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Author and journalist Harriet Minter on working from home, flexibility, work life balance and much more.
Covid-19 and its consequent restrictions introduced a big percentage of the workforce to a new approach to work, as well as making many rethink their concept of work-life balance.
Workingmums.co.uk spoke to Harriet Minter, journalist and author of WFH: How to Build a Career you Love Outside the Office, to discuss remote and hybrid working, flexibility and why employers might be against it.
Minter, who is also a fully qualified coach and facilitator, had been working outside of an office before the pandemic and has much advice for both employees and employers on how to create a better and more productive working environment.
Harriet: I have been a freelance journalist for six years now, and worked from home all that time. I guess you’d say not just from home, but obviously also from coffee shops and other places. Before that, I had a series of different jobs which allowed me to work flexibly and one of the things I realised was the importance of being able to have the time, in my own space, where I could concentrate, where there was peace and quiet, where I could set my own schedule and I noticed how much more productive that made me.
Harriet: So I started writing the book in June 2020, obviously once the pandemic had started and everyone had been told to work from home, and I realised two things. The first thing was that this probably is not going to go away and that even if some want to go back to the office, most of us have found some benefits to working from home, even if not full time. There was something about it that was quite enjoyed, and so I realised that more people were going to request that right from their employer, and if they have more people working from home, they really needed to know how to do it well and how to make the most of that time and space.
So my first driver in writing the book was talking to people and asking, ‘How do you have a good work from home schedule, what does that look like, how do you make it work for you?’
Then, the second thing is that traditionally we have perceived people who work from home, and it is mainly women, as less engaged in their career, less ambitious and they have been told, ‘If you don’t want to be in the office five days a week, eight hours a day minimum, being present and seen, it’s because you don’t care about your career.’ What I know from my background in writing about women in work is that women really do care about their careers, they are really ambitious, but, for a lot of them, they need that flexibility and they don’t want to be penalised for that.
The idea behind the book was to write a book which is an ambitious career guide if you also want to have a flexible working life.
Harriet: I think it depends on the person, but some of the benefits we see for a lot of people is the ability to focus and concentrate. Offices can be quite distracting. In some cases people are constantly coming up to your desk, dragging you into meetings. When you have deep work that requires high levels of concentration, being able to do that in a space which is completely quiet and where you control the distractions is really useful.
We also know that for some people, particularly for more introverted people or those with different levels of neurodiversity, not having to be in an office all the time is really good for their mental health and they thrive in having that peace and that space to be able to think in their own time without constant stimulation from people around them.
We also noticed a massive benefit for the environment. People who regularly work from home cut down on commuting, which cuts down on emissions going up into the atmosphere. There are many benefits for businesses as well: they can cut down on their office costs, they also tend to have happier and more productive staff if they have a level of flexibility around their working schedule and we know that happier staff tend to be more productive.
There are a lot of benefits for everyone, not just for the individual working from home, but for employers, for their clients and for everyone involved.
Harriet: The main challenges are around connection and culture. When you are working remotely you have to be really dedicated about building connections with your work colleagues. You don’t have those casual interactions where you sit next to somebody for a week and you get to know them a bit. You have to make the time to get to know them, you have to be prepared to ask for personal questions, to take time out of your day to have a phone call or to go into the office to make sure you do see them face to face. We have to be proactive about building our networks and our relationships with our colleagues.
The other thing is that it can be harder to build a sense of culture. We actually know that just the sheer office environment can set a culture. When you have people dispersed people tend to work in their own way, they might perhaps not work to the same processes that a business does generally. So, you have to teach them that rather than relying on people picking it up, which is a bit more work for the business itself.
Harriet: The first thing I would say is, decide what your working boundaries are, then communicate them and stick to them. What I mean by that is, just because you’re working from home, that doesn’t mean you have to start work the second you wake up and finish the second you go to bed. You can define your working hours. Then, you need to communicate these working hours to your team and you need to not start answering emails or accepting meeting requests outside of those working hours. So, be really clear about what your boundaries are.
The second thing is to think about your career or something you want to invest time in developing. If you are not in the office, you might need to be more proactive in telling your boss what you want for your career, so they know about it. Think about what you want to be getting in the next year or five years and just get that down into a sentence so that everybody knows what you want for your career and everyone can be looking out for it and helping you to get that.
The final thing is thinking about how to build a network, and I see that as a three-tier strategy. You can pay external coaches or organisations to bring you into contact with people who are going to be good for your career. You can also work or volunteer on one of the committees within your organisation or set up a networking group within your team. Then, you need to own part of it and that’s by putting your name on there. That might be a blog where you write about your industry, it might be an event you create, something which links you and your name with your industry.
If you do all of those three things, you will find that you have got a really strong network, both internally and externally, and that will help you grow your career.
Harriet: You need to really check in that everyone knows what you mean by hybrid. Is it three days in the office and two days at home? What’s the company culture? What’s the company policy and what flexibility is there around that? Because if you are just saying, ‘What we’re going to do is three days in the office and two days at home,’ I would say that’s not a very flexible approach.
First of all, test everybody is on the same page. How is your organisation defining favourite options and what does that look like for each individual team? Because different teams will have different needs. Understand what it looks like at an organisational, team and individual level. When you do that, then you will start to create a structure that works for everyone.
Another important thing to understand is that if you want hybrid working to be truly flexible, flexibility has to work both ways and that needs to be explained to both employees and employers. So, if you want your employer to be flexible with you and your working arrangements, you might have to be flexible with them.
Harriet: ‘Is the job getting done to a standard that you are happy with?’ That’s the question to ask, and if the answer is yes, then pay that employee for that job. If the answer is no, then look at how you can help that employee do the job better, and if they can’t do it better, then you need to think about whether they’re the right person for your organisation.
How, where and at what time your employee gets the job done is up to them. Some people are going to be faster, some people are going to be slower, some will prefer being in an office, some being at home. What you should be concerned about, as an employer is, ‘Is this person getting the job done to the time I wanted done, to the standards I wanted done?’, if the answer is yes, then everything else shouldn’t matter.
Harriet: I think people like the status quo, they feel comfortable with it. I also think people have invested a lot in their working lives. If people have been going into offices for 30 years, it’s very hard for them to say, ‘I’ve been doing the wrong thing for 30 years,’ so they don’t want to admit that maybe they’ve got it wrong, or that maybe times have moved on.
We like status quo as human beings, we prefer to keep doing the same things as long as possible, so with any form of change you’re always going to find people who just don’t want to be involved.
Harriet: For a better work-life balance, we have to start talking about the future of work, the future of life and start being really open about what we want our lives to look like in the next 10, 20, 30 years. When we do that, then we will see work as something that is a part of our life, and that we fit into our life, as opposed to constantly thinking about how we fit our life into our work. That’s where we have gone wrong on work-life balance. We have been saying, ‘Okay, this is the work status quo, how do we fit our life around it?’ What we have right now is an opportunity to say ‘how do we fit work into our life in a way that feels fulfilling, nourishing and interesting to us and allows for all the other things to be important as well?’
* WFH: How to Build a Career you Love Outside the Office by Harriet Minter is published by Quercus Publishing £14.99 (Hardcover)