www.graphicdesigndegreehub.com has just published a very useful infographic detailing the pros and cons of being a freelancer in America. You can view the infographic at the bottom of this page. My post focuses on a slightly parallel topic: the ins and outs of working from home, full time.
A couple of my colleagues working in regular desk jobs at offices have often expressed envy at my work-from-home status. It has been close to three years since I got saddled with the “remote worker” tag and they always imagine it to be a flexible haven of work-life balance. After all, what’s there to balance when you are already at home! You send the husband to work, switch on the air conditioner and sink into your favorite Eames chair, courtesy the very same husband who gifted it to you on your birthday! What’s not to like about this cozy scenario?
Well, the decision to quit my full-time job at a market research company and a publishing house following that was not an easy one. While I don’t consider myself a social butterfly, the idea of not having colleagues to interact with or having access to your boss was something that was new to my understanding of how organizations functioned. But in a job market where roles have evolved to encompass all manner of digital communications and social media roles, working from home, or remotely, emerged as the most preferred choice for employers across the world.
I eventually took up assignments as a consultant for three dynamically different companies: a technology magazine, a think tank and an international non-profit, with whom I continue to work with. It has been a learning experience for me, both in terms of the job profile as well as in understanding the characteristics and traits that define me as a professional.
Below, I list some of the challenges I face as a work from home professional. These could be applied to any remote work profile, but also specifically to a consultant who works in the digital communications domain.
1. Time: It really is as simple and as stressful as you take it to be.
Working from home means you set your own 8-hour schedule and decide when to begin, when to take breaks and how many at that. If you are one half of a couple or a parent, you get to prioritize depending upon when your partner or kids get back home.
If I take a 15-minute lunch break, I utilize the other 15 minutes to make a phone call to my family, or browse a couple of YouTube videos and just take it easy. And while I do tend to put in more than 8 hours of work on an average of 4 days in the week, I compensate by re-shuffling my goals for the succeeding days. So, if there’s overtime on a Monday and Tuesday, you balance by taking on a lighter load on Wednesday.
Working from home has a major benefit for those who have to commute for more than 30 minutes to 1 hour to-and-fro work. You avoid the crowd, traffic, pollution, and your stress levels are naturally not that high when you don’t have to deal with aggressive driving everyday.
Bottomline: You get to stretch or truncate your timeline depending on how well you manage the 8 hours you are supposed to be available.
2. Chores: let’s be honest here, when you work from home, chores are an essential freebie
Every two hours, I take a break from the desk and laptop and get small chores done through the house. This could be doing the laundry and folding the clothes, cutting up the veggies for dinner, paying the bills online, or heading down to the grocery shop 2 minutes from my apartment block. But this is strictly time-bound and I ensure I am back in my favorite executive chair (a la Eames) within 20-30 minutes. Why? Because if you take a longer-than-expected break from work, you will end up stretching late into the night, hurrying through several assignments and doing a hack job of a task that could have been completed without any glitches.
Working from home allows me to plan my day’s activities along with ensuring that I put in the mandatory 8 – 8.30 hours of online work. In a positive move, I also get to focus on my health, by exercising at home and cooking meals that are healthy.
Bottomline: I have experienced the downside of not keeping track of my breaks because I spent too much time handling the chores. Family also expects that you handle the chores because you work from home. You have to be assertive about your work boundaries and not let home-life affect the rhythms of your professional time.
3. Interaction, engagement and discussions: Less noise is good, but no noise is criminal
When you work in an office populated with colleagues, consultants, freelancers, and the admin staff, there is so much more than “work” that you engage with. Daily interactions with people from different backgrounds and experiences helps broaden your own perceptions. You learn about how to not just work, but maintain relations with people who have vastly different temperaments, attitudes and mannerisms. It’s the same reason children are expected to attend school and college: we are social creatures who thrive when we engage with other people!
At work, you are also obliged to make presentations, collaborate with team members, attend social events, deal with tight deadlines, or supervise junior colleagues if you are in a senior position. There’s a lot going on, especially if you work for a large company or government organization. All this only adds to your knowledge and skill sets. You never know when you will be called upon to display these learnings at a later job.
Working from home means I miss out on all these crucial interactions. I am isolated most of the day and only interact with colleagues through Skype and email. I do miss having colleagues to share my day with or hear them speak about difficult clients, impossible project deliverables or an exciting new venture that the entire floor is gearing up for. These day-to-day routine conversations are part and parcel of a professional’s working life and I am out of that loop now.
But I would say there’s an upside to working by yourself. With no one around to chit-chat with, I am never distracted or feel like I have to provide a listening ear to the idle chatter of office mates. I can focus on my tasks, put down any queries and doubts on email, and simply switch-off from work at the designated time. I am also, more often than not, blissfully unaware of office gossip and politics, back biting and full-on display of subtle innuendos, sarcasm and aggressiveness.
Bottomline: Interactions at work are healthy and they foster a sense of team spirit and act as a buffer when you are going through a tough day at work. I would advice that in the absence of this, you take an effort to develop strong personal support system. Keep in touch with friends and family members; you will really need a patient listening ear when you want to crib about work!
4. Social Network = Social Networth
At work, it’s not just about interacting with colleagues or brainstorming with your boss before a really big sales pitch. All those external clients you meet, the customers you build relations with even over the email, and the support staff who become an integral part of your office life — all of them are part of your social network.
Your social networth is directly proportional to your social networking quotient. If you are not taking an effort to maintain professional ties, you will not be able to generate new leads, acquire new projects or clients, or build a steady reputation as someone who is influential in her circles. This is the same as expecting a two-year old LinkedIn connection, whom you have never stayed in touch with over email or messaging, to suddenly provide you with an introduction to someone in their circles. It’s just not done like that and neither should you expect building your social networth to be so easy!
Working from home on a long-term basis means that I have had to rely on my digital ties and associations to build my social network. While I wouldn’t strictly classify my social networth in terms of the number of followers on my social media channels, I can confidently sat that I can count on my professional network to come through when I need them the most.
Bottomline: As a social media or digital communications manager, we learn how to maintain professional and social ties across the web. So, it shouldn’t matter whether you are in the physical space of an office or at home, in front of your multiple screens, maintaining relationships is a time-intensive and worthy effort. If you want to build your reputation in the digital communications domain, you will have to apply the same manners and courtesy that you would extend to your “real life” colleagues.
5. Professional Growth: Attend Events, Initiate Meet-Ups
It goes without saying that when you are a full-time employee, you get regular benefits like healthcare, dental, life insurance, provisions for your children’s education (depending on the country you are from), and other long-term and short-term perks. As a work from home consultant, I miss out on every single of these benefits and have to put in my own resources and monies to secure my future.
Besides the monetary and security aspect, working from home also implies that I don’t get first priority when the bosses consider signing up someone from the company to attend workshops, conferences and represent the company at international / regional events. Consider the volcanic nature of social media platforms, Web 2.0 and digital / ICT technologies. New platforms are introduced every quarter and you learn about newer apps that help you deal with information management, community management and engagement management. How do you keep up? Apart from a whole lot of intensive reading, as I mentioned in my last post, you also have to be at the spot where such innovations are unveiled.
Training sessions online help to a certain extent. I attend several webinars in a given months, mostly to do with web and mobile marketing and also to do with content management, inspiration, digital communications and social media ROI. These sessions, however, lack the punch (impact, really) of a live event. The sheer number of people available in a conference room, eager to listen and talk and engage with you more closely about the social media industry, is an experience that simply cannot be replicated online. At least, not yet.
When I consider my work profile and the expectations from my organization that I will do a good job, what is left unspoken is that I will update myself on my own initiative without putting additional financial strain on the company’s resources. If I don’t get to participate in workshops or live events, I do miss out on the deployment and intricacies of next generation technologies.
Bottomline: Professional growth doesn’t happen overnight and neither does it take place in a vacuum. You don’t have to attend 20 conferences through the year in order to gain insights on your field. How about you earmark only 2 major industry events and now you have two choices: save up for it, register and attend at your own expense. What you gain from it will not only be invaluable in terms of the networking and ideas, it will also transform you into a more self-reliant professional. Or second, convince your boss to make a budgetary allowance for two conferences or four webinars in a year, depending on what is most useful to you. Keep your eye on the target and work slowly but steadily to attain professional growth.
6. Temperament: Saved the best for last; do you have it in you to be your own boss?
Working from home is not only about having ICTs at home, so you can get on with your digital communications job! It’s actually about your temperament. Can you work in a setup that requires you to be self-sufficient, self-motivating, being pro-active in finding solutions to recurring problems, and taking the initiative to deliver more than you promised? In short, are you capable of being your own boss?
When I began my work-from-home stint, the first month was really relaxed and enjoyable. I experienced a sense of freedom that I have never been able to experience in a traditional office environment. I would compare it to the first month of college: you realize you are independent, you think you are free to behave as you like and you set your own expectations of how the next couple of months are going to be. Well, it took me a good six months to realign my personal “discovery” with the expectations of a remote worker.
From a temperament point of view, I have certain attributes that make me a perfect “work-from-homer” candidate. I am very particular about project scheduling and delivery, I am meticulous with details, and I can work long hours without feeling stressed out or bored. I love my work and never feel it’s monotonous. I also don’t require an external source of motivation: I am my own best champion and always cheer myself back to work following a minor slump. Most importantly, for me, I work best when I am given my space, with sporadic interventions from supervisor. So, working from home actually allows me to be in my element.
Bottomline: The cons include not having a well-charted out professional development plan, lack of inspiring face-to-face conversations with mentors, and always having to rely on yourself for everything: solving technical glitches, power cuts, internet not working, it could be anything but you are on your own. That can be frustrating.
At the end of the day, I feel no working arrangements need be permanent. The job market is more flexible than we give it credit for. In a down market economy, batten down the hatches and wait for your turn. When the market opens up, give yourself a good shake and step out!
If you are a work-from-home professional, please share your experiences in adjusting to the new way of working. If you are someone considering this shift, drop in a line! Thank you for reading.