Posted on March 11th, 2009 No comments
A recent survey carried out in the US has found that of companies with remote workers only 39.4 percent actually have a policy detailing or enabling remote work. The report commissioned by Microsoft through 7th Sense LP was into remote working practices in various US cities.
In my Ariadne article on remote working I highlighted the need for such a policy.
In order to formalise such practices, organisations which increasingly allow staff to work flexibly should make sure that they have good working policies and procedures in place. A policy might cover how remote working can be applied for, health and safety, data protection, security issues, financial issues such as when expenses can be claimed, legal and contractual issues, work hours etc. Such a policy should also provide useful guidance. As an article in Business Zone explains, “The key to unlocking the benefits of flexible working is to ensure that when a boardroom policy is being created it always keeps practical implementation front of mind.”
An article by Catherine Roseberry on About.com gives a number of other suggestions for what an effective policy should clearly state. These include details on non-reimbursable work expenses, tax implications, insurance information and determination of who is suitable for remote working.
British Telecom actually provide a remote working policy toolkit that makes suggestions in how you can use ‘plain English’ and “make the grey areas, black and white“.
At UKOLN we have recently updated our remote worker policy and it now covers:
- Existing staff moving to Remote Working
- Integration of Remote Workers into the work place
- Homeworking environment, office furniture and ICT equipment
- Internet connections and phone lines
- Travel expenses
- Links to related documents (such as the University of Bath policies and one on secure data)
A quick trawl shows that there are plenty of policies available on the Web for admin staff to use as a guide. So there really are no excuses.
Do you have a remote worker (or remote working) policy? If not then maybe it’s time to write one.
Posted on February 27th, 2009 1 comment
Last week I received a email from someone over in Canada asking for some remote working advice. (Just to say it’s great to hear from you out there, it makes it feel less like talking to your children – they have an incredible knack of closing their ears!)
Anyway the email went along the lines of:
I’m a technical writer based in Canada. I’ve approached my company about the possibility of working for them remotely in Scotland for six months, and I’ve been asked to put together a proposal to counter any concerns and show my colleagues how this arrangement might work.
One of the issues is good connectivity to my company’s network. Currently we are using OpenVPN for remote access; while a secure connection, OpenVPN tends to disconnect for workers within Canada and the United States. It’s possible the connectivity would be even worse, or perhaps even impossible to work with in the UK. Do you know of any software that provides good connectivity overseas for remote workers?
I was also wondering about management systems for remote workers. My company is one that does not micromanage, so a different management style would be required. Are you supervised and managed differently from onsite employees? If so, how?
Thanks so much for taking the time to consider my question!
So in an effort to share what I’ve found out and solicit some ideas from all you remote workers out there here’s my reply.
At Bath University we use Microsoft VPN server and there are very rarely any issues. I’ve heard pretty good things about OpenVPN and didn’t realise there were problems with it in Canada and the US. There is a lot of remote office software floating about but I’m not too sure of their worth.
After posting to Web-support@Jiscmail.ac.uk I’ve had the folowing replies:
reply 1: We use OpenVPN here, albeit on a very limited scale and with mostly local people. I haven’t really had any experience of anyone doing this for long periods from any distance. I have used it for hours at a time from Scotland without experiencing any problems and also used it on the train with mixed results, probably more to do with the train’s uplink failing that anything else. Of course, it might not be OpenVPN that is unreliable but the overall end-to-end network ...
reply 2: Oxford uses the Cisco VPN system and has done for a number of years . We have colleagues working across the planet, including North America, who access our services and in my opinion it’s pretty solid… Probably not the cheapest VPN system around, and I hesitate to use the term, but it really could almost be described as bombproof. I’ve certainly never heard of it timing out! Take a look at: http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/network/vpn/.
reply 3: That throws up a very big “why?” question. Why does OpenVPN disconnect? At a basic level, it will disconnect and re-establish (if configured to do so) if the connectivity is interrupted – line drops, congestion, dynamic IP address changes and so on. The biggest reason I’ve seen for VPN applications dropping connections is a fundamental misunderstanding that, for example, if you have a 4 Mbps broadband service and you’re running OpenVPN over it to do some interactive stuff with a remote end, plus VoIP, and you then start doing a massive Vista patch download (which is outside the VPN) then the two will compete for resources.
If the upstream bandwidth gets saturated – normally between 128Kbps and 512Kbps for most domestic service in the UK – then traffic starts to get dropped and retried. It’s possible to configure OpenVPN to act more robustly under congested conditions, but there’s a trade-off between how long it takes to drop and reconnect and how long your apps can withstand a “hung” network. For the record I used to use OpenVPN almost permanently to provide inter-site private services in a previous job for a web host/ISP, and it worked perfectly unless we got massive congestion. I guess the advice is to have a good understanding of what you’re doing through the VPN, and outside it – and don’t let the two get in each other’s way.
From these replies it sounds like OpenVPN is not going to be the problem…
On the matter of management I can probably be a little more helpful. UKOLN (where I work) has as many different management styles but here it tends to be fairly hands-off management. I think it’s partly to do with the fact we are based in a university and the staff are respected and expected to get on with their work without constant check ups. I think less controlling methods of management work better in remote working.
I have a good working relationship with my team leader. We have regular phone and Skype chats, and tend to send brief questions and comments via Skype chat. We both also record our main outputs during the day using Yammer (work version of Twitter) – so know what’s been achieved. Because I am lucky enough to live near the office we have regular face-to-face chats when I’m in the office – though this could be done using Skype and a webcam. We also tend to go to the same events fairly regularly so catch up at those too. I think the key is regular informal catch-ups so nothing is left too long. You could schedule something for every Monday morning say?
There’s quite a few good articles on management about including these:
- Effectively Managing Remote Workers
- Remote working ‘will be the death of the middle manager’
- 10 ways to help you manage and motivate your remote workers
I hope this helps.
I’ve written a few articles about remote working that might help too:
- Staying Connected: Technologies Supporting Remote Workers
- A Desk Too Far?: The Case for Remote Working
I hope I’ve helped our Canadian neighbour. Anyone got anything to add?
Posted on February 10th, 2009 2 comments
I was at a Bathcamp (interesting people, meeting regularly in Bath, UK) meet last week and saw Ryan Carson from Carsonified give an interesting talk on Ubiquity for Firefox (will blog more about it when I’ve had a go). Anyway at the end of his talk Ryan announced that they have a number of desks available in their office for anyone who wants to work in town.
It reminded me that the idea of ‘remote office centres’ is something I’ve been meaning to blog about.
Remote Office Centres (also referred to as co-working sites, telecentres, teleworking Centres or telework centres- and of course the US use ‘center’) are defined by Wikipedia as:
“..office space leasing centers which lease individual offices to employees from multiple companies in a single office location or centre. The purpose of Remote Office Centres is to provide professional office space in locations that are near where people live, so they can cut down on the commute, but still work out of a real office with professional grade internet, phone service and security.”
They can offer a number of advantages over working at home such as demarcating home and work, removing possible home distractions and allowing the centralisation of professional office equipment. Of course it also means you get some co-workers again – be this a bad or a good thing…
At the moment these seem to be springing up mainly in the US where there are even a number of search facilities allowing you to locate your nearest office.
In the Washington DC Metropolitan area the General Services Administration (GSA) currently sponsors 14 Remote Office Centres. There is also an interesting article in the Chicago Herald on how these type of sites can help alleviate the loniless remote workers can sometimes feel.
Here in the UK the best list is available from the telework Association Web site.
Using these centres won’t work for everyone but I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them in the future.
Anyone out there have any experience of using them?
Posted on February 4th, 2009 5 comments
I am lucky enough to have a guest blog post on some of the challenges of working remotely from a remote working colleague: Monica Duke. Monica is a software developer at UKOLN. She has worked on a number of projects dealing with search and discovery services using metadata, including the JISC-funded IMesh Toolkit, the Resource Discovery Network (now known as Intute) and eBank UK. She has technical experience of building systems to aggregate and work with metadata from repositories, and is currently contributing to the development of the aggregation service that supports the Intute Repository Search.
Enjoy her post! Hope it doesn’t make you too hungry!
I started working at UKOLN in 2000, so I’m of the same vintage as Marieke. We were both new, and roughly the same age, and equally clueless . And we’re both still around when others have fallen by the wayside (or moved on to greater things!). That must say something about our gritty determination, which is a quality that I find is needed for home working. Or perhaps the ability to work flexibily and move our base outside of the UKOLN offices has helped us both to persist with careers that we might otherwise have had to give up on.
I moved to working remotely in 2004, when my husband changed jobs, and we moved from Bath to live and work “up North”. I am based in a small market town outside Leeds. It is a pretty, historic, little place, and I can walk to the centre and back in about 25 minutes. We have an award winning Bakery and several small shops, local butchers, charity shops etc, as well as the empty shell that was Woolworths. It is lively on market days, and has an attractive, newly-built, inviting library (alas without free wireless, so it is not an option to move my work there when I want a change of scene).
Some of the challenges Marieke mentions in her blog seem very familiar. “Whatever shall I have for lunch?” does tend to dominate my morning thoughts. I used to have a very organised and balanced lunch box (sandwich, yoghurt, piece of fruit) as my staple when I still left the house every morning to go put to work. Somehow that combination doesn’t work for me anymore. Favourite fallbacks are a vegetarian pasty-type bake with wholemeal pastry from the aformentioned Bondgate Bakery – which has the advantage of feeling all virtuous what with being filled with lentils ‘n all. I went through a phase of being addicted to Brie and Cranberry toasties – which are lovely, but do require that I have Brie and bread in the house. I don’t think I have ever eaten a pot noodle, so I haven’t fallen to those depths of desperation (yet), although some might consider pasta with Bovril to be much more disgusting. My cupboard never seems to be out of pasta or Bovril, and Bovril has added Vit B, dontcha’ know?
On a serious note, my general level of healthy daytime eating has definitely suffered while I am based at home. I find the temptation of snacks and a lack of other outlets to relieve boredom has nudged my eating (and therefore my weight) beyond the level at which I am comfortable, both for aesthetic and well-being reasons. On the plus side, I do not have to worry that my office clothes don’t fit any more.
On the topic of fitness, exercise is another aspect related to health and work-life balance that I have yet to find a solution to. The University of Bath does have excellent facilities and free classes at convenient times. Although I have never been an exercise nut, I was much more fit when I did occasionally get to these classes, so they must have been doing more good than I realised. Walking to and from work did help as well, even if it was just to the bus stop, although I was once fit enough to walk down quite frequently, (and more rarely even up), the hill atop which the University sits. I also indulged in the odd game of squash with my husband, or joined the ladies’ football team in their training sessions, all on campus. These University-based activities had the advantages of being easily available, easy to get to, mostly free, and easily fitted into the working day, so that precious time was spent on the exercise rather than getting to and from the location. Oh, and we also played numerous games of lunchtime pool, during student holidays when the tables would be deserted, but I suspect that didn’t burn any calories.
Working remotely has allowed me to stay in my job which for me meant less upheaval and for UKOLN also helped with staff retention and continuity on the eBank project, which was my main area of work at the time. However, losing the University facilities from my doorstep is definitely one of the disadvantages that I have felt keenly – I hadn’t quite appreciated how good going to work was for my health!
Suggestions for eating healthily and getting more exercise into the day while working at home (and no walking to Bondgate Bakery alone doesn’t count!), or offers of free skipping ropes or gym membership, on a postcard please!
Posted on February 2nd, 2009 1 comment
Hey, did you know that it’s been snowing today?
Of course you did! You couldn’t avoid it with the blizzard of news items, photos and Twitter messages.
A Twitter post from Euan Semple gave an interesting ‘remote worker’ angle to the mayhem:
“how much more productive will the UK be today when people can work online from home instead of being “busy” in the office?”
There’s a lot in this short tweet. Firstly, Euan is sort of saying that a snowed in UK of today could manage a lot better then a snowed in UK of times past because so many of us work from home. He’s also weighing up the value of the 9-5 worker who is in the office and ‘seen to be working’ against the remote worker who is possibly more output driven and may work on a less social/different schedule.
The BBC web site actually reported that demand for broadband was up by 20% caused by people working from home. However there were also reports that the snow fall put strain on technology networks as many people accessed travel web sites, like national rail enquiries. It also effected mobile networks.
Ironically I had to travel in to the office today so didn’t have the luxury of being snowed in at home. Shame, my garden looks like it’s crying out for a snowman!
Posted on December 17th, 2008 3 comments
Last week I posted on Twitter that I’d hit all time low and eaten a pot noodle for lunch. A fellow Twitterer commented that I hadn’t mentioned this in my articles on the benefits of home working. This got me thinking….
Today is UKOLN’s Christmas Lunch and I’m hoping to catch up with all our remote workers who are dropping in specially. With the holidays in sight and New Year not far round the corner I thought it was maybe time for my ‘top 10 lunches as a Remote Worker’ list. Enjoy…
- Cold Pasta – Cover with cheese and put in the microwave for 1 minute.
- No lunch today – Child sent home from nursery ill, usual stuff, nursery says “your child is ill, you’ll have to take him home before some other child catches it”, I think “well he wasn’t ill when I left him, he must have caught it off of one of the other children, in fact one of the children that he has to keep away from in case they catch his illness!”
- Cold brussell sprouts, cabbage and leeks – Veg box overload. Good job I work alone!
- No lunch today– just Hot-mail, Facebook fruit and BBCi Player sandwiches.
- Pasty from the bakers in town – Does anyone know that it’s actually my lunch break or do they think I’m a unemployed couch potato who has made it into town? Maybe they think I’m a student? Erm…perhaps that’s being a bit optimistic….
- 8 biscuits, 2 lumps of cheese, 3 yoghurts and a bag of kettle crisps – This wasn’t so much a lunch as an activity for my mouth. I made up for the calories by the frequent trips to the fridge (14 in total).
- 6 cups of coffee – nuff said…
- Quiche and salad – Went out for lunch with a friend. They brought their kids with them. Now having work life ruined by annoying children as well as home life. Joke!!
- Sandwiches – Why is it only the doorstep end bits are left? In fact does bread without butter or filling constitute a sandwich? Chewing on office furniture more appealing.
- Very quick soup so I have time for the laundry, unloading the dishwasher, sewing up the holes in children’s clothes and sorting out the recycling. Husband thinks that all these jobs are done by the tooth fairy.
I know it is all wrong, wrong, wrong so here is some Advice for Grumpy Home Workers from an expert on what you should really be doing.
Posted on November 10th, 2008 4 comments
The update of some internal work policies led to me reading one on Home use of equipment. I was surprised to see that the policy states:
“Equipment purchased or leased made available to an individual member of staff for use at home should be used solely in connection with work. There should be no personal use of such equipment.”
This policy was written in 2000 and in line for updating. I’m sure management would be very reluctant to enforce it. However it got me thinking about the blurred boundaries between work and play for remote workers and the sticky predicament it could put people in.
A few thoughts:
- I can hardly swing a cat in the room I use for work, let alone squeeze another PC in it!!
- Sometimes I log on to do something for home but get sidetracked into doing something for work.
- Having two PCs set up for home and personal use would be time consuming to maintain – I use Skype for work and to contact my parents-in-law, I’d have to have it set up on both machines
- I often use my own digital camera and mobile phone for work use, is this OK?
- I use my own phone for work and often get calls out of hours and on my days off because I use my home number
- I use many applications for work and home use (e.g. Facebook), should I be doing this? Should I have two user names?
- What about work out of hours? What about my lunch break – am I allowed to do my online banking then?
I want to maintain work/home boundaries but it is tricky (the issue of when to switch off is something I’ve discussed before). The boundaries are blurred and the rise of ubiquitous computing is only going to make them more so. I am a responsible person who knows where to draw the line (for example if I want an external hard drive to store family photos on I buy it myself, work only pays for stuff I need for work).
I think organisational policies are going to have to be pragmatic and move with the times. No matter how hard we try there are points when…
work = play
play = work.
What do people think?
Posted on November 4th, 2008 No comments
….apparently a neurotic one according to the latest research. Oh sorry, that only applies to females…great.
Researchers from the British Psychological Society asked 300 hundred students about their blogging habits and asked them to complete the Big Five Personality Inventory.
Around 20 per cent of the students blogged, mostly about their personal experiences. Among female students only, those who scored highly on neuroticism (i.e. anxious, insecure characters) were more likely to blog. This is consistent with work on internet usage that also found an association with neurotic personality types, but only among women. The researchers surmised that nervous women may blog to “assuage loneliness or in an attempt to reach out and form social connections with others.”
Funny how that research makes me feel a little anxious…
Posted on October 31st, 2008 1 comment
I’ve been reading Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds. One area that I’ve found particularly interesting as a remote worker is his proposition that solitude is good for us and key in encouraging creativity. This idea is based on Dr Esther Buchholz’s theories on ‘alonetime‘:
“Life’s creative solutions require alonetime. Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems. Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.“
Obviously one can have too much alone time and as a remote worker I often miss having people to chat with and bounce ideas about with (however there is an increasing amount of technologies that can help you stay more connected), but I do enjoy my own company. I also find that taking ‘alonetime’ away from my PC can be really helpful – one of the Sarah Houghton-Jan’s time management suggestions. I want to try taking more time away from the PC and use this time to read articles and ‘think’ as a precursor to writing papers, presentations and articles.
As James Baldwin said “The artist must actively cultivate that state which most people avoid: the state of being alone.”
So, on this All Hallows Eve, maybe it’s time to find your quantum of solitude!
Posted on October 24th, 2008 1 comment
Last month’s Ariadne carried a great article on managing information overload: Being Wired or Being Tired. I think the whole time management thing has become amplified since I became a remote worker. The distractions have become bigger (that pile of washing, that DIY that needs doing) but there are also less useful distractions (coffee with colleagues, a lunch break!) so at times I start to feel like I’m handcuffed to my desk.
So here are Sarah Houghton-Jan’s ten techniques to manage the overload. The article is really worth reading.
- 1. General Organisational Techniques
- This suggests starting off by making an inventory of information received and the devices you use. You should then read up on dealing with information overload. Other ideas include thinking before sending (for emails and the like), you could always talk to someone face-to-face. You also need to schedule yourself, schedule unscheduled work and use your ‘down time’ to your benefit. Another key factor in being organised is staying tidy and keeping lists.
- 2. Filtering Information Received
- Weed out what matters, schedule unplugged times and encourage your team to do the same.
- 3. RSS Overload Techniques
- Only use rss when applicable, limit the number of feeds and organise the feeds you do use.
- 4. Interruptive Technology Overload Techniques
- Interruptions make us less effective so only use interruptive technology when appropriate and do not interrupt yourself
- 5. Phone Overload Techniques
- Again use the phone when appropriate, feel free to turn your mobile phone off or let it ring (a tricky one for people with children) and keep your number private. Remember Work = Work; Home = Home.
- 6. Email Overload Techniques
- Set aside time to do emails and clear your inbox. Filter and file messages, delete and archive. Limit the number of lists you join.
- 7. Print Media Overload Techniques
- Recycle it if you don’t need it and cancel unnecessary subscriptions
- 8. Multimedia Overload Techniques
- Be strict with yourself and limit television viewing
- 9. Social Network Overload Techniques
- Schedule time on your networks and pick a primary network to use.
- 10. Time and Stress Management
- Use your calendar, take regular breaks, eliminate stressful interruptions. If you need to look for time-management software to help. Make sure you balance your life and work.
Some great tips in there, I’m going to try a few…when I get time!