October 2008 Archives
“You’re so lucky you work from home!” is a response I hear frequently when I tell people about my recent switch from a traditional office arrangement to a teleworking (aka telecommuting) schedule. I think people envision me lounging around in pajamas, making gourmet lunches and working whatever hours suit my mood.
Myriad research supports the benefits of working from home. Here are a few recent articles: Making Telecommuting Work (BusinessWeek, October 17, 2008); Telecommuting Improves Health (Network World, October 14, 2008) & Telecommuting Improves Productivity, Lowers Costs, New Survey Finds (CIO, October 7, 2008). I have to admit, teleworking full time is different than I expected, and much different than working from home occasionally – but, I can’t complain. After all, wasn’t I the one who swore that nothing could be worse than my daily commute? I used to spend my long train rides daydreaming about the time I could have been spending at the gym or taking leisurely strolls with my dog if I wasn’t stuck in a moving vehicle three hours a day.
Although the flexibility of working remotely can’t be beat, there have been some bumps along the way. It took me a few weeks to adjust to my new schedule and surroundings. Organizing my home office involved jamming furniture in places where it was clearly not meant to go, a lucky drive-by acquisition of a filing cabinet someone had retired to the curb, the ordering of a chair that still hasn’t made its’ debut and a lot of wiring (phone, computer, router, printer, fax, etc.). Setting boundaries with my family was rather simple: When the door is closed, pretend I’m not even here! It’s the boundaries I have to set for myself that are the hardest to follow (more on this later).
So here’s my beef with telework (not to be interpreted as complaints, but merely observations)…
When I receive an email at 10 pm, even though I know it can wait until morning, I usually answer it anyway. When my phone rings after hours, I know I don’t have to pick it up, but it’s much easier than waiting till morning, retrieving the voicemail and tracking the person down (I mean who would knowingly instigate a game of phone tag if you can avoid it?). To me, this is the “cost” of flexibility. Then there’s the money I save on commuting and making my own (not quite gourmet) lunches.
Your physical work environment, no matter how nice of a setup you have, gets old quick when you spend ten plus hours a day there. It only took me three days to start feeling claustrophobic. I never felt this way working from home occasionally, but when it’s 24/7, it just gets to you. This is actually where those walks I dreamt about come in handy – a quick trot around the block with my trusty Labrador is quite reviving, the fresh air does us both good, and the best part is it doesn’t take more than five or ten minutes out of my day.
I miss my team. Even though we do an excellent job of staying in touch by email and phone, it’s just not the same. I’m grateful I got to know my team and coworkers well enough on a professional and personal level before I left so that our communications are not awkward. I also appreciate the institutional knowledge I gained that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t put my time in at the office before making the switch. Still, it’s hard to be so far away and I can’t help but feel like something is about to happen and I’ll miss it because I’m not physically there.
I miss chatting with my coworkers in the hallway and listening to funny stories about their kids, but it’s more than just being separated from my team. I’m separated from everybody. It feels like I’m on an island of isolation somewhere that doesn’t have ferryboats. I miss the seemingly transparent “Hello, how are you?” I got in the elevator, and my favorite receptionist’s smile in the morning. Although I don’t miss waiting in line for the microwave at lunchtime, I do miss those brief interactions that let me know life exists outside my office. It’s pretty hard to get that at home during work hours.
I came across these tips on how to work around some of the downsides to teleworking that are pretty useful, but for now I think I’ll just continue to do what works for me and hopefully my insights will help others. Thankfully, tasks like dishes and laundry aren’t appealing enough to me to be distracting (oh, if we could all be so lucky), but I do take quick breaks from the computer every hour by doing something constructive like reading the newspaper or wall push-ups (sometimes you have to get creative, and it’s better than climbing the walls). I often seek refuge at Starbucks and as a result, I have gotten to know my local baristas quite well. Working in a different environment can spark creativity and it’s fun to be around someone other than my dog (sorry Max!) for at least part of my day, plus the caffeine probably contributes to the productivity boost.
For me, having a plan is key, and sticking to it is essential, but I shake it up day-by-day to keep things interesting. I make it a goal to always wake up early, get out of my PJs, eat a balanced breakfast and organize my to-do list before diving into my work – this helps me focus. Then to prevent boredom from setting in, I vary the rest of my routine. Sometimes I’ll exercise in the morning, other times it’s a quick afternoon jog, I try new places for lunch if I do eat out, and I usually start earlier on Fridays so I can shut down mentally before the weekend begins. Don’t get me wrong, working from home is great, but it’s important to be aware of the potential challenges and find ways to work around them. The last thing you want to happen is to burn out on telework. That would give you way too much to complain about and you wouldn’t be able to hide your smirk the next time someone asked you about working in your jammies.
Many organizations have jumped on the wellness bandwagon, that is, offering programs geared towards promoting healthy lifestyles among their workers with the hopes of reducing healthcare costs, absenteeism, and productivity loss. However, a recent report by Hewitt Associates has found that many employers are finding that wellness programs are not having their desired effect. They found that many of the most popular programs, at least in terms of the frequency of employers that offer them, have sickly participation rates. For example, 73% of the companies surveyed offered a nurseline, but only 7% of employees actually used the program and only 45% of employers were satisfied with that program. Across all of the organizations examined, only 10% of the costliest employees actually participated in employee wellness programs.
In 2005, Aon conducted a survey and found that the top four reasons for lack of participation were (a) lack of motivation, (b) too busy, (c) privacy concerns, and (d) not placing a high priority on getting healthier. Though more and more organizations are beginning to use incentives to spur participation, specific incentives are wrought with their own challenges.
Why might employees be experiencing a lack of motivation when it comes to participate in wellness programs? Though the list of reasons is immense, largely one can point to the organization’s culture and a failure to involve employees. If the culture does not support and actively promote wellness behaviors in the workplace, then why would employees get on board? In addition, if an organization does not offer programs that employees are interested in, then why would they participate? For example, going back to the Hewitt Associates survey, onsite clinics were utilized by 25% of employees and onsite pharmacies were utilized by 50%, and 81% of the companies that offered onsite clinics were satisfied with them, while 95% that offered onsite pharmacies were satisfied with them. However…only 19% of the organizations offered onsite clinics and only 11% offered onsite pharmacies. So, if organizations would start offering wellness and disease management programs that employees are already motivated to use rather than focusing on finding ways to incentivize programs that employees don’t want to use, perhaps employers would see better results.
Multitasking impedes our ability to complete our work in the most effective and time efficient manner, and yet, it’s widely touted as a “skill” or “ability.” What’s there to brag about, anyway? Doesn’t everyone do it?
In some situations, juggling tasks can be beneficial, like eating your breakfast while reading the paper, or keeping your kids from pulverizing each other while you’re grocery shopping. However, that’s different than trying to pay attention at work while multitasking projects, meetings, deadlines, email, calls, IMs and more. The brain interprets lower level tasks (like eating) differently than higher level/executive tasks (like writing and thinking), so although you might not find it distracting to read while you eat, we all know it’s impossible to read a book and drive (and clearly not advisable). This is because the brain can’t successfully multitask when it comes to balancing those higher level tasks. NPR recently had an interesting research news piece on the myth of multitasking – “Think You're Multitasking? Think Again” describes multitasking as a process of shifting attention very quickly from one task to the next, which we might think is multitasking, but really, we’re just deceiving ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but on my next resume update, I fully intend to replace “ability to multitask in a results-driven environment” with something along the lines of “fully capable of differentiating between when it makes sense to multitask and when it’s just stupid, and furthermore (this part is important), being able to exert the necessary willpower required to fully concentrate on the task at hand, and only that task, for as long as it shall require.” The ability to fully concentrate on one important task sans IMs, YouTube videos and other “background” noise is especially necessary with all the electronic gadgets that surround us at work and in our everyday lives. Gen Y employees in particular have been “multitasking” since 3rd grade, and this approach alone can hinder their ability to be successful at work. Prioritizing and making deadlines are crucial, but turning out a superior product requires full concentration and don’t kid yourself, your boss can tell when you’ve put all your energy into your work.
According to developmental molecular biologist and research consultant Dr. John Medina, the rate of error when multitasking is 50% and, multitasking doubles the time it takes you to complete that task. For the best evidence, try it yourself – a work day without multitasking. Allocate your time and work on tasks one at a time. Don’t worry, no one will know the difference at the end of the day except you – you might even have extra energy to spend at the gym or make dinner from scratch. Think about it – if it took only five minutes to really concentrate on an email response you’re crafting, (1) you would have gotten it done while only having to think about it once, not five different times throughout the day, (2) the quality of your response would have been better, and (3) you would feel a sense of accomplishment (be it a small one) as opposed to trying not to let this task fall off your radar the entire day, which takes up precious brain power (and face it, we could all use a little extra mental mojo).