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  • The Highs and Lows of Remote Working in the UK

    Posted on June 5th, 2009 Marieke Guy No comments

    I’ve had my first guest blog post published on the Coffee Shop Office blog.

    The post is a little look at the ‘remote working situation’ over here in the UK (in comparison to that in North America/Canada).

    Gregg Taylor and Lori Thiessen from Coffee Shop Office have returned the favour and written a guest post for me, which will be published next week.

  • Remoter Remote Working

    Posted on May 13th, 2009 Marieke Guy 5 comments

    A discussion on Twitter about whether it would be problematic (or even possible) to be a remote worker if based in a different country from your employer led to me asking Amanda Hill to write a guest blog post for us. Amanda is an archival consultant based in Ontario, Canada but works on a number of UK projects. Amanda is fervent Twitterer and her Web site provides links to all her current activities.

    Amanda HillWhen Marieke first suggested that I write a post on long-distance remote working, my initial response was to think “But it’s no different from remote working in the UK!“. Many of the issues described on Marieke’s blog apply to me as they do to the more usual variety of remote worker. I identify with a lot of them, for example those around time management, environmental concerns, technologies for remote working (and working in a freezing cold office!). Although I must admit to having been horrified by Marieke’s post about rarely having a proper lunch, which made me lie awake at night, fretting, until I’d come up with a week’s worth of healthy lunches to suggest for her.

    Internet connectivity is obviously essential for a remote worker, wherever you are. We had been blithely informed by the telecoms company that we would be able to get high-speed internet in our rural corner of Ontario. This turned out to be a whopping lie, leaving us relying on dial-up for the first month or two of our new life. We’ve now got a satellite internet connection, which is wonderful compared to dial-up, but fairly slow (and very expensive) in relation to the broadband we’d got used to in the UK. The connection is fairly good, although very bad weather tends to knock it out, so a big snowstorm or thunderstorm (both of which are quite common here) might leave us unconnected for a while.

    I have two UK roles. One is as a tutor on a distance-learning module called ‘Ethics and International Perspectives’, part of the University of Dundee’s MLitt in Archives and Records Management. I’d been doing this from Manchester for three years before leaving the UK, so had always been a remote worker in that context and really noticed very little change on continuing it here in Canada. Except that now I truly did have an international perspective!

    The other role is as the project manager for the Names project. This was a new role and has been more of a challenge, if only because people don’t really expect a project manager for a UK project to be based overseas. I’ve been in the embarrassing situation of having had conference calls timed to suit me (with West-coast Americans having to get up ridiculously early) by people who thought I was still in Manchester. The work on the project itself has been going fine, although a huge amount of the credit for that must go to the project team members in the UK. There have been meetings that I really should have gone to that have been attended by others, simply because there are limits to the number of times I feel able to cross the Atlantic in a year. When I do visit the UK, I tend to cram in meetings galore to make the most of my trips. And at least one decent curry – as this area is sadly lacking in Indian restaurants.

    The time difference between the UK and Eastern Canada can occasionally be problematic. It works fine for me, as I am part-time on Names and usually work on that in the morning, when UK folk are putting in their afternoon’s work. Then I can work on the Dundee module (or my garden) in my afternoon. I find that Twitter really helps in keeping connected with my various professional communities. It is like being in a big open plan office with all those people (but without ever having to make them cups of tea).

    One area that might be a problem for long-distance remote workers is integration with their local community. I think that if I had only worked on UK projects here, I might have found it difficult to meet people beyond our immediate neighbours. Shortly after emigrating, I took on another part-time job as an archivist in a nearby town (Deseronto), where I work one day a week. This has given me a local role, too, which has been invaluable in helping me to settle into Canadian life.

    Deseronto Post Office,

    Deseronto Post Office, taken from the Deseronto archives Flickr Collection.

    So overall, I don’t think that remoter remote working is all that different than the regular type. Except that the phrase ‘time management’ becomes even more significant when there’s a five-hour gap between you and your employer!

  • The Reality of Home Working

    Posted on March 16th, 2009 Marieke Guy 2 comments

    Time for another guest blog post. I’ve managed to persuade Paul Boag, user experience designer and founding partner of Web design agency Headscape, to share with us his experience of being a remote worker. Paul is a keen blogger and runs the boagworld.com community for people who run Web sites. Enjoy!!


    Paul BoagAn increasing number of people are trading in the cubicle for home working. It is seen by many as the ultimate perk. However, is home working really everything it is cracked up to be? I share what I have discovered after 7 years of home working.

    Like many people starting a new business, we begun Headscape working from home. It was a great way to keep costs low and ensure those long hours required when starting a business were more bearable. However the real appeal of home working, was the feeling it provided more flexibility.

    The dream becomes a nightmare

    To begin with it felt like being set free. I could work in my pyjamas, no longer worry about day time deliveries and get to see my new born son whenever I wanted. Unfortunately, like everything, the honeymoon period eventually wore off.

    It did not take long for the presence of my new born child to turn from a blessing to a curse. His constant crying made work difficult and my loud conference calls often brought the wrath of my wife because they disturbed ‘nap time’.

    I also found myself craving human interaction. Although my wife and son were around, I found I could go days (or in some cases even longer) without seeing another human sole. In fact there was a period of time when I rarely left the house.

    Things weren’t much better when friends and family did come to visit. They seemed unable to grasp that I was at work and I suffered from constant interruptions.

    Suffering from a lack of self control

    However the biggest problem with my new found freedom was that it required a lot of self control. Many people suffer from a lack motivation when they start home working. They become get distracted by day time TV or making ‘yet another cup of tea’. However, I suffered from the opposite problem.

    With work so easily accessible and a new business to worry about I found myself constantly drawn back into the office. For a considerable time all I did in my life was work and sleep. It was damaging to both myself and my relationship with the family. Something had to change.

    What didn’t work

    I decided that what I missed was the structure of office life. I therefore decided to recreate this structure at home. I started work at 9AM and finished at 5.30PM (at least that was the theory). I even dressed for work and at the end of the business day got changed into my casual clothes.

    I set rigid boundaries for friends and family too. While I was at work I was off limits and simply would not interact with others. However, I did try and overcome my feels of isolation by experimenting with a plethora of communication tools. My aim was to enable better communication with other members of Headscape.

    However ultimately all of these techniques failed. They failed to acknowledge the very nature of home working and left me with the worst aspects of both home and office.

    I became increasingly irritable with family, annoyed by the constant interruptions created by the comms tools I had put in place, and trapped by the rigid routine of the 9 to 5.

    The secret to home working

    At this point you probably suspect I return to office life. However, that is not the case. In fact where most of Headscape now work in an office, I am one of the few hold outs who refuse to give up home working. I love it. It just took me a while to work out how to make it work.

    The secret to home working is finding a balance. You need to put boundaries in place that ensure you strike the right work/home balance. However you must also ensure those ‘rules’ are not so restrictive they suck the pleasure out of home working.

    Take for example working hours. I required boundaries. On one hand I needed to limit the hours I worked. However, I also had to overcome the guilt I felt when I believed I wasn’t working hard enough.

    The answer wasn’t working 9AM to 5PM. This simply imposed an office model on a home environment. Rather I started tracking my time. Each day I work an 8 hour day. However rarely is that in normal business hours.

    I tend to start around 9ish, but as anybody who follows me on Twitter knows I often take a nap in the afternoon. This suits my body clock and takes full advantage of my home working environment.

    I also feel free to stop when friends or family come around. I often go for coffee or even see a movie with my wife. I then make up the time in evenings or weekends. Because I track the time, I do not need to feel guilty about these distractions.

    I know what you are thinking- what if one of my colleagues needs something from me when I am out? Well, I always ensure I am instantly contactable. I have my iphone and will always answer it even if that means walking out of the movie. Also, I normally carry my laptop and 3G modem so I can act on things immediately if they are urgent.

    Of course, I am not naive. If you work in customer support or as part of a closely knit team then this would not be possible. However if you do, then home working is probably not ideal anyway.

    I think that is the problem with a lot of home working articles. They fail to take into account the huge variety of factors that can affect how you work from home. It is impossible to tell anybody how they should work from home because…

    • We all have different characters
    • We all have different job requirements
    • We all work in different home working environments

    That said, I do think there is at least some advice I can give in regards to working environment.

    Your working environment

    When I first started home working we converted our dining room into an office. I did at least get one thing right. I realised the importance of having a dedicated working environment. You cannot work from your kitchen table when the room is also being used by the family. It just doesn’t work.

    However, what I got wrong was the room I picked. Our dinning room was right in the middle of our house, between the kitchen and living room. Only a partition wall divided it from the living room and so I could hear everything happening in the house and vice versa.

    Now my office is a converted garage adjoining the house. Its only link is through a heavy fire door and utility room. It is essentially a separate area exclusively for my work.


    Pick your working environment carefully. Ensure you have a room away from the rest of the house. It will make a world of difference. Also, spend time and money to ensure it is as nice a place to work as possible. Lots of daylight is the key for me. That and nice furniture. If you don’t make your home office a nice place to work, it will become a prison you learn to hate.

    Of course, no matter how nice your home office it will eventually drive you crazy. When you work and live in one place, you eventually feel the need to get out. That is where I am grateful we have a company office too. I have found myself really enjoying the change of environment and the opportunity to speak to real live human beings!

    If you don’t have an office, then try working from a coffee shop or even break free from the office model entirely.

    Beyond the office

    While most companies are considering allowing their employees to home work I am beginning to experiment with leaving the idea of an office behind entirely.

    The realisation that there is no need for me to be constrained by any kind of office first struck me when reading ‘The 4 Hour Work Week‘. Although there is a lot in that book I disagree with, I do think it gets one thing right – most of the work we do does not need to be constrained to a particular location.

    Take for example this post. I am currently flying at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic on my way to SXSW. I can still blog. In fact Dave and Craig (two of our developers at Headscape) are sitting in front of me installing .net on a mac and Marcus is sitting beside me building a wireframe. As long as we have a computer, we can work anywhere.

    This is even easier when I am on the ground! For £15 per month I have a 3G modem that allows me web access too. Combined with my iphone and laptop, I have a complete mobile office. I could work from anywhere.

    Of course this approach is not without its challenges. My modem may give me web access in the UK, but using it abroad is expensive. That said, there are a growing number of wifi spots internationally so it is a problem that is diminishing.

    As with home working the more significant barrier is a mental one. In the same way I had problems working out how best to work from home, I am also having problems knowing the best approach while travelling.

    Over the summer I did an experiment in ‘road’ working when I went on holiday to the Highlands of Scotland with the family. I took a week’s holiday and decided to work for a week too, as an experiment. I have to say it didn’t go well. The temptations of the great outdoors and family fun was just too great. I did my weeks work but only just and it was not a pleasurable experience.


    That said, I know of others who have got it working for them. I just need to find the right way for me. Perhaps I should get up early but stop after lunch. Perhaps I should take a long siesta in the middle of the day and work later into the evening. The possibilities are endless and one of them will strike the right balance between working and living the life I want to live.

    What I am convinced of is that mobile computing has opened up limitless opportunities to work where we want and how we want. All that is holding us back is the status quo and outdated ideologies.

  • Brie and Bakeries: a Postcard from the North

    Posted on February 4th, 2009 Marieke Guy 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!


    Monica Duke

    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.

    Otley LibraryI 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!
    Bondgate bakery
    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!