N.B. This is a fast-evolving situation and guidance may have changed between writing and publication. The light-hearted tone in no way reflects the severity of the threat posed by COVID-19 or Tilhill’s attitude towards it.
Challenges and Opportunities of Working from Home – A blog by Tilhill Forest Manager Mike Page in Central Scotland.
One of the benefits of working for Tilhill is the company’s approach to home-working. Most technical staff are issued with a laptop and a mobile phone, and in general terms working from home is allowed on occasion. As a father of an energetic three-year-old and a noisy 9-month-old one of the things I was looking forward to about my partner’s maternity leave ending and both children going to nursery for a couple of days a week was the chance to work from home from time to time. Now that home-working has been foisted on us all for the foreseeable future I thought I would look at some of the challenges and opportunities this new life presents.
First, let’s take a trip into my imagination…
Homeworking involves walking down the garden path to the purpose-built home-office. We had it put in last year after my debut novel enjoyed unexpected commercial success. It’s chilly first thing but I always wear chunky knits to keep me warm until the wood burner gets going. I check and update my various social media feeds, answer my correspondence then get down to the hard graft of writing a second blockbuster.
I switch between Radio 3 and 4 for intellectual and creative stimulation. The blinds automatically adjust to keep the sunlight off the screen but it’s still beautifully light and bright in here. Full bookcases line the walls and I will pause from my labours to read a line of Wordsworth or Proust. Lunch is always the same: grilled fish on rye bread with a salad and a glass of Riesling. I take my exercise after lunch, put in another three hours in my ‘cell’ then lock up and engage with my home life. It’s a full, satisfying way to work and live.
And the reality…
Homeworking involves going back up the stairs to the spare bedroom. It’s well over 40C because the heating in our house is working through some really dark stuff right now and I want to give it space. If I adjust the heating in any way it bombs to single digits and I lose dexterity for typing. I deleted all social media at the beginning of this year because they were taking over my life, so checking and updating those doesn’t take long at all.
I look at my emails, look at my list, work out what the day’s priority is then a colleague rings and we chat for 20 minutes. I go downstairs to get some tea, which I am sure will kickstart the day, but I get waylaid by the three-year old who wants to build a den out of sofa cushions. The house looks like it’s been turned over by a gang of looters (probably after toilet roll).
I get back upstairs and get some work done then it’s lunchtime. It’s always the same – chocolate digestives and juice. I struggle through a bit more work in the afternoon then get panicky at about 4pm because I know the tea needs to be cooked and I’m sure I could do a better job. I can already smell burning onions and I know if I don’t intervene now I will be eating in an hour, filled with anguish and regret for not having taken over.
The fundamental skill is intimately mixing home and work locations, but keeping home and work life strictly separate. That’s a neat way of putting it and it seems like it shouldn’t be that hard to put into practice. It is. Here’s what I’ve found difficult so far:
- Not getting involved in childcare. It’s hard, and it goes against everything I know and believe about gender equality, but in these circumstances we have divided labour into ‘childcare’ and ‘paid work’ and the two don’t mix.
- Keeping work as work. Changing clothes, obeying working hours (both ‘clocking on’ on time and ‘knocking off’ promptly are difficult. There is always another wee bit to get on with domestically before starting work and professionally before going home.
- Beating loneliness. The big attraction of going to the office for me is the social interaction. Chatting to colleagues for advice, guidance, comparing notes, general gossiping, all form a core part of the experience of working in a shared workplace. That’s gone now, apart from phone calls and the newer experience of video calls, but deliberately calling someone up for a bit of a catch up seems more frivolous than chatting over a cup of tea.
- Site visits. At the time of writing (14th April) forestry operations are still ongoing. This is traditionally a busy time of the year with planning and producing annual reports, preparing client budgets, having just completed final invoicing for year end. These things are still happening and can be managed from the office/home office, but the light relief offered by site visits is now more limited. We will still go and check safe working practices, and inspect work quality, but the need to keep contact to the absolute minimum rules out general catch-ups and talking through future plans.
In a neat trick of management training, let’s see if these can be turned into opportunities:
- It’s nice to be able to be involved, and especially to support, a partner looking after the kids. I am in no doubt that going upstairs to work represents the easier end of the bargain and to be on hand to hold the baby or entertain the older one for a few minutes goes some way to assuage the guilt.
- I think this way of working requires a good deal of flexibility. I have a pretty good idea of what constitutes ‘a day’s work’ and an equally strong grasp on whether I’ve done that or not. Some days in the office the phone doesn’t stop, the emails come in and need urgent response, plans and maps need changing urgently and at the end of the day I’m hard pushed to say what has been achieved. My strategy for home working might become ‘get a decent chunk of your work moved along’ and don’t get too caught up in how (or in what timeframe) it was achieved.
- What you lose in everyday chit chat around the office you gain in phoning colleagues just to catch up. Last week I spoke to two of my colleagues from the office on the phone for longer than we would speak in the office, but had much more satisfying conversations. Maybe consolidating the chatter of the day into a couple of proper chats is no bad thing.
- Despite the diminishing opportunities for site visits, we are blessed to have a job that gives us reason to leave the house (at the moment). The prospect of weeks in the house is made much more tolerable by a plan to get out and about once a week. I will keep reviewing this in line with government and company guidance but as long as we have people out working, we will be there to ensure that they are keeping themselves and others safe, that the work is of the highest quality and that the environment is protected. This aspect of Tilhill’s way of working is not subject to change.
I hope everyone is well and variously enjoying or enduring their time at home. Stay safe, stay healthy and I look forward to seeing you in person soon!