14 Apr 2016

Remote working - not all it's cracked up to be?

When I sit down with a candidate for the first time and I ask them to describe their perfect role, it is increasingly common that remote working/working from home will be high on the wishlist.  Along with unlimited holidays, contributory pensions and free gym membership, this desire does seem to be on the up and the benefits of a work laptop and free fruit in the office just don’t cut it anymore.

When I launched PMP just over 7 years ago,  I knew I didn’t want to build an Empire, had no desire to be the next Michael Page (shudders...) and actually the idea of working from home for most of the time was quite appealing.  I’d moved to the countryside, had done 10 years in Manchester and was ready to embrace remote working.  I’m very lucky as it happens. Recruitment is an industry where you need a computer, a database, the internet and a phone (brain,  personable manner, capacity for hard work & persistence, luck, modesty etc  are all pre-requisites too) my point being that you don’t actually physically need to be in an office, particularly if you’re a one woman recruitment supremo

In a typical week, I’ll spend one or possibly two days in Manchester and a day in Leeds. On these days, I’ll meet candidates and clients and work out of coffee shops, hotel foyers, art galleries and theatres.  If you ever need a recommendation for the best wifi spots or public toilets in these cities, then I’m your woman.  I’m always on hand to meet a candidate at a venue of their choice which can often take me to pastures new (e.g. Wetherspoons in Piccadilly was particularly memorable....was the only place the candidate could be sure no-one would see them).    The rest of the time, I work from home.  I’m often at my desk at 0600 and feel like I’ve done a full day of work by 0900 but that often means I can go and ride my bike for an hour or so during the day so I avoid working bonkers hours.  I have an unhealthy knowledge of the daytime TV schedule and often time indoor bike sessions with A place in the Sun whilst I fantasise about even more remote working opportunities....

 I suppose that all sounds great.  Until you’ve been doing it for 7 years. For me personally the benefits of my PMP lifestyle far outweigh the negatives.  But the key negative is a big one and shouldn’t be ignored.  The cut and thrust of office life, the banter, even the politics – after a while, you miss it.  I live vicariously through the office life of my husband and overshare with candidates when I’m chatting to them on the phone.  I talk to the wall and I have an imaginary dog  (Thomas).  People who work from home are always the most commonly found on Social Media and it’s a real distraction, as is the Daily Mail Online and the sidebar of shame.   In a real office, you’re forced to talk to real people, to communicate regularly.  You learn how to delegate, how to compromise and you really do benefit from that.    I always thought I wouldn’t miss those aspects of office life but after a few years, you really do.   

In all the coffee shops, hotel foyers etc, I’m surrounded by other ‘home workers’.  People perhaps who don’t want to work in an office but don’t want to work from home either.  For four years (really!) in the Cafe Nero on Portland Street in Manchester, I sat next to the same guy every Wednesday morning, we’d make eye contact as we opened our respective laptops and give a small shrug.  One day we got chatting, it turned out he was a freelance web developer who made his one coffee last all morning so he got out of the house. I ended up finding him a job – a permanent one, in an office and now I don’t see him anymore.

So, to return to my original point.  Remote working is often requested but in the majority of agencies, particularly for client services staff and Creatives, it’s just not appropriate.  Whilst on the one hand, clients require regular contact, which can be done from anywhere, it’s the internal activity, brainstorming, working with Creatives, reviewing a brief, pulling a pitch together – all these things are best done working in a team, together.  I think the best balance to hope for is potentially one day a month of remote working which allows you to miss out the commute for a day, to be in for deliveries and to catch up on emails.  But I bet for a lot of people, that if they tried it all day, every day for more than 3 months, you’d have to start drawing up your pros and cons list.

I think it’s also necessary to ask yourself really how disciplined you are too.  I know several recruiters who have a similar business model to mine and they have made the point of renting office space – it gets them out of the house, gives them a start time and an end time to the working day and forces them to get dressed.  I don’t have a problem with any of that, if anything, I work harder and longer hours than ever, but they are flexible hours.    In recruitment, it can work. I’m not sure in a creative agency environment that it can.

Most of my agency clients would only consider any level of remote working after an employee has earned their trust that the job could be efficiently and effectively performed out of the office.  If you can present a justified case to your employer and ask perhaps for a trial period to test out perhaps one day a week over a three month period, that should allow you – and them, to see if it is feasible in the long term.  I also advise caution when asking for a 4 day week... I’ve got a lot of anecdotal evidence from candidates that a 4 day week equates to  4 days in the office, one day from home – all clients ask that you’re available by phone and email on your home day and often individuals feel short changed as they are paid a day less but they don’t actually have a day off.  Just something to consider...

But do consider the pros and cons carefully.  The loss of personal contact on a daily basis is something that is potentially damaging to mental health so weigh everything up in your own personal equation and quest for work life balance and then make a pitch to your employer.  

I might eventually get a real dog.