotton. You may choose to convert the loft, spare bedroom or garage, or cordon off part of a room. You need a separate phone line and computer, and a door to contain your work and keep family out. Also consider whether you need a separate entrance or meeting facilities, and look into your tax and insurance options.

        2. Rules and rituals
        Get a routine in place so you don’t work too few – or too many – hours at home. "Some people end up feeling obliged to cram more in than they would otherwise, eating into family time," Dr Cotton says. "Set yourself specific goals so that at the end of a certain time you review things and move on. Having that discipline of structure can help it be more effective." A separate phone line and door will also help you switch off when you want to.

        3. Getting in the mood
        One woman who writes from home always puts lipstick on before she sits down to work. For Tara Lister, it’s about taking some time out before she launches into her working day. "I allow myself half an hour before I log back on," she says. "I sit down and catch up on my emails and get myself back into work mode so I’m ready to take a call."

4. Keeping others away
        "Operating from home makes you more vulnerable to interruptions from family, neighbours, friends and relatives. Older generations, in particular, often fail to understand that you are working and not on holiday," write Peter Hingston and Alastair Balfour in Working From Home In Australia (Dorling Kindersley). "Instead of pretending to be out when they call, it might be a better strategy to appear in your smart working clothes and let them know politely that you are working. They will eventually learn not to interrupt you." Lister found good signage helped: "I put a sign on my door saying, ‘Working from Home, Please Do Not Disturb’." Alternatively, you could always enlist their help with things like paperwork and research, and you’ll soon find the distractions stop.

        5. Getting out
        Avoid cabin fever by scheduling in regular time out: take a daily walk, finish a project on your laptop at the local cafe or join a support group. And don’t forget, you need holidays, too, so schedule them in and be sure to keep your home office strictly out of bounds.

The Sunday Telegraph

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