A gossip-free space to think

October 10, 2003

Working from home can be fruitful, but watch out for the landlord catching you in your pants, says Mark Griffiths.

Like many of my colleagues, I try to work at least one day a week from home. Academia lends itself to this, unlike many jobs. Most people focus better out of earshot of the gossip of colleagues, constant interruptions from students and non-essential meetings. One in 20 people in the UK works from home a day or more a week.

From a teaching perspective, there are a number of activities that clearly benefit. The most obvious are preparation, such as reading the material, preparing overheads and handouts, and marking student assignments or exam scripts. Home also provides "thinking space" from which to design exercises for groupwork and tutorials or to restructure a module that you have taught the same way for years.

But for everything to run smoothly there are some basic requirements.

First, the agreement of a line manager. Managers worry about laziness. They have to be persuaded that the university will reap huge benefits from your improved productivity. Self-discipline is also needed, as is self-motivation, self-confidence and self-sufficiency.

Practicalities are involved. You need a room big enough to accommodate all possible work-based equipment. This ranges from the essential desk and comfortable working chair to peripherals such as a computer, networking facilities, telephone and so on. The room needs good ventilation and heating. There is nothing worse than trying to mark exam scripts with sweaty palms or freezing fingers.

The environment must be distraction-free. At work there are constant phone calls, constant emails and constant knocks on the door. In these situations you have very little control. At home, you can decide whether to answer the phone or screen incoming messages. You can also choose to ignore the doorbell.

The two most obvious advantages of homeworking are less commuting and less worry over what you look like. I spend fewer hours in traffic jams, overcrowded buses or trains, and/or walking in the elements to get to work.

Once the kids are sorted out, I simply go to the office and get down to it.

No one cares what I look like or whether I am even dressed. I can still be in my dressing gown at 3pm having had a close and productive relationship day with my word-processor. But it can get tricky. When I was finishing writing my first book, unbeknown to me my landlord had arranged to come to the flat to fix a leaking pipe. The sight of me sitting typing in my underpants must have come as quite a shock.

The flexibility is a bonus. I can work when and where I want and fit in handling the school run or spending more quality time with my partner and/or children. Personally, I work best by keeping to regular office hours. I let the university department know where I will be, and where and when I can be contacted and how (phone, email, voicemail). It is empowering to know I can think and act for myself and my employer is concerned about the results rather than attendance. But then employers can reap some practical advantages. Theoretically, they will lay out less for office lighting, heating and electrical equipment.

But homeworking can be tough. It is easier to work productively when you are on your own rather than surrounded by your partner, children and/or pets. If these potential distractions are around, you must learn to shut the door and tell everyone you are "at work", even if you are physically at home. My partner knows that if I am in my office, I am not to be disturbed unless it's an emergency.

Not everyone enjoys homeworking. I have heard some people say that their home office can become a prison, particularly if it is a place, such as a bedroom or living room, where they spend a lot of leisure time. They cannot switch off and relax because the room has work associations.

Some academics feel guilty if they receive faxes, phone calls or emails out of working hours and do not respond to them there and then. This inability to "shut the work door behind them" can cause stress for them and their families. When work is in an office, people find it easier to leave it "psychologically" behind. They are freer to enjoy their home life.

Working from home can be lonely and sometimes boring without the interaction of the workplace. Some people need others around them to function effectively. The thorniest personal issue, however, is how to deal with colleagues' attitudes to absence. As most of mine work at home at some point, this has become less of an issue. However, as technology blurs the boundaries between work and leisure time, university management needs to think seriously about its attitude and policy towards us growing band of homeworkers.

Mark Griffiths is professor of gambling studies, psychology division, Nottingham Trent University.

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