Working from home has become the new norm, so do you have a plan?

Nov 23, 2020

After Covid-19, the most prominent talking point in 2020 is, of course, working from home, or WFH as it’s now termed. Like most things in life, you need a plan and I am a firm believer in the old adage that if it’s not written down, it does not exist. Even if it is only a one-page list, you will be in a better situation than you will without one.

We all acknowledge that remote working of some sort may be a permanent feature of working life. From my experience, we Irish tend to procrastinate. Whether you are an employer, employee or self-employer you need to make a plan now and implement it. Otherwise some of your remote working could be more like ‘remote meandering/dithering.’

The good news? There is a growing demand for flexible working, with two-thirds of people saying that flexibility was their number-one priority when looking for a new position. Flexibility is a two-way street, i.e. employers need flexibility back.

Here is our checklist:

Health & Wellbeing

2020 has been a tough year for most people and we have all had to change our lifestyles. Most people react to change with elevated levels of stress. My new mantra is Charles Darwin’s famous saying:

It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

Mental health.

We need to acknowledge that this is a stressful year and the changes to our work routines are immense and will probably be long-lasting. In particular, men can be quite poor at dealing with the emotional impacts that are coming and how to deal with it. Another important factor to consider is if your partner or spouse is a homemaker, you must discuss how WFH might soon become WTF? when the new working norm turns into a monster, turning the home into somewhere very different. Also be aware that even though the dreaded commute is gone for many people, it was a great buffer between work and home. So be aware of the negative drift in the work/ life balance.

  1. Do not work more than 8 hours, set boundaries
  2. Take a lunch hour and go out and get some air
  3. Smart employers will arrange regular social events (Covid allowing)
  4. Be aware of an increasing sense of being lonely and socially isolated.
  5. In Irish law, employers have a duty of care to provide employees with a safe place of work which includes psychological safety during remote working.

Physical health.

  1. Have good light in your new work space
  2. Ventilation: your home office will be smaller than your office so every couple of hours, open the window and let the air refresh in the room.
  3. Ergonomics: a good office chair is vital. Don’t cut corners on this.
  4. Drink regular glasses of water during the day HOW MANY/HOW MUCH?.
  5. Stretch your legs with a 5 minute walk at intervals during the day.
  6. Would you stay in the office until 8pm? Don’t do it at home. Switch off at a reasonable time.

Home working space

A dedicated room is the preferred option. If you can afford it, spend money on equipping and re-decorating (if needed) your home office now, this trend is not going to reverse.

  1. Convert a little-used space – a box bedroom or playroom if you have one.
  2. Invest in a good desk and supportive chair. Do you need a filing cabinet, printer cabinet?
  3. Look at the lighting to help you with concentration, reduce eye strain and the all-important Zoom calls.
  4. Sound. Can you take measures to reduce sound interrupting you from the rest of the house and vice versa?
  5. Clean environment. You might have had a cleaning service every day that used to clean your desk, take out the rubbish, etc. this is something that you’ll need to do at home. Small point but if you do Zoom calls, you need a respectable, clutter free space.
  6. Zoom calls. Make sure that you are not sitting with a window behind you that will distort your image with sunlight coming in behind you. Read specific articles on the whole video meeting issue. There is a lot more to it that you might think.

Technology

As we all know, 2020 has been the year that has catapulted the tech companies to new heights. In Ireland, the National Broadband Plan has gone from a ‘white elephant’ to a ‘white knight’ for much of the country.

My strong advice is to invest now and properly – not in a piecemeal fashion. Put together a budget, even take out a small loan, if you can afford the repayments.

  1. Broadband. This has become very affordable in Ireland. You can have 250MB fibre broadband for as little as €50 per month. Think of it this way, if a faster internet speed saves you 10 minutes a day in tasks, that equates to a 40 hour week saved per year. You’re welcome! How much is a working week worth to you versus maybe a €240 increase in broadband costs per year? This of course will more than cater for a busy family, with all the demands that our connected lives bring. Especially during a lockdown year.
  2. Computer. Make sure you have the highest spec machine that you can afford or your employer will give you. Desktops now make a lot more sense than laptops. Bigger screen, more memory and faster performance. Your laptop can be a budget machine as it will probably get less usage going forward.
  3. Cloud storage. If you do not have an employer to provide cloud storage, you need to buy your own. The prices have come down considerably. Check out Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive and OneDrive, but there are many others. If possible, go with one that stores your data in the EU and not in the US.
  4. Video. The camera on your desktop or laptop used to be a forgotten feature: now it is your connection to the outside world. Make sure you have a computer with a high-quality lens. If your machine has a poor one, you can buy separate plug-in cameras.
  5. Sound. If you are doing a lot of Zoom meetings, it would be helpful to add a pair of speakers to your computer. Again, they are quite affordable from as little as €100.
  6. Printer. Do not buy a €100 printer. The inkjet toner costs are crippling. You can buy a decent laser machine with lower running costs and more features for €300-€500. It is an investment and will prove a wiser buy after the initial 2 years.

Work processes

  1. Meetings – put in 10-15 minute buffers, we all schedule 30, 60, 90 minute meetings
  2. Culture idea: 9-5 open Zoom room for people to pop in with no work agenda i.e. the new canteen
  3. The new health outlook is that “outcomes rather than the amount of time spent on tasks” are the new KPI’s.
  4. Invest in measures that shave a few minutes off repetitive tasks
  5. Leading teams in dispersed locations across multiple timelines requires a level of trust
  6. Do a WFH plan, do a daily / weekly Things to Do list – this is vital
  7. Does your job involve non-office activities? If you use your hands as part of your job and have activities that can’t be done on a computer, consider the idea of converting a room in the house or add a log cabin in the garden and create a workshop.
  8. Avoid isolation from your team
  9. Set clear communication protocols. You do not want to get called at 8pm.

Financial impact

If you are self-employed or an employee, either way, there will be a cost to set up your home office. Companies will off-set this against their overheads of having people in their offices. If you are self-employed you can offset these costs against your reduced commuting costs.

Do up a simple budget with the following costs and savings:

  • Office costs incl. furniture, lighting, refurbishment of a room etc.
  • Technology: faster broadband, desktop, cloud storage, online productivity tools (usually with a monthly fee)
  • Running costs: light, heat, electricity, broadband, insurance etc.
  • Savings include: diesel / petrol, public transport costs, parking, car servicing, road tax, tolls, meeting room hire, meals etc.

Look at Tax and employer contributions:

  • Tax back – employers are entitled to pay you up to €3.20 a day tax free. That’s about €750 a year depending on the number of days per year that you work.
  • This can be paid tax-free, so is really a valuable benefit. Similarly, if your employer provided you with a desk or computer, or paid for your broadband or telephone, a benefit in kind charge won’t arise. hold on to them for six years in case they question your claim.

Your future

When Covid has left our shores, things in the workplace will not be the same. A good guess would be two days a week in the office with the remainder at home. There will be an explosion in digital hubs which will be the best of both worlds. Commuting will ease, rush hours will flow better with reduced traffic and the traditional 9-5 model will morph into a much more flexible arrangement for all of us.

Don’t waste a good crisis, do up your plan, invest some money to kick start it, mind the pitfalls and as our old friend Darwin said, embrace change.

Bob Hoffman

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