Working from home may seem like a dream solution for many people and many employers are latching onto the benefits of allowing their employees to operate remotely, at least for some their working time.

The idea of rolling out of bed and into the office without the need to sit in a hot car or sweaty tube; the freedom to come and go from your desk as you please and the prospect of a better work/life balance are all possible benefits to be gained by working from home. However there are pitfalls and negatives as well, so it’s worth weighing up the options.

Evidence has shown that working from home can improve employee retention, particularly those employees who are parents with childcare responsibilities or other carers. It can also improve staff motivation, reduce stress and sickness levels and can save costs for the employer in terms of office space and provision of other on site facilities.

However, the potential drawbacks are clear. It can be far more difficult to monitor and manage staff when they aren’t physically based under one roof.  IT problems can increase and there is a greater risk in relation to the sharing and protecting of data when operating through remote systems.  It can be more difficult to engender team spirit and keep staff updated on training and internal developments. And meeting health and safety standards can be trickier when dealing with staff in many different locations.

Whilst there are clearly some jobs where home working isn’t ever going to be an option, sometimes splitting an employee’s time between the home and office can be a good solution with the employee coming in for some of his or her working week or at least attending key meetings on site.
If home working is the route that you are taking, how can you keep yourself motivated and ensure you stay productive whilst enjoying the benefits of working from your own four walls?

Essentially self-discipline is the key to effective home working. Remember that you’re still working. It’s important, if at all possible, to have a separate space that is designated a working area – even the space under the stairs or cordoning off a section of the spare room. Otherwise the temptations to make another cup of tea, sort out that laundry basket or watch just one match of Wimbledon can be too great to resist. Keep your workspace organised and tidy as you would in the office and make it clear that when Mum or Dad are working, they aren’t to be interrupted unnecessarily by little people who want to play with the stapler.

One tip you often read about working from home is to “dress the part” as you would if you were in the office. I’m unconvinced by this one – surely one of the benefits is that you don’t need to spend an hour in the morning putting on your best bib and tucker? Nonetheless, there is something to be said for being in the right mindset for getting down to your work – so at least ditch the pyjamas.

Make sure that you’ve got a defined reporting system in place with your employer back at the ranch. It’s vital to be as contactable as you would be in the office. Look into basic and free videoconferencing tools such as http://www.skype.com/intl/en-gb/home to stay connected (another reason to avoid pyjamas). Have your mobile charged and with you at all times, particularly if moving around the house or stretching your legs in the garden.
Have your IT department advise you on whatever remote systems are necessary to ensure you can access your work database in a secure and efficient manner. And installing an instant messaging service such as Google Talk is a great way to catch up with fellow employees, share information and give updates, as you would if you were physically under one roof.

Working from home can be isolating and it’s important to stay connected both with fellow workers and with people in a similar situation to you. There are some great forums – my favourite is www.enterprisenation.com – where you can link up with other home workers to share tips, information and advice.

It’s important to check in regularly with your employer to ensure you are keeping them briefed about your activities and to demonstrate you are staying productive. Set your working hours and try to stick to them as far as possible. Whilst one of the great advantages of home working is its flexibility, make sure you do keep up and monitor your hours because it’s far easier at home to get distracted and fall behind.  Also try to work around your natural biorhythms – if you’re a morning person and you don’t have to work set 9-5 hours, then why not get up a bit earlier and maximise your most productive period?

The flip side of putting the hours in is to know when to finish. Often when working from home people work late into the night or return to the “office” to do one more little thing after the children are in bed. Whilst hard work and dedication are always laudable, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to achieve your work targets within your agreed working hours if you are productive during that period.  Overworking – or working intermittently and erratically – can cause fatigue, stress and that feeling of “never switching off”. This can be detrimental to health and general well-being, which defeats one the main objectives of working from home.

One way to avoid this pitfall is to try to work in blocks of time and have proper breaks in between. A home worker myself, my optimum working block is 90 minutes – if I’m writing or doing something that requires focus, I’ll try not to check email or be distracted during that period. Once completed, I then give myself a little “reward” – a stroll around the block with the dog to get some fresh air, a ten minute run, a cup of tea and a read of the newspaper. Variety is key when working from home and the block/break approach allows me to keep my day both productive and stimulating.

Having regular yet brief breaks when working from home keeps motivation going and avoids boredom. In an office environment these breaks tend to happen more naturally – when you stop for a chat with a colleague, pop into someone’s office for a meeting and so on. Also, by working in blocks it’s easier to record your time and report back to your employer on what you’ve been doing.

And finally – the simplest tip of all – keep hydrated. Mental performance, including concentration, memory and attention span can all be affected by dehydration. So always have a jug of water on your desk at home and make sure you drink throughout the day otherwise your performance will suffer.
Incorporating at least some of these tips into your day as your work from home should help you become a productive, connected, balanced and motivated home worker with an employer who is up to speed on your activities and confident you’re achieving your goals. Potentially a win-win situation.

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses.
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