Working from home is a growing trend in the business world. In an effort to cut back on office space and other overhead costs, many companies have set up their employees with the technology they need to do their jobs in their home offices.
The big issue that management has with WFH arrangements is trust. How do they know their employees are working if they can’t see them working? One could argue that perhaps they shouldn’t hire someone they don’t trust, but that’s a topic for another blog.
Working from home is an even trickier situation for consultants. Consultants often haven’t developed as much trust as the client might have with their own employees. The client usually pays more for a consultant’s hourly rate, making it more desirable for the manager to see them working. From the consultant’s view, it’s almost always better to have face-time with the client.
Working from home is a mixed bag with many pros and cons.
Work from home advantages
- Commute time is given back. If you work in a major city, your one-way commute can exceed an hour. Add in a traffic back-up due to construction or an accident and you could spend three hours a day just going to and from work. What could you do with fifteen more hours a week?
- Flexibility of schedule. If you need to be home between 9:00AM and 5:00PM, for the cable guy to come to your house, you may need to take the entire day off. Working from home allows you to run to a doctor’s appointment, pick up the kids from school and take care of any other personal activities while still getting a full day’s work in.
- Save Money. If you sit in your car for two to three hours a day, chances are the car is running the whole time. Avoiding the commute saves time in public transportation costs, gas, oil and general wear and tear on your automobile. If you work at home, you may also be able to avoid buying as many work clothes as you might otherwise have bought.
- Fewer interruptions. When you work in an office, people tend to talk to you. It may be for business questions, but they might just want to chit chat about the vacation they just took or the latest crisis they’re going through with their teenager. If you’re on a deadline and people just won’t leave you alone, you may crave a more productive environment.
Work from home disadvantages
- Relationships with client. The way to keep clients long-term is to develop relationships with them. They are immeasurably more likely to continue a relationship with someone they trust. It’s hard to develop a trusting relationship without spending quality time face-to-face with them.
- Always at work. A common complaint heard from WFHers is that when they work from home, they always feel like they’re at work. The mobile phone and laptop are always within reach and they often feel the need to check emails even when they’re off-hours.
- Less camaraderie. Despite the many interruptions at the office, it’s nice to take a break and go out to lunch once in a while with your colleagues. After the cliff-hanger season finale of your favorite show, it’s fun to have the water cooler chat about it the next day. It’s even nice to stop for a drink after work every once in a while. That type of esprit de corps is difficult in the isolation of WFH.
- Lower visibility to accomplishments. WFH can result in the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome. You may be accomplishing things, but it may not be as obvious to your management when you aren’t there presenting it. It requires more effort to make them notice without sounding like a show-boater. It may also reduce your chances of being assigned to cool, high-profile projects.
- New interruptions. You may have rationalized WFH because you needed to get out of the office to avoid interruptions. But there can be just as many interruptions at home. The cable guy and the doctor’s appointment cause starts and stops just as easily as the guy in the next cubicle. Having kids in the house or a dog that needs feeding contribute to disruptions as well.
A work from home approach
So what is a consultant to do? I’ve found that the optimal approach for a consultant is to be on site with the client. It may be a long commute and even a hardship, but face time is a critical component to relationship building. If you must work out a WFH arrangement, here are some tips to make it work to your advantage.
- A hybrid approach. If you need to WFH and you’re able to work it out with the client and your firm, try to work out an agreement where you only work one or two days per week off-site. This allows you to combine being with the client with the flexibility of being at home.
- Be flexible. You may want to work Mondays and Fridays at home, but if the client wants to hold an all-day meeting on Monday, be willing to switch your days or forego one of your WFH days.
- Communicate regularly. A common complaint about people who WFH is that I can’t just go over to your desk and talk to you. When people call and get voice mail or email and don’t get an immediate response, frustration builds. They begin to ask “What does he really do when he ‘works from home?’” It’s important to be responsive to requests from the office. Yet, part of working from home is to get away from those interruptions. If you only check your emails every couple of hours, make sure people know that. Let them know that they can call if it’s urgent. Take care not to communicate unnecessarily just to let them know you’re working. If you are responsive when they need you, they’ll know well enough.
- Show results. Your ultimate goal as a consultant is to be the client’s trusted advisor. The best way to do that is to create value by showing them results. Showing results is also the best way to remove any doubt about what you do when you work from home.
- Be on time. Much of your communication while you WFH will be via conference call. It’s important to call in at least two minutes prior to the start of the call so that you’re ready when it starts and to allow for any dial-in issues. If your previous call goes long and you can’t jump off, text the leader of the next call to let them know. Keeping people waiting while you WFH will invite questions about what you’re doing.
The age of oversight may be fading, but managerial monitoring is still deeply engrained in today’s business world. Many managers only allow people to work from home if they can measure them on concrete results. That’s why sales people commonly work from home. Most bosses don’t care how many hours they work as long as they meet or exceed their sales quotas. Many other jobs are hard to measure results as easily.
Regardless of how open the client is to it for their employees, WFH is a trust that must be earned. Don’t assume they will allow it for consultants and don’t be offended if they don’t grant it.
Some consulting work requires heads-down uninterrupted working. But a consultant should always keep in mind the value of face-to-face dealings with the client. And you never know when that opportunity will occur.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.