The world is your office: How to work from anywhere

Most modern jobs require you to turn up. And that leads to a whole range of issues, from traffic at peaktimes to decreased productivity in distraction-filled open-plan offices. But some are harnessing technology to fight against what they think is an inefficient, antiquated approach. Henry Oliver talks to an executive, a consultant, a solicitor, a manager and a research professor about the pros (and a few cons) of working from anywhere

In 1974, Arthur C Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, told an Australian TV news reporter that by the year 2001, computers would not only be in every home, but would talk to each other, providing all the information necessary for everyday life. The reporter asked Clarke if there was a danger that connected home computers would lead to a computer-dependant society.

“In some ways,” Clarke responded, “but they’ll also enrich our society because it’ll make it possible for us to live anywhere we like. Any businessman, any executive could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through a device like this. And this is a wonderful thing. It means we won’t have to be stuck in cities. We can live out in the country or wherever we please, and still carry on complete interaction with human beings, as well as with other computers.”

Clarke was right about the connectivity, but what about the living anywhere bit? With well over 80 percent of New Zealand households connected to the internet, and an increasing number of New Zealanders employed in ‘knowledge’ work (i.e. answering emails), why aren’t we living anywhere? Why are we sitting in traffic and overpaying for real estate when we could be sending at least some of our emails from the comfort of our home or the convenience of a shared office close by?

The remote professor

Professor Tim Bentley of AUT’s New Zealand Work Research Institute, is both a practitioner and advocate of remote working (or, ‘teleworking’, ‘mobile working’, or, his favourite, ‘anywhere working’). “For jobs like yours and mine,” he says as we talk on our cellphones having corresponded by email, “we could probably do the same work from wherever we are, at whatever time.”

Bentley lives in Warkworth, where he often works on Mondays and Fridays rather than making the 90 minute drive to his office at AUT. “There's days I come in and think that everything I did that day, I could have done at home,” he says. “Three hours in traffic there and back just so I can say I was seen in the office.”

In 2013, Bentley and the team at the NZ Work Research Institute published the Trans-Tasman Telework Survey, a study of 100 executives and managers, and over 1700 employers from 50 New Zealand and Australian organisations. The study showed that employees who worked at least some of their work hours remotely – from home, a satellite office or other workspace – are not only more productive and satisfied in their job, but help their employers save money, increase access to talent and improve staff retention.

“There's enough evidence now to show that this kind of working is better for everyone,” he says. “Everyone that's doing knowledge work that's not customer-facing, they should be able to work remotely at least some of their time.”

Employers should focus on their employees output rather than inputs. Rather than worrying about the number of hours people are sitting at a desk, they should be worrying about what they're producing. – Tim Bentley, AUT

He says that the shift towards remote working should be part of a broader flexibility in working arrangement – not just flexibility in locations, but hours, time, and process. “Employers should focus on their employees output rather than inputs. Rather than worrying about the number of hours people are sitting at a desk, they should be worrying about what they're producing.”

So why aren’t we?

Bentley says resistance to flexible work alternatives to the traditional 9-5/Mon-Fri is more likely to come from managers than executives. “We've been working with organisations where the CEO and the senior executives are trying to lead a more flexible working culture and they have managers further down the chain that are not buying into it because they have a trust issue. They don't trust people unless they can see them."

And remote working isn't just about keeping a couple of office ‘freethinkers’ happy. Bentley says that developing flexible working arrangements is going to become a crucial part of attracting and retaining staff as the competition for human resources heats up. “There's going to be a shortage of skilled workers from around 2018 onwards, that's when the baby boomer retirement really starts to hit,” he says. “And the new people replacing them are the people who are going to want to work flexibly. So it's about getting ahead of the curve and getting a policy in place now.

“The younger generation will want to be able to work anywhere, just because they can. My kids won't want to sit in the traffic I sit in. Why would they?”



The nomadic exec

Andy Lark, Xero's chief marketing officer, lives in Sydney and works between hotels, aeroplanes, and his home and Xero's offices around the world. He doesn’t consider himself remote (“That always sounds glamorous, like I'm at the beach or something”), but nomadic.

“In traditional work environments, remote working means the office is in Wellington, and I'm going to work from the Wairarapa, sit in the home office and beaver away,” he says. “But, what we do is a more nomadic, flexible style of working, where you tend to work where you need to do your work. So, if I need to be working with our data analytics team, I'm in Wellington and I'm sitting where they're sitting. If I need to be working with my web team in Melbourne, I'm in Melbourne.”

I say to people, ‘Don’t sit in rush hour – sit at home and come in when you need to. If you need to be in the office, that's fine. If you don’t – work wherever you want to work. If you can work on the beach in your togs and it works for you a couple of days a week, and it works for your team, have at it!’ – Andy Lark, Xero

Lark says one of the advantages of what he calls ‘freestyle working’, is that you can fully integrate work and life. “I work a lot at home on Fridays because I like to create time to think and it's really easy in my home office to look at data and just think about things. So I say to people, ‘Don’t sit in rush hour – sit at home and come in when you need to. If you need to be in the office, that's fine. If you don’t – work wherever you want to work. If you can work on the beach in your togs and it works for you a couple of days a week, and it works for your team, have at it!’"

For Xero, having a flexible work culture and a management style hasn’t required any transition for Xero’s executives. Lark says the company was built using Google apps, “working and living in the cloud”, which is inherent in the way the company operates.

“The cloud’s not just about shifting where stuff gets stored, it’s about shifting how you work,” he says. “So, if you're writing this story and I’m your editor, I’d just open up the doc and watch you writing and I’d edit away in real time. In the old world, I’d sit in my office and open your Word doc, edit and save it and send you that file and you might go away and work on it and then you come back to me and we're in this constant hand-off mode, whereas this flexible, nomadic work, everything’s in real time.”

By operating in an open, cloud-based system, working together is more important than being together in the same room. Every team-member can see each other’s work as they’re doing it and can access their calendars to check availability for collaboration or communication. You don’t need to be at work to be working. And you don’t need to see someone to know they’re producing what they need to be.

“The people you can see are the ones you can trust the least,” he says. “In the traditional, physical office environment, they're necessarily opaque. Everything happens behind closed doors, information is closely guarded in silos. Here, everything's open. Want to know what Rod's doing today? Open his calendar and have a look. There's no secrets. We're all clear about what we're up to and what we're doing. By being transparent you build far greater trust and assurance across your teams ... So the whole notion that we do more together in person - meh, not convinced.”

What he is convinced of is that the way Xero works is the way we’ll all be working soon. “Every business will work this way within five years,” he says. “One, the savings alone are so dramatic, it'd be irresponsible not to be working this way. Two, it's a far more productive way of working. I cannot imagine working the other way.”

A consultant at the beach

Scott Lawrie, a Scottish ‘brand voice consultant’, lives in a compact, modern home in Pakari, where he has a small mezzanine office overlooking the beach. For the last year or so, he’s worked from home and travelling to meet clients in Australia, the US and the UK, first for XXVI, the agency he founded in 2005, and now his new consultancy, Voice Boxed.

“For me, it was a practical decision,” he says. “I was commuting an hour and a half each way, and that's really unproductive – sitting in the car. There's not a lot you can do on the road at 100kms an hour.”

But it’s not just the commute. Lawrie found the office environment to be less and less conducive to actually getting work done. “Offices have become the most unproductive places to work,” he says recalling his nine years in a traditional workplace. “There's this over-reliance on meetings – I would get to the end of the day and have had four or five meetings, an hour long with all the bullshit, all the intros, the coffee, and you get to the end and there was three minutes of that meeting that was useful.”

There's a sense that people are going to rip you off, they're going to not work hard. And it's absolute bullshit. You go to offices and you see what people are doing and they're all on fucking Facebook! – Scott Lawrie, Voice Boxed

Lawrie sees a resistance to remote working and other flexible working arrangements to be based in a needless adherence to tradition and a lack of trust between employers and their workers. “There's a sense that people are going to rip you off, they're going to not work hard. And it's absolute bullshit,” he says emphatically. “You go to offices and you see what people are doing and they're all on fucking Facebook!”

As well as the ability to work on his own, for Lawrie, one of the benefits of remote working is the fluidity of the work day. He starts at 8am and by 1pm he’s done the equivalent of a full day in the office. “It’s a total myth that people do their best work between 9am and 6pm – I don't know where that's come from,” he says. “For me, I've always been a nighttime worker or an early morning worker, but mid-afternoon, I'm over it by then.”

Managing from home

“A lot of people don't know where I work,” says Karen Warman, marketing manager of Resene, who has worked from home for over ten years. “I could be invisible.”

Warman was working at head office in Wellington and begun working at home part time while she was on maternity leave. When her husband got transferred to Auckland, the family followed, and she’s been working from home ever since.

She says that she’s more productive at home than she would be in an office. “I save a lot of time by not wasting it in traffic. I start work when other people leave home and finish work when other people get home, so I'm gaining an hour or two on some people. I can work at night if I need to. If the kids are sick, I can still work.”

And Warman’s not just toiling away on her own – she’s managing three teams which report to her while she’s sitting in her lounge. “My staff are used to not having a boss there. We tried to install a manager down there but everyone hated it because they were happy with the way it was.”

She works mostly by email but calls her key staff once a week not so much to check in, but to hear their voices. “You can get most things by email,” she says, “but the tone of the voice tells you a lot.”

Warman says the increased productivity and flexibility aren't the only advantages of remote working. Being outside the office has helped her get a different perspective on the business, seeing things she might miss if she were ensconced in HQ. “When you're in a head office, you can get a little bit blinkered by being in a head office,” she says. “Because I'm head office staff but I'm outside of it, I'm probably a bit more realistic about what the outside world looks like. Particularly in marketing, you see some of the gaps and some of the holes that you might not see if you're in the office all the time."

When working at home, Warman works from her lounge, saying that she’s more comfortable than her home office, she is good at shutting out the not-work world, even refusing to answer the door or her home phone.

"When my working day starts, I'm not in the house, I'm at work.”

The remote lawyer

It’s not just branding consultants and marketing nomads who can escape the Mon-Fri cubicle life. Solicitor Nico de Jong spent two-and-a-half years working for an Australian law firm from his Auckland home before establishing his own practice, TheLoft.Legal.

Despite the often strenuous workload that comes with working as a lawyer, where work is accounted for and billed in six minute increments, de Jong found he was more productive when at home, at his own pace. “I could do the same billable hours in a much shorter time, because the distractions just aren't there,” he says. “You just don't get people walking into your office and chatting.”

De Jong communicated with his firm (which included secretarial support) by email, Skyping with his managing partner frequently, and flying to Perth twice a year to maintain client relationships, and keeping up with his colleagues. “You do miss the social side,” he says. “It's just nice to chat and have a coffee, so when I did go back, I'd love it. I wouldn't get as much work done, but it was nice to be out of my box, talking to people and socialising.”

While recognising the possibility of losing out on career opportunities, despite not being in the office, de Jong managed to get a promotion while working remotely. “I had a pretty good setup where the boss I was working for really liked me and was always thinking of me and sending me work, so I never had a problem, but you do get forgotten about a little bit because you're not there, which could be a problem if you don't have the right person looking out for you or you aren't about to remind people that you're there.”

Ultimately, de Jong found working from home suited him so much, it inspired him to leave the firm and set up his sole-practice.  “I got so used to working out of the office environment,” he says. “It wasn't that appealing to go back.”

How?

Tools: "Connectivity is key. I couldn't do it without a decent internet connection. But even then, people said I'd need a super-fast connection, but I get 10 megabytes per second, which is all you need. To work from home on Word, PDFs, PowerPoint, Skype, it handles it really well. People find reasons to worry about the technology, but I just use a standard Mac, Skype, Dropbox, email, and even for new business I can use LinkedIn. I don't need to go knocking on doors or anything.” – Scott Lawrie, Voiceboxed

Facetime: “I probably spend six hours a day in Hangouts with people. And often I have to deal with people turning off their camera, and I'm like ‘Nah, turn on your camera, I want to see you’ and it completely changes the tenor and tone of a conversation when you're looking and talking with somebody. As soon as you turn video off, you lose all of the intimacy and vibrancy of seeing the person you're talking to.” – Andy Lark, Xero

Wi-fi: “When you have shitty wifi, it’s a pain in the ass. I’ve checked out of hotels because their wifi is too slow, or they have some punitive charging plan. And be conscious of your mobile roaming and data plans. It can go pear-shaped really quickly on you if you're not conscious that you're burning through all your data because you're on conference calls.” – Andy Lark, Xero

Risks?

Stationary life: “The downside is that you get fat. I've put on two-and-a-half kilos in the year I've worked from home. And it's not because I'm eating or drinking any more, it's because you get up in the morning and start working. So I try and walk the dog once a day on the beach - not so much for his benefit, but for mine. Just to get away from the desk.” – Scott Lawrie, Voice Boxed

Distraction: “You have to have systems in place and the mentality of going to work. You go into your office and you shut out whatever else is going on.” – Nico de Jong, THE.LOFT LEGAL

Overwork: “The work never goes away,” says Warman. “You find yourself picking it up anytime day or night and sometimes you think, ‘God, I just wish I could have a weekend when the work wasn't looking at me.’ You never really get away from it.” – Karen Warman, Resene

Isolation: “It's very easy to work from home and get very isolated. You have to keep yourself involved, showing interest in other projects people are working on, making yourself part of the team. Some people underestimate how much they need the social element at work. It’s never phased me, but all the people I know who work from home struggle with not having the chat round the coffee machine or the water cooler, and that's what's driven them back to the office. The key criteria for working from home is whether you can cope without that.”  – Warman

The law?

In 2015 the Employment Relations Act was amended giving all employees the right to request flexible working arrangement and obliging employers to consider requests for remote working arrangements. Employers can only refuse requests for prescribed reasons, including: if working remotely conflicts with a collective agreement, or would be detrimental to work quality or performance, or burden the employer with additional costs.