Immobile Technology

January 10, 2010

While I understand that it is still possible to play hopscotch on the smooth streets of the City of London, IT lawyers in many parts of the UK have seen all plans scotched. I confess that my only difficult battle with the elements has involved a furred-up kettle, but that is because I ‘work from home‘. (There is a school of thought that says I live at work – but this is an exaggeration.)

The recent experience of bad weather and disrupted transport must surely have seen some firms implement hastily arranged plans for key workers to work out of the office. A happy few will have had just such a plan ready and have used it to combat minor disruptions in the past. And many will have had a plan that was just a plan, and it didn’t work quite as well as they thought it would. In technical terms, the key point to remember is that home is a remote location. The same principles apply: security is paramount, access to files and reference sources should match those in the office and co-ordinated work must still be possible. For the home worker, home is not just any remote location – it has special features which Starbucks lacks (including much cheaper coffee).

The technical side is readily fixable, with a wide range of solutions available. What’s very often lacking is a recognition of the importance of home and other remote working. The consequence can be an unwillingness to invest. An unsatisfactory home working experience can result from underinvestment, and from negative attitudes that undermine its effectiveness – and then you have a vicious circle: ‘what’s the point in investing in that when it doesn’t give us value anyway?‘

I do believe that negative attitudes to home working can arise from either side. Sometimes an employer’s attitude is so negative that the worker will skive because the employer (or fellow workers) make the expectation of low productivity so obvious that the inner child kicks in and skiving seems like an expression of personal liberty. Sometimes employees allow the endless opportunities for work displacement to overwhelm them.

Of course, most SCL readers are too enlightened and responsible to fall into either of these traps but there is also the danger of excess: you can create a negative attitude to working from home by allowing work to {i}take over{/i} home. Working long hours to achieve targets that you set yourself can ruin your social, domestic and married life – and it as well to remember that few of us achieve our daily targets when working in an office. The half-hearted involvement can be dangerous too, especially when combining work and child care. For example, if you are used to the once-a-day metamorphosis from obsessive IT lawyer to concerned parent and partner, it can be tough to grasp the multitude of metamorphoses involved in home working. The occasional grunted ‘Yes, that’s fine’ may be understandable when you are busy, and no great disaster when the query concerned a biscuit, but you must make sure that you haven’t just agreed to an in-house snowball party (‘because it’s too cold outside’).

My hope is that the recent weather disruptions have made many realise that investing in equipment that enriches the working experience of those outside the office is well worthwhile. If you could not acess every file or resource, that’s not a product of home working, it is a product of poorly resourced home working. Don’t dismiss telecons because they didn’t quite work out – you should at least consider whether an improvement in the technology used could make that experience better. We might see a real cut in costs of travel, a real improvement in the work/life balance and an increase in productivity when there is disruption, whether snowdrifts or child’s cold.

If your first steps towards improving home and remote working in your firm were just an emergency response to bad weather, don’t worry. Those first steps may have only scratched the surface of the problem, but it’s a start. Remember that an angle-grinder only scratches the surface – its effectiveness depends on the force and commitment of the person using it – and follow through.