WORK­ING IT OUT

NEW RE­SEARCH RE­VEALS THE WORK FROM HOME DREAM MAY NOT BE THE PY­JAMA PARTY IT PROM­ISES

Life & Style Weekend - - BIG READ - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

It all sounded too good to be true: work­ing from home, wear­ing your PJS all day, putting a load of wash­ing on be­tween emails and ac­ing the dreaded school hol­i­days jug­gle.

Less than a decade ago, the Gil­lard gov­ern­ment sold us the Na­tional Broad­band Net­work on the no­tion of “telecom­mut­ing”.

It was going to save the economy mil­lions of hours in un­pro­duc­tive com­mut­ing time, im­prove our work-life bal­ances, boost pro­duc­tiv­ity, clear the roads, bol­ster our men­tal health.

The early re­search cer­tainly looked promising.

A 2014 Amer­i­can study of ran­domly as­signed call cen­tre employees found a 13 per cent pro­duc­tiv­ity in­crease in those work­ing from home.

There was a halv­ing in staff turnover among at-home employees, they took fewer sick days and shorter breaks and the com­pany saved about $2700 per head in floorspace leas­ing costs.

Ev­ery­one, it seemed, was a win­ner. But wait …

It was a long-term study and, as time wore on, more than half the staff work­ing from home changed their minds about do­ing it ev­ery day.

They re­ported feel­ing iso­lated, lonely and out of the loop.

Aus­tralian work space re­searcher

As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Libby San­der from Bond Uni­ver­sity’s School of Busi­ness said that was only the start of what the lat­est re­search had found about the work-from-home revolution.

“Con­trary to what we might think with the tech­nol­ogy we have at our dis­posal now, prox­im­ity to workmates and a workplace is ac­tu­ally becoming more im­por­tant,” Dr San­der said.

Re­cent stud­ies have found work­ing from home is far worse for team co­he­sion and in­no­va­tion.

A raft of US cor­po­rates have gone so far as to ban it al­to­gether. Ya­hoo boss Marissa Mayer was the first to call her work­ers back to the of­fice in 2013.

The staff memo at the time said that “to

be­come the ab­so­lute best place to work, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion will be im­por­tant, so we need to be work­ing side-by-side. That is why it is crit­i­cal that we are all present in our of­fices.

“Some of the best de­ci­sions and in­sights come from hall­way and cafe­te­ria dis­cus­sions, meet­ing new peo­ple, and im­promptu team meet­ings,” it said. “Speed and qual­ity are often sac­ri­ficed when we work from home.”

Dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory, in­deed, yet Bank of Amer­ica and IBM have also fol­lowed suit.

It seems de­spite the won­ders of modern com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy, noth­ing can quite match be­ing in the same space.

A study of en­gi­neers who worked to­gether showed they were 20 per cent more likely to make dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions with peo­ple in their shared of­fice than they were team mem­bers work­ing re­motely.

They emailed each other four times more often to col­lab­o­rate on shared projects than they did their at-home workmates.

And here’s the bot­tom line: their shared projects were com­pleted al­most a third faster.

There’s more re­search too show­ing work­ing ex­clu­sively from home may not be all it was cracked up to be for our men­tal health.

One study of re­mote work­ers from 15 coun­tries found 42 per cent of them re­ported trou­ble sleep­ing, com­pared to 29 per cent who al­ways worked in the of­fice.

Forty-one per cent of them re­ported feel­ing stress “al­ways or most of the time” com­pared to a quar­ter work­ing in a shared workspace.

“A lot of that pressure is not nec­es­sar­ily com­ing from the com­pany, but the stress re­mote work­ers are putting on them­selves,” Dr San­der said.

“They might feel they have to pro­duce more, that they have to re­spond to that email more quickly be­cause of what peo­ple might think.

“It seems they find it harder to wind down at the end of the day when they don’t go through the phys­i­cal act of leav­ing an of­fice to com­mute home, that men­tally sep­a­rates them from work.”

Then there are other stud­ies that show rather than be­ing a boon to fam­ily life, work­ing from home is likely to in­ter­fere with it.

And, just as we al­ways sus­pected, it can be ca­reer sui­cide.

A global sur­vey of telecom­muters in 24 coun­tries found half believed the lack of face-to-face con­tact could harm their chances of pro­mo­tion.

One wo­man who had a high-pro­file stint of work­ing from home is al­most the per­fect case study to il­lus­trate the find­ings of the world­wide aca­demic re­search.

Me­dia per­son­al­ity Emily Jade O’ke­effe was or­dered to bed rest while preg­nant with her now 10-month-old baby Teddy who she’d con­ceived af­ter 32 rounds of IVF.

A rou­tine scan at 21 weeks led to emergency surgery to in­sert a cer­vi­cal stitch to give Teddy the best chance of reach­ing full term.

Af­ter two weeks in hos­pi­tal, the bed rest or­der was given and, thanks to the won­ders of modern tech­nol­ogy, Emily Jade went back to work broad­cast­ing from a ra­dio stu­dio set up in her spare room, join­ing her col­leagues on air ev­ery morn­ing but not sit­ting in the same room as them.

“Yes, I stayed in my PJS,” Emily Jade con­firmed. “When I was on bed rest, I felt quite iso­lated, there was lots of lonely time.

“I was happy to be work­ing but it’s a cre­ative in­dus­try. You need to be in the same room at the same time with each other.”

Af­ter four months of bed rest, Emily Jade con­tin­ued work­ing from home af­ter Teddy was born.

“The com­pany was great through the whole thing but af­ter eight months of work­ing from home, when the new year came around, I knew it was time to go back into work.

“You’re not mo­ti­vated if you’re not brush­ing your hair, clean­ing your teeth and get­ting dressed ev­ery day. You’re not as high en­ergy.

“I’m a peo­ple person and peo­ple need peo­ple, even the very in­tro­verted. If you have a great work en­vi­ron­ment with a good cul­ture, you see peo­ple and feel alive and needed. You need that per­sonal con­nec­tion.

“I thought it was a bet­ter show when I was there. We had bet­ter ideas. You need that face-to-face.”

Just as the re­search sug­gested, Emily Jade also found work­ing from home was not al­ways the easy an­swer to balanc­ing the de­mands of fam­ily life.

“When you throw kids in there, it’s a whole other ball game. When you’re work­ing from home, they still want you to make a sand­wich or wipe their bum.

“We had a thing when the door was shut, mummy was work­ing but then you see the lit­tle fin­gers un­der the door just to let you know they’re there.

“It’s hard to tell a six-year-old you can’t talk to mum when she knows you’re in there. You’re only half in the game when kids are in the pic­ture.”

Like many work at home par­ents, Emily Jade would use kids’ nap time to rush to get things done.

“I think the ideal is to have a bal­ance, half work­ing from home and half in the of­fice be­cause work can be full of dis­trac­tions too.”

The re­search con­curs. There’s a tide of stud­ies show­ing many employees in modern open plan of­fices can be so dis­tracted by noise and in­ter­rup­tions, they reg­u­larly take work home to get it done. In fact, a third of Aus­tralian work­ers re­port do­ing just that.

Work­ing from home is in­deed on the rise in Aus­tralia al­though per­haps the take-up is more mod­est than the Gil­lard gov­ern­ment had fore­shad­owed.

The 2016 cen­sus found 504,000 work­ers were work­ing from home that day, a 65 per cent in­crease over the past decade.

About 14 per cent were farm­ers but of the rest, by far the great­est pro­por­tion of them were women, ris­ing in numbers from the age of 23 and peak­ing at 45 years old.

An anal­y­sis by de­mog­ra­pher Bernard Salt iden­ti­fied three main work from home groups: work­ing mums, strug­gling artists/writ­ers and what he termed “man­age­ment work­ing from the beach house”.

He found their in­come lev­els tended to rep­re­sent ei­ther end of the spec­trum: bat­tling young fam­i­lies or the skilled well-to-do — nei­ther group immune to the char­ac­ter­is­tic work from home stresses.

As with most things, Dr San­der said there was no one-size-fits-all model.

“If you’re the type of person who needs the struc­ture and ac­count­abil­ity of be­ing in a face-to-face team to per­form bet­ter, then going into the of­fice is best for you,” she said.

“Then there are oth­ers who can work very well at home, but there are a few traps to avoid.”

Dr San­der said in her re­search, peo­ple who worked from home re­ported dress­ing in work clothes to help them be more pro­duc­tive.

“It puts them in a dif­fer­ent mind­set,” she said. “It makes the work­day men­tally dif­fer­ent from the weekend.

“Also hav­ing a ded­i­cated work space makes a huge dif­fer­ence rather than work­ing at the kitchen ta­ble or on the couch.

Again, it sep­a­rates work from home. And, at the end of the day, you need to go through the rou­tine of clos­ing your com­puter, clear­ing your desk and, ideally, shut­ting the door on your workspace and going for a walk. It’s that sim­i­lar sep­a­ra­tion, that re­moval.”

Sound ad­vice, but first check you don’t have your py­ja­mas on.

“CON­TRARY TO WHAT WE MIGHT THINK WITH THE TECH­NOL­OGY WE HAVE AT OUR DIS­POSAL NOW, PROX­IM­ITY TO WORKMATES AND A WORKPLACE IS AC­TU­ALLY BECOMING MORE IM­POR­TANT.”

PHOTO: JERAD WIL­LIAMS

BALANC­ING ACT: Emily Jade O’ke­effe with her children Teddy James Murtagh (9 months) and Mil­lie Valen­tine Murtagh, 7. ABOVE: Dr Libby San­der.

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