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Jobs & Careers, July 2004

Teleworking Distractions

The great thing about teleworking is the flexibility it affords. But that flexibility can be a double-edged sword, when distractions start interfering with your working, warns Cian Molloy.

One of the biggest issues preventing managers from introducing teleworking among their workforce is lack of trust. When you consider the host of distractions available to home workers, and the inability of head office management to closely supervise remote workers, you can see the cause of their concerns.

But distractions are a fact of life and home-workers usually have the motivation and the self-management skills to avoid them. Of course, the biggest distraction that home workers have to cope with is their families. The very fact that you are not away at work makes it easier for little ones, spouses and your extended family to interrupt your progress. It's no wonder that one of the most oft-quoted teleworking maxims is: working from home is as much about managing your family as it is about managing yourself.

"It's important to lay ground rules, if you have children," says Alan Denbigh of the Telework Association in the UK. "Knock on the door and wait to be allowed in before entering into mummy or daddy's office. If mummy or daddy are on the phone, wait until they are finished before asking them for anything."

Get space

To avoid disruption from family, all teleworking experts recommend that you have a dedicated working space and dedicated times for working, when your family know that you should not be interrupted. Ideally, your workspace should be in a separate room, either a dedicated office or part of a room, such as a spare bedroom, that isn't usually used during the day. "Boundaries are psychological as well as physical," says Patricia Murray, an occupational health psychologist with the Health and Safety Authority. "If you have a physical boundary between where you are when you work and when you relax then your psychological boundaries between the two will be reinforced. Having a set workplace makes it easier to work and less easy to be distracted."

Some home workers, who wouldn't normally have face to face meetings with work colleagues or clients, dress in formal 'working clothes' to help put them in the right frame for work. "I don't get that, but what ever you are into," comments Murray.

Diversion

It's worth remembering that distractions can be a good thing, however. Teleworkers are often prone to work longer hours than necessary or to forget to take regular breaks, which in the long run means that they may work less effectively.

"Surveys show that one of the biggest problems faced by home workers is social isolation," says Murray. "Indeed, apart from money, one of the main benefits of working is that it allows us to engage in human interaction and contact with others.

"Home workers have to make much more of an effort to have a work-related social life and they should structure in some work-related social activity into their schedules, whether it be attending a meeting or regularly calling a colleague to chat things over.

"There are a whole load of benefits to being in a shared work-place that home workers do not have. In fact, if you go to meetings, very often you can tell who the loan home-workers are among those who are present. They're often not as in tune with the full picture as the others or they seem not to have had the corners knocked off them.

"They miss out on the benefit of the group consciousness, which would draw their attention to issues or details that their own self-consciousness hadn't noticed.

"Meeting colleagues also gives you feedback - something that some home workers miss out on. Without feedback it is often difficult to guage how well you are doing, so you end up, say, working extra hours at night when there is no real reason to do so."

In the National Union of Journalists, concerns about the difficulties of caused by social isolation have led the union to organise a 'Freelance Well-Being' campaign for its 8,200 union members, most of whom work alone. According to union member Andrew Bibby: "Working alone, away from the contact which comes from being in a workplace with colleagues can lead to isolation, insecurity and feelings of lack of self worth. Stress and depression may be dangers. To compensate, there is a possible risk that some may develop an over-dependency on drugs, be it caffeine, alcohol or whatever."

If you find yourself having a relaxing drink before you finish work or that your lunches are becoming more liquid, beware that more than your work/life boundaries may be in danger of becoming blurred. Alcohol and other drugs create fuzzy thinking and shoddy final products. Get the name for being unreliable and you'll have difficulty continuing to telework profitably.

Get Out

As a teleworker with an Internet connection, providing you have a credit card, you can use the technology to order a whole load of supplies online, with companies like Datapac and Printing.com claiming to offer real savings on the prices of high-street vendors. You can even use the Internet to order in groceries or lunch-time sandwiches, if you are in the right area. But the downside with these is that you miss out on social interaction. "I like to get out of the office," says Christian Cooke, a home-based software developer who is chairman of the lobby group Ireland Offline. "Not only are bricks and mortar shops often better at providing service than online shops. You also get to meet people."

Timetable

In addition to having set periods for relaxation or socialising, many teleworkers set themselves very strict work timetables. As well as helping to avoid the distractions of idling in front of daytime television, scheduling your work also helps avoid procrastination, which inevitably leads to stress as timetables loom closer or are missed all together. If your self-employed and involved in project-based teleworking where you are paid on the basis of piece-work or completed contracts, an alternative to scheduling on the basis of time is scheduling on earnings. This involves knowing the total amount of money you need to cover all your bills and living expenses, after tax deductions, and still have some left over for social activities. Once you work out your daily or weekly 'break-even point', you can promise yourself a reward like a visit to the shops, the cinema or the pub once you have reached your earnings target. Knowing that you are going to reward yourself will also help you work harder on your commissions, while knowing you have passed your break-even point will help you relax more when you have decided to start enjoying yourself. However, some eworkers don't formally schedule their activities at all. The chair of the Telework Association, Sheila McCaffrey, whose Kinawley Integrated Teleworking Enterprise (KITE) is based near Enniskillen, says she doesn't have a formal schedule for her daily work. "I go with the flow and concentrate on what is ever happening on a particular day or what work is best suited to the energy I have available.

"I would say most people who are involved in teleworking are professional about it - they have a job to do and they get on with it. Distractions aren't really an issue."