It’s August 2013 and at the time of writing this post there are now just 117 shopping days left until Christmas, or 140 days if you’re happy to do your Christmas shopping online – a trend which has shown no sign of abating over the last decade (more on Christmas later).
Something else interesting has been happening in the past decade – there’s been a marked trend towards working from home (WFH). A recent CBI survey in the UK showed the percentage of organisations offering staff the capability to do so was 59%, up from 13% in 2006.
The Business Case for Working From Home
The drivers and potential benefits are relatively easy to understand:
- Increasingly family-friendly government policies encouraging people to work, inevitably mirrored by businesses
- Increased domestic pressures on families coupled with ever demanding jobs
- The increasing ubiquity, reliability and falling costs of enabling technology (e.g. high speed internet, video conferencing, telephony, secure remote access)
- A desire to reduce costs on both the organisation’s part (e.g. fewer people in the office means a lower requirement for office space) and on the part of the worker (time and money spent commuting, expensive suits, lunches, etc.)
- Some people claim to be able to focus better at home, whilst others simply feel special and trusted by being allowed to do so
- The ability to WFH has a legitimate place in providing business continuity should the worst happen to the office (I used it as a contingency against the 2012 London Olympics causing chaos in The City, for example)
- It can also be a factor in attracting and retaining the best staff, too.
So in principle at least, the reasons for WFH and the associated benefits are legitimate.
Globalisation and outsourcing mean project teams are now rarely co-located on the same continent, let alone in the same building. If you’re running a video conference across multiple time zones, attended by people in London, Hong Kong, India and the US, do you really want to have to do that at midnight from the office, knowing you’ve got a two hour commute in the rain at the end of it, after the tube has stopped running and there are no taxis? These days you’ll probably just look to host it at home from your laptop and enable the other participants to do the same.
Even during a more traditional working day there’s no doubt that being able to escape the noise and interruptions of the office and find some contiguous and quiet blocks of time (e.g. to review documentation) is an attractive proposition. WFH is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to do so.
Of course there are plenty of reasons for people not to WFH. Some people will always try to abuse the privilege. But as long as you consider each request on its merits (essentially, ensuring that the nature of the work to be done can be performed as effectively or better remotely), and you fundamentally trust the individual, I see few reasons why it shouldn’t be employed to good effect on a project.
So, there are clear economic benefits to all parties, increasingly few technical impediments, and on occasion, WFH can benefit the project.
And the Project Manager?
I still have this nagging question in my mind, though – beyond members of the project team, can the project manager himself/herself work from home and still be effective?
It’s not that the PM is necessarily any more valuable as a team member than the next man, but he/she is usually more visible to stakeholders, and expected to be so, and that can cause a problem when he/she suddenly decides to WFH, in the process becoming, well, instantly less visible. They’re the go-to person when something goes wrong or needs changing, and they need to be readily available.
The PM sets an example, a standard, the culture to which the project operates. There can be some downsides if he/she works remotely:
- If you work from home, you can’t then deny your team’s requests to do so. Having a geographically dispersed team increases the management challenge.
- Relationships can suffer and it becomes harder to integrate new starters.
- If you’re not there, you could be the last to know when there’s an issue.
- If neither you or your key people are around when something does go wrong you’ll be less effective at handling issues as they arise.
- Overall it could create the impression that you’re not in control.
Ultimately, your overall effectiveness and personal brand can take a hit.
Top Tips for Managing a Project from Home
If you absolutely must do it, here are my tips for Project Managers working from home, many of which apply equally to anyone working on a project remotely:
- Be contactable – all the time, all day. I can’t stress this enough. Give your team and sponsor as many ways to contact you as you can. Publish a dedicated landline number for them to contact you on and always, always answer it. Enable call waiting. Leave your cellphone switched on. Ensure you have a desktop client that’s compatible with your organisation’s own video conferencing infrastructure (chances are Skype won’t be – something more robust like Lifesize ClearSea probably will). If you use Google+ setup a Hangout for the day so team members can come and go as required.
- If you’re going to be using video (and I’m personally a fan), it goes without saying, don’t do so in your dressing gown at 10am whilst eating your toast – you wouldn’t do it in the office so don’t do it at home.
- You’ll be spending a lot of time on the phone – invest in a decent wireless headset that’s compatible with your fixed landline and your mobile. You may look and feel like a bit of a muppet, but after several hours on the phone it will be the best $200 you’ve ever spent, I promise.
- Don’t try to chair progress or steering meetings from home. It simply doesn’t work. You need to be in the room to have any chance of keeping control of those sorts of meetings. By all means run telephone conference calls remotely, but if everyone else will be there in person, you need to be, too.
- Make a point of proactively checking in with every member of your project team at least once during the day, and do the same with your sponsor. It sends a strong message that you’re still engaged and on the case, being proactive.
- Don’t deny your team members legitimate requests to do the same and WFH from time-to-time. Make sure they’re supported to do so so. Give them access to the right tools, and clearly set out what you’re expecting of them.
More generically, no matter what your role, if you are going to work from home:
- Be clear on your reasons for doing so. Set clear objectives for the day and make sure they are the sort that can be best achieved remotely. If they can’t, change the objectives or change your location. You’ll ultimately be more effective and less exposed to accusations that you’re slacking.
- Set aside your own space to work – a study or spare room is best so you can close the door. You need to exclude all domestic noise (like Barney the dog barking at the postman) and ensure the family know not to interrupt you.
- Have a proper breakfast, at your usual time, and make sure there’s not too much delicious food in the fridge (no, really – wandering between the study and the kitchen, then munching on whatever free food you find there is one of the biggest productivity killers, and it makes you fat). Take scheduled breaks and stay focussed in between.
- If you do have to go out briefly, be honest and open about it. Don’t make-and-take calls from the car, the doctor’s waiting room, or from outside the school gates at home time. Make sure people know you’ll be off the grid for an hour and again when you’re back up.
Do You Believe in Santa Claus?
I promised you more on Christmas at the start of this post. Why? Well, it occurs to me that every year Santa Claus (should you be a believer), delivers (literally) the world’s most challenging logistics project. He does so with a very small workforce (elves and reindeer), using limited resources, across multiple timezones, to an increasingly demanding and cynical customer base (over 7 billion of us at the last count – most of which don’t submit their requirements until a month before the live date).
Despite these challenges, he does so on time, every year. Every year we trust in his ability to do so, to the point where we faithfully promise our children he’ll be here, on time and to spec. Oh, and for 364 days a year… he works from home.
PS: Whether you’re a believer or not, please make a diary note in December to reread this entry, then sit down with your children (no matter how old they are) and watch the 1994 movie A Miracle 34th Street. It partly inspired this post (well, at least that last closing paragraph). You’ll like it, I promise (just don’t try and watch it whilst you’re supposed to be working from home).
- 3 Work-From-Home Myths Busted (openforum.com)
- Do Companies and Their Employees Benefit from Telecommuting? (community.ally.com)
- Working from Home: Common Pitfalls to Avoid (shoretelsky.com)
- Introduction to Remote Control (benchmarkemail.com)