Shutting down the office: silicon.com's WFH experiment

The trials and tribulations of working flexibly...
Written by silicon.com staff, Contributor on

The trials and tribulations of working flexibly...

It's that time of year again when the silicon.com team switch off their alarm clocks and take part in National Work From Home Day.

Now in its sixth year, the event is part of the Work Wise Week aimed at bringing flexible working practices to the 22 million people in the UK who still have no option but to drag themselves to the office each day.

For the team, the positives - a tranquil work environment, a lie-in, no stressful commute - were balanced pretty evenly by negatives - miscommunication, technical problems, missing software and one particularly persistent cat.

Read on to discover silicon.com's take on whether WFH really is better than being stuck in an office.

Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger, editor
Thanks to the advent of wi-fi, smartphones and laptops with batteries that hold a charge for more than an hour, I've done plenty of working outside the office in the past few years.

That is, working from home, from the airport, on a plane, in the cab from the airport, on a bus, on a train, at the beach, in bed.

Sure, I haven't actually sent an email or perused a spreadsheet while on a bicycle, skydiving or in my sleep but I reckon it's only a matter of time.

In the past five years, remote working has become a standard part of the productivity armoury for most office workers. The technology is there and mostly works fine.

Working away from the office can give you an opportunity to get a bit of perspective and also be more productive in some ways: great if you need to get your head down and plough through a report.

But I'm not sure that I'd want to work from home every day. Not only would I miss hanging out with a team with a common goal, I'd also miss out on the bigger picture.

So while the tech side is getting there, I think it's still early days in terms of our understanding of how to behave as teams when working separately and how to manage people who work remotely. Social networking, IM and video-chats help bridge the gap but there is still a way to go.

Productivity: 10/10
Concentration: 10/10
Management: 5/10
Overall: 8/10

Toby Wolpe

Toby Wolpe, news editor
As someone who spends most of the time toiling at home, perhaps I should have marked National Work From Home Day with a visit to the office to see how the other half lives.

In the event, I followed the crowd and assumed my usual position upstairs in front of an ageing work Toshiba Satellite Pro laptop and my own even older Dell PC. So far, all very familiar. So did the day throw up any surprises?

Working outside

silicon.com news editor Toby Wolpe with his little helper Muzz during a Skype video chatPhoto: Toby Wolpe/silicon.com

Yes, online meetings. We opted to use Google Chat for a 10am news meeting and at first I was impressed by the ease with which the software united a team of seven journalists. Perhaps because the format and aims of the meeting are so routine for all of us, the early stages flew by with impressive efficiency.

But once we moved from the allocation of tasks to discussion, the shortcomings of text-based dialogue rapidly became apparent. Words flew off at tangents and conversations babbled across one another. It was funny but chaotic.

Later, a Skype-based exchange with sub-editor Emma Bayly underlined that easily available and cheap video meetings can't arrive soon enough - because only video can convey the nuances and structures present in real face-to-face exchanges. We didn't try Skype's free seven-day group video trial. That will have to wait until our next team home-working experiment.

Productivity: 8/10
Concentration: 8/10
Management: 6/10
Overall: 7/10
Verdict: Comms problems make it far more pressurised than working in the office.

Nick Heath

Nick Heath, chief reporter
Living in Norfolk means that working from home equals at least one extra hour in bed, so immediately it's a plus.

It's not all about the ZZZs. I find I can get a proper breakfast and start work early without the hassle of typing while squashed into a train seat.

Despite relying on creaking rural copper, my connection holds up well, not dropping the VPN link to the office, and matching work for internet speed.

Living in a village cul-de-sac where the average resident is pushing 70 means there are few distractions, and without the incessant ringing of phones and low-level hubbub of the office I find I am able to concentrate more effectively.

Communication is not so hot. Email and IM take longer than face-to-face speech, and during our IM news meetings people talk over each other and get the wrong end of the stick.

And while benefiting from Google Reader, Dropbox and other online tools, I find myself having to contrive some Heath Robinson stopgaps for missing workplace tech - for instance, balancing my phone on my netbook and using its mic to record from the speakerphone, which works surprisingly well.

Productivity: 7/10
Concentration: 9/10
Full breakfast: 10/10
Overall: 7/10
Verdict: You can get more done away from office distractions but communication will suffer - that's the trade-off.

Natasha Lomas

Natasha Lomas, senior reporter
"Oh you're working from home are you? You can hang out my washing then. Can you also put these batteries on to charge at midday - and have a look round for my glasses? I can't find them..."

And so my working day began - after some welcome extra shut-eye in bed - with a set of tasks from my boyfriend as he headed out to work.

Finally, I thought, no more distractions. How wrong I was. Being at home on a work day meant I was disrupting the cat's normal routine. As distracting as my colleagues can be - with office banter, requests for tea and so on - thankfully none of them has been known to start rubbing themselves on the computer equipment while I'm trying to work.

WFH: Cat distraction

Natasha's cat starting to look sleepy - does this mean peace at last?Photo: Natasha Lomas

Working on an unfamiliar machine - a Mac, not a PC - meant I had to download a few apps not already installed on the computer and tweak some of my processes to get everything done. But I didn't have any connectivity issues, and if I was working from home every day I would soon get used to this set-up.

By 11am the house was quiet enough to hear the dripping tap in the bathroom and the neighbour's baby crying. Much quieter and better for concentrating than silicon's Southwark offices.

But the most welcome change was the lack of cold calls from PRs. There's nothing more distracting than getting a stream of unsolicited pitches. Nothing, that is, apart from an attention-seeking cat.

Concentration: 8/10 - it would be 10/10 without the cat-based distractions.
Productivity: 8/10 - much easier to concentrate but working on a new machine meant routine processes took a fraction longer than usual.
Overall: 7/10
Verdict: WFH is best when you need to concentrate on...

...getting a big piece of work done without distractions. If you need to have creative discussions with team members, it's probably easier to have a face-to-face meeting than to chat over IM.

Tim Ferguson

Tim Ferguson, reporter
After a busy week, an extra hour in bed was much appreciated and helped me start the day feeling well rested and ready to go.

I set up my workspace on my kitchen table where I was able to get lots of light from the French windows and be close to the kettle for essential cups of tea. However, connecting to the VPN took a while and required an IM chat with one of the tech guys.

Working outside was tricky

Working outside was tricky with the sun reflecting off the computer screenPhoto: Tim Ferguson/silicon.com

The IM news conference was fine, if a little confusing when people replied to questions in different orders.

As the weather was so nice, I briefly attempted to work on the terrace but found the sunlight reflecting off my laptop screen so went back to the kitchen.

My friend who is staying with me worked in her room while I stayed in the kitchen, so we were able get on with our work without too much of a problem.

I've missed the office banter on previous WFH days but having my housemate and her colleague about meant that was less of an issue as we popped out to a local cafe for lunch and chatted occasionally during the day. The tea rounds were a little smaller than usual, though.

Generally, I enjoyed the WFH experience more than in the past. It was quieter than the office with fewer things going on around me so my concentration and productivity levels were pretty good. I also think I'm more accustomed to using the tools needed when WFH, and know how to overcome the problems I've faced in the past.

Productivity: 7/10
Concentration: 8/10
Overall: 7/10

Shelley Portet

Shelley Portet, reporter
My working from home experience started the day before as I got prepared to work remotely.

Despite feeling very prepared, I still managed to neglect to copy down the URLs of sites I use every day which are bookmarked on my work desktop and forgot that I didn't have a word-processing program on my home laptop. This oversight led to frantic IMs with colleagues and rapid downloading of software - all at 8.30am before breakfast. Not quite the laid-back start to the day I had envisaged.

However, I was set up and ready to go soon enough, only to then be interrupted by the building manager who informed me my boiler is leaking into the building car park. Oh, and did I mention there are four builders working in my flat?

Having co-ordinated with plumbers, builders and building managers, I then sat down to work - on a bean bag as I have no furniture in my flat yet.

But once I was settled in, I found that working from home offered many benefits. Even with four builders, my flat was much quieter than the office and I was able to concentrate on my work for longer periods of time.

I was still able to collaborate with colleagues through IM, but felt less inclined to chat about non-work-related topics - although talk of Natasha's cat was a welcome distraction.

Concentration: 8/10 - I could concentrate much better than in the office.
Productivity: 7/10 - More time was taken up with non-work-related interruptions than in the office but it was easier to focus in between interruptions.
Hours of additional sleep: One hour and 15 minutes - saved time on the commute and on getting ready for the day.
Overall experience: 7/10 - I had a stressful start, but once I was settled things got easier. Missed the office chat though.

Emma Bayly

Emma Bayly, sub-editor
Working from home means I've traded in 50 minutes on the bus for a long, leisurely breakfast and a Skype call home to New Zealand - not a bad way to start the day.

It's incredibly quiet in my home office but the pile of dishes on the kitchen bench has proven to be far more distracting than the construction workers cutting concrete outside Silicon Towers.

Productivity-wise, I've got just as much done as I would if I were in the office - but I've needed two computers to do so. I'm using a MacBook with Photoshop on it for image work and my HP laptop for everything else. Working without a mouse is a bit tricky when flitting in and out of windows, and scrolling is a pain on the PC.

Toby and I used Skype to liaise before lunchtime, but his microphone was rather quiet and the sun streaming in the window meant the video wasn't very clear. I did get to meet Toby's WFH colleague - Muzz the terrier - so it wasn't all bad.

I think I could definitely get used to working from home, but I'd miss the interaction with workmates and the occasional cake that Steve reluctantly buys for us.

Productivity: 9/10
Concentration: 7/10
Comfort: 10/10
Overall: 7/10

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