By Rory Donnelly
Recently, the Harvard Business Review published an article around telecommuting in the modern age and asked the question "is working remotely sapping your creativity?" This piece got me thinking about working from home, and being an intern, I wondered if working remotely may be viewed by individuals at different stages in their careers in different ways.
I don't mind if you like to work from the top of a mountain. If I can reach you, I'm totally happy.
I'm fortunate enough to say I've interned in a large, open-minded organisation which actively promotes its acceptance of employees looking to work from home, for some or all of the working week. Initially I was hesitant of the idea, however on my first day I recall my manager saying "I don't mind if you like to work from the top of a mountain. If I can reach you, I'm totally happy." This offered me the rare opportunity to test telecommuting for myself at an early stage in my career, to see if remote working suited my personality and work style.
Working from home, likely a rarity for many interns or graduates as the average telecommuter is 49 years old, according to the New York Times, I thought I would share my perspective of the growing trend, and I feel my experience so far has been rather mixed.
VALUE PROPOSITION - THE OPPORTUNITY OF PRODUCTIVITY
For me, with a 1hr+ commute to and from the office each day; working from home brings a massive time saving. This allowed me to simply get more done with my day, and rather than sitting in traffic, I could squeeze in a morning gym session, run a quick household errand, or clear my inbox before most of my team are online. On a good day, I may even be so lucky to avoid that early alarm clock, catch an extra bit of sleep and enjoy my breakfast a bit more.
TUNNEL VISION & FOCUS
Every day I worked from home felt like indirectly hanging a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the back of my chair.
I found working from home to be particularly useful on days where I needed to get the head down and work on something without disturbance, from analysing reports to building communication decks to writing requirement docs. Any task where I was required to work independently, was almost always preferable to do from home. There would be no side conversations occurring across your desk, no taps on the back of your chair, and no instant messages about when to go for lunch or grab a coffee. As I saw it, every day I worked from home felt like indirectly hanging a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the back of my chair, even if Skype for Business was showing me as 'available'.
Telecommuting meant I was often able to get more done in the day than I would have in the office. It was great knowing that on days where needed, this option was always available to me, and I was always thankful for that.
SOMETIMES, IT JUST MADE SENSE!
On days where you'd find yourself in a conference call or virtual meetings straight through til the evening, I would see little reason for driving into the office, only to spend the day at my desk talking to colleagues on the other side of the planet, but not speak to the people beside me. I quickly saw from my peers and senior colleagues that their meeting schedule was often the deciding factor if they were to work from home the next day. If you knew one day during the week you were going to be predominantly on the phone, your peers would share with their teammates and stakeholders, informing them of their plan to work from home, in case they were needed. This was not always the case with some colleagues, where you could find yourself knocking on an office door before hearing on IM they were working remotely that day, but most would courteously inform you of their plans in advance of working from working from home.
In multinationals where you can be connecting with colleagues in offices anywhere from Puerto Rico to Singapore on a daily basis, I can see why more and more companies are adopting these flexible working values. For the sake of sheer pragmatism, aided massively by the developments of modern communications technology, telecommuting is cementing itself as the future of work as we know it.
THE OPPORTUNITY COST?
I didn't instinctively like the idea of working from home. As a fresh face, I wanted to make the most of my professional exposure before returning to the college-world again to finish my studies. I was new in the team, new in the company, and I wanted to connect with others and build relationships with as many people as I could in the time possible. For this, I was happy to sacrifice the monotony of rush-hour traffic.
PREFERENCE FOR THE IN-PERSON
In my role as a project management intern, I was involved in a number of war rooms and brainstorming workshops throughout my internship. In a number of cases, these were instances where a team was coming together for the first time, only just beginning to put names to faces. Working with colleagues you have developed a face-to-face connection with is considerably easier than those you have only ever connected with virtually.
I would argue you have better takeaways following a meeting in person versus over the phone. I have found on a number of occasions when you come off a call you still don't quite know what the past 30 minutes of conversation was for, but when you walk out a room with someone, you tend to have a better understanding of the goals and key deliverables. The HBR article describes office workplaces as "hives of activity and creativity" where ideas can spontaneously connect and recombine in new and innovative ways. We are all familiar with the buzz of that "eureka" solution moment, where you know you've landed a project in the right direction, and your excitement is shared with everyone else in the room. Those conversations, regardless of the brilliant ideas in discussion, can never be as electric when done over a Skype call.
YOUNG-BLOODS & CAREER KICK-STARTERS
I imagine different generations and groups will have varying opinions of working remotely, and I appreciate a lot of the decision making on working remotely will often come down to individual tastes and preferences, however I would argue that graduates and early career starters should be more conscious of telecommuting too frequently.
Mentorship & learning
Whenever uncertain of a task I was responsible for, I would often look to my direct peers for their advice and perspective. If you're in the office, you can simply swivel in your chair and quiz one of your colleagues (assuming they're available). Next, you pull your laptop over to their desk, run them through the item you're working on, and hear out what they think. Worst case scenario is they are too busy at the time but you agree to catch up a little later that week. Throughout the year, I've had the great fortune to develop genuine mentorship relationships with a number of colleagues, from whom I've been able to learn a lot, and all these relationships were built on face-to-face connections, something I'm confident would not have occurred had either of us worked predominantly from home.
Outside of the office, when you're not surrounded by your teammates or even your manager, this proves to be more difficult. Internship and graduate programs are focused heavily on developing your skills and investing time into fresh new employees, through mentorship circles, skills-based or career training seminars, and social events. All of these interactions help drive new employees to better understand the company culture and appreciate the values of the organisation, aligning them organically with the company's goals and direction. When these types of interactions are delivered more frequently through remote mediums, I would argue this could be somewhat limiting to the new employees development, and potentially prolong the on-boarding process.
Building your network in the early stages
From what I've seen in my year working in project management, a lot of being productive means knowing the right people when you have a question or issue to address. For fresh employees and graduates, you're only in the beginning of getting to know the go-to people around the office. Your network is limited, initially confined to immediate colleagues and teammates, so you'll often rely on others for referral of who to reach out to when you need something.
Building your network within the organisation is key to getting to getting things done, and you never know who you may run into in the corridor, or wait in-line beside at the coffee dock. One thing is certain, you won't get stuck in an elevator with Satya Nadella or Larry Ellison sitting at your kitchen table, but you might from being present and active within the workplace environment. Is it worth limiting that off-the-cuff opportunity? Leveraging your network as you progress in your career will play an integral part in both getting things done, but also in your career advancement, so for me, I would air on the side of caution in the early days of a career in limiting those network-expanding opportunities.
As mentioned in the beginning, I appreciate individuals at different stages in their careers may have very different views on the idea of telecommuting. Where a young intern/graduate like myself may be looking to get to know as many people around the office as possible, a senior executive with 10+ years in the organisation would comfortably have built up rapport and a strong relationship with many of their colleagues over their tenure. Opposing circumstances equally may have an impact on the preference of an employee to working remotely, such as creating the opportunity to look after children or economising on transport. Different people, naturally, have different circumstances, different needs, and therefore different behaviours.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
If you're reading this article, I'd love to hear about your organisations views on telecommuting and how your circumstances influence your decision for or against working remotely. How has your view on telecommuting changed over time, or how do you feel different circumstances may impact your working habits and work-life balance? Let us know!