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Nice work if you can get it

Last updated 05:00 28/04/2012

CATHERINE HARRIS

LOREN DOUGAN/Fairfax NZ

QUALITY TIME: Jo Gibson runs a successful online education consultancy from home and loves the autonomy of self-employment.

LOREN DOUGAN/Fairfax NZ

Ever wake up and wish that instead of going to work on a chilly autumn's morning, you could simply get dressed, grab a coffee and switch on the computer?

Increasing numbers of us are doing just that. The number of people anecdotally who are working partially or fully from home is on the rise.

These days were predicted by futurists who said the cost of petrol and modern technology would reduce the need for communal workplaces.

Those earlier forecasts might have been a little optimistic, but for many of us, the line between our personal and work lives is getting harder to define.

A recent employee survey by recruitment firm Randstad showed 54 per cent of the Kiwis surveyed do some work away in their private time and a third were on call.

"With the availability of smartphones and mobile wi-fi, it can be difficult to ever completely switch off and maintain a work-life balance," said Randstad New Zealand director Paul Robinson.

Nonetheless, there are people for whom working from home is a deliberate goal.

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Janet Sayers, a Massey University researcher into home-based businesses, say many of them run a business at home because the overheads are lower.

Or they know they are more productive when away from office distractions. They are often professionals or IT workers.

And they usually have a certain type of personality.

"`Basically these people want autonomy ... They don't really want to be told what to do," Sayers says.

"Sometimes people make the move because some issue triggers it.

"For a woman that's often having children, but for men it can be a health issue."

It's not the sort of work which suits everyone, says Peter Townsend, chief executive of the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce.

"Some people like being an employee who are fenced in so they have definite boundaries, definite expectations.

"Other people find they enjoy an empowering environment where they can have flexibility and as long as they achieve what is set out to be achieved, then everyone's happy."

It's definitely working for Masterton's Jo Gibson, who runs a successful online education consultancy from home.

She loves the autonomy of self-employment, and the chance to stay close to her young family.

However, she is the first to admit that discipline is needed.

"Before working from home, I could leave the work `at work' and choose to bring it home. Now it's always at home! The discipline needed to just `leave it alone' and put family first for a while is tough. It's hard to kick the guilt of `not working' into touch."

Weekends are now family-only time for Gibson, but when she is working, she creates a schedule with built-in breaks to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

"It's too easy to work too many hours when at home ... especially when being the jack-of-all trades."

Some people report that working from home is an isolating experience, but not Gibson.

"I have far more quality time with my online partners and colleagues via Skype and web conferencing and collaborative docs (documents on the web) and social community spaces than I've ever had in the face-to-face workplace."

She does, however, advise anyone contemplating the move to pay attention to their professional development. She makes time to go on Twitter and professional blogs with like-minded people.

"What you can pick up from others via mere snippets of information can be as much as you'd learn going to a conference, and a whole lot cheaper too."

Auckland time management expert Robyn Pearce says people often forget another, quirkier benefit of working from home – the power nap. "If you're working away at something and it getting really hard because you've dropped down into an energy slump ... lie down and shut your eyes for 20 minutes.

"There's masses of solid data that shows you'll be more productive if you take naps."

However, that's no excuse to slop around in your PJs.

Many people Pearce motivates need a mechanism, such as dressing up professionally, to kick them into "work mode".

"I have even heard of one person who would drive around the block, park the car and then they'd walk into the house and start work. Sounds extreme but it's about your mental patterning."

One lady with an office in her back garden found accessories were the answer.

"She found that when she went to work, she took her handbag and her housekeys and she took them to the office a few steps away, and she was in work mode."

Employer groups say letting staff work from home is still a leap of faith, but it's becoming more acceptable for key staff.

In graphic designer Leyla Neilsen's case, her firm's flexibility has taken the edge off a long commute.

Neilsen already works one day a week at home and travels into Wellington from Wairarapa for the remaining four days.

Recently she and her family decided to move to Masterton, which will lift her travel time to three hours a day. Rather than lose a valued employee, her firm has suggested she leave early and work on the way home.

"It was my boss who said well, why don't you take an earlier train and get home at a decent hour?"

Neilsen was delighted.

"It was a big part of our decision, actually."

Johnsonville couple Amanda Scott and Andrew Cowie both work from home.

They employ a nanny to look after their two preschoolers, but like the freedom that home-based work offers.

"I find working from home so much more effective and that the business gets so much more bang for their buck out of me," says Scott, a key account manager with Fonterra, who is currently in the office but transitioning herself back home.

Cowie is a management consultant who is used to working from both home and office.

He finds home a good place to clear your head.

"It's an opportunity to catch up on stuff without being in the office, being hounded by everybody. You've really got to get in and prepare presentations, quotes, contracts, all that sort of stuff."

Isolation is not an issue for Cowie – "I'm on the phone pretty regularly anyway, or Skype" – but sometimes he makes a point of "heading down the road to do the mail and get a coffee, and interact".

More recently he has taken up shared office space in Wellington.

"That's to counter a couple of things. One is young kids running around, but also we don't have a large house at the moment."

The other is to give himself people to bounce ideas off.

Scott believes more women would to able to work if bosses were more flexible.

"What I'd like is for the industry to think outside the box when they're creating roles and not necessarily make it one person. Make it two and make it 25 hours a week. I think a lot of mums would probably sacrifice some dollars to have those reduced hours."

Canterbury Chamber of Commerce's Townsend says it's still hard to find workplaces that are committed to the idea of flexible work, but skills shortages are changing minds.

Sixty per cent of his team are connected to work from home, an arrangement which proved its worth after the Christchurch earthquakes.

"It's all about give and take, and if you can give and take as an employee and an employer, you get well rewarded for it."

WHEN HOME IS ONLY SOLUTION

The Canterbury earthquakes have proved that working from home not only works, it may be your only option if pandemic or disaster strikes.

Trish Keith is in charge of Telecom's international and national call centre operations, and based in Christchurch.

After last February's major shake, she brought forward a pilot programme to allow selected call centre workers to work from home.

Initially there were just 23 staff involved.

But the success of the programme has seen it rolled out to more than 150 workers around the country.

Keith hopes to eventually bring that up to 250 workers, about 20 per cent of Telecom's call centre workforce, particularly in "heartland" areas.

"I think, and our investigations would show, there's an untapped talent pool out there, places that people go for the lifestyle and then can't find work that they really want to do."

Although the technology has been possible for some time, Keith believes its adoption in New Zealand has been slower because of culture and issues like security.

"You're talking about having customer information that is in a very secure building where card access is the only way in ... you're talking about people having access to that from their homes.

"There's a lot of hoops to go through first, it's not just as simple as the technology."

The scheme has shown there are big benefits to be had in terms of productivity, and in terms of widening the pool of workers when labour gets tight.

Call centre work has peak hours, so workers are encouraged to work for two or three hours and then again later.

"That doesn't work if you have people on site, because you don't say, we need you to go home now for three hours and then come back.

"So from a business perspective you're getting the people you need at the time that you need it."

Not every worker qualifies for the scheme, says Keith. Staff have to have a dedicated office space and have to meet a certain level of performance.

But only one or two people have found it's not for them.

"We get lots and lots of compliments from customers around these people so there's something coming through in the voice maybe."

TOP TIPS ON WORKING FROM HOME

Don't fall for scams.

Take care with ads for jobs from home – they can involve buying stock which you are then stuck with or long hours for low pay. Or they may simply want your bank account number.

Do what you love.

"Do it if you are naturally highly motivated and can do without seeing anyone outside the home for long periods of time," says Jo Gibson.

Have a dedicated workspace.

Robyn Pearce says research shows the majority of people are less productive in open plan workspaces, but working at the kitchen table with family around can be just as bad.

Value your working time.

Ensure friends and family know when you are working, and that you can't always stop for a cuppa just because you're at home. Look after yourself. Gibson warns that it's easy to put on weight – "less exercise and greater access to the fridge".

Divide your workload into manageable chunks.

Says Pearce: "I don't see anything wrong with stopping to put the washing on the line, for example, but just don't let those distractions take over too much."

Do the important stuff first.

Pearce advises her clients to leave the emails till later. "If we do that first, that will dominate our priorities."

Keep documentation "in the cloud".

After the Christchurch earthquakes, many businesses turned to cloud computing to ensure everyone could access material. If your laptop's stolen while you're travelling – you're covered.

If you have staff, don't forsake ordinary workplace practices such as regular meetings - with agendas.

Get out occasionally.

Make time for work-related conferences or seminars.

"The links, people and services you can tune into, can be phenomenally advantageous to keeping that cutting edge to what you do," Gibson says.

- BusinessDay

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