Remote Control: A Balanced Approach to Working from Home

As technical writers, we are lucky to be part of a profession in which working from home is often an option for experienced practitioners. However, some of those who have never tried it may be sceptical or downright hostile to the notion of remote working.

Sceptics and Objectors

Sympathetic sceptics imagine working from home to be a lonely and difficult business. Cut off from colleagues and peers, bereft of the resources provided by a big office, how could remote workers be expected to keep up? Surely their work would suffer and recriminations would follow.

Working from home isn’t a Robinson Crusoe experience

Remote working isn’t this bad

On the other hand, resentful objectors think that remote workers are on easy street. They imagine a life of rolling out of bed at the last minute, catching a Columbo marathon, and not bothering to get fully dressed for days on end. They consider working from home to be a paid holiday.

Working from home isn’t a paid holiday

Remote working isn’t this good

Prosaic Reality

If either the dystopian or utopian vision were true, working from home would not be a viable long-term option. Our experience of remote working is much more prosaic, but also more productive and sustainable.

TWi has offered remote working as an option for experienced staff since its foundation. We take a nuanced approach to working from home – it’s not all or nothing. Quite a few of us have an arrangement that involves working partly at home and partly in the office. Factors involved in determining the balance include:

  • The proximity of our residence to the office
  • The extent and nature of our professional experience
  • Our individual requirements and preferences

While we have found that remote working entails advantages and disadvantages, our purpose here is not to list those pros and cons. Instead, we focus on how to get the balance right by focusing on two key issues: communication and productivity.

Communication

The conventional wisdom holds that while colleagues are always available by email and instant messaging, and meetings can be conducted online, face-to-face interaction is preferable. In our experience, however, the conventional wisdom doesn’t always hold true. Our writers have found that their work doesn’t suffer from a lack of direct, daily interaction. Indeed, many of those with whom we work – colleagues, project managers, SMEs – are based abroad, so our communications would be conducted electronically whether we were in the office or not.

This is not to say that we are against face-to-face contact: no one working remotely in our company believes that they need never come to HQ. We don’t need to see each other in person to do our jobs, but we do need it to feel that we are part of something and not merely orbiting it at a great distance – Pluto with a laptop. In short, a remote worker who never sees her colleagues can be productive but may not be entirely content.

Visiting the office is a good thing. It’s important to meet people. There’s definitely a psychological barrier if you’ve never met someone face-to-face or spoken to them in a more casual setting. It makes the working relationship easier.

At TWi, our solution is to ensure that everyone pays regular, scheduled visits to our offices in Cork. These visits are about more than project-specific tasks and meetings; they are about making sure that everyone feels part of the team.

Having direct contact with your colleagues helps improve team dynamics. I don’t think working at home means that a team doesn’t have great dynamics, but when you’re working at home you have to make extra effort to create those team dynamics.

Productivity

Let’s turn to productivity. Our remote writers are unanimous about their number one complaint – it drives them to distraction when friends and family assume that the term ‘working from home’ is a euphemism for ‘taking a day off’. This assumption couldn’t be more wrong. All of our remote workers are adamant that they are more productive, not less, when they operate from home.

They offer various reasons for this increased productivity. Not having to commute makes a big difference. A writer who drives for two hours or more to get to work is inevitably going to be less enamoured of life in general than one who skipped into work from the next room.

If I was in the office five days a week the commute would be very difficult over a sustained period. Working from home helps me achieve more in my work. I’m not as tired and it gives me more time with my family when I finish. I find I get more done and feel my day has been more productive.

Then there’s the issue of distractions. Many of our writers feel strongly that there are more distractions in the office than at home. It’s a question of environment control. There is always a certain level of noise in a bustling office and few of us have doors we can close when we’re under pressure. Bear in mind that some tasks, like writing and editing, are better performed in solitude. Others, like brain-storming and information gathering, benefit from face-to-face interaction.

The biggest misconception about remote working is that people aren’t ‘really’ working. Much as I miss the chats with colleagues, with no distractions I just put my head down and actually work!

Caveats

Let’s add just two small caveats regarding the benefits of working from home. The first is that a remote worker is entirely at the mercy of his internet connection. It is frustrating when local IT issues make work impossible and there is no IT support down the hall.

The second caveat concerns ergonomics. Just as the remote worker must be her own IT department, she is also responsible for ensuring a healthy work environment. This is something we need to prioritise but too many of us put it off until we feel that first twinge of neck pain.

Maximising the Benefits of Working from Home

Remote working is an inevitable reality in the contemporary technical communications industry and it is compatible with the nature of the work we do. Under the right conditions, working from home is conducive to enhanced productivity and effective communications. We advocate a balanced approach involving a mixture of working from home and working in the office, and we emphasise the importance of paying attention to team dynamics.

Our advice for maximising the benefits of remote working is as follows:

  • Set up your home office with the best IT and ergonomic equipment available
  • Make maximum use of a range of communications tools
  • Travel to your office site as regularly as is feasible

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