Like many freelancers who work mainly at home, Toronto film editor James Blokland can roll out of bed, walk down the hall, turn left and start work in his pyjamas – a perk he loves. If he’s feeling inspired, it’s an opportunity to attack his day while the ideas are flowing. If not, he might walk the dog or break for some mid-afternoon tennis before working late into the night.
Independent workers have long had that flexibility, but now, as many companies downsize their pricey corporate real estate, an increasing number of Canadians are shifting from a busy office environment to working from home for all or part of their week.
The upside for most is a better work/life balance. Plus there’s no manager peering over your shoulder.
But while you remain virtually connected to the office, much of your time is likely spent alone.
Those who work physically apart from colleagues can suffer a sense of isolation, according to Pennsylvania’s Wharton University management department, where professors are studying work/life integration. They might have trouble communicating with co-workers they seldom see, or have difficulties managing the boundaries between work and personal life.
Distractions at home can get in the way of focusing your attention on “the things that matter when they matter,” says Wharton management professor Stewart Friedman. “You need to have a greater sense of discipline about creating those boundaries.”
With a young family to manage, Mr. Blokland tends to change his hours a lot since “no one really cares when I work, as long as the job gets done on time,” so work is often fragmented.
“There’s an advantage in that for family life, but then your work follows you throughout the day so you’re never really off,” says Mr. Blokland, who’s been freelancing for about 14 years. “If I’m working with all my equipment at an office downtown, when I leave there I’m done. I can’t do any more. There’s a shut-off valve.”
Alexandra Jacobs, global head of employee communications at Royal Bank of Canada, thrives on the constant connectivity with her team of seven. The single mom works from home three days a week, frequently rising to work very early so she can take time later to walk her daughter to school. Ms. Jacobs rarely goes anywhere without her BlackBerry.
“In some ways, being connected lowers my stress level because I’m never surprised by anything; I keep tabs on what’s going on through e-mails,” she says. “The important thing is that it’s my choice to work that way and that makes all the difference.”
Staying connected is key to a lone worker’s success. In a large organization, being offsite can mean out of sight, out of mind when it comes to promotions or career opportunities, as well as being out of the loop with office politics.
At RBC, Ms. Jacobs says that she meets with everyone at least once a week, even if it’s just a chat in the hall. But for a solo freelancer, it can be even more challenging to build your career when you don’t have an organization behind you. You’re responsible for your own networking and creating your own opportunities.
Freelance videographer Rosa Park misses having people to bounce ideas around with, so relies heavily on her social media for interaction.
“It’s kind of lonely not having co-workers,” says Ms. Park, who works out of a tiny downtown office. “I live on Facebook and Twitter. I try to cut it down, but I can’t. It’s the only way for me to be social.”
One gap that comes from communicating primarily through e-mail or phone is the emotional factor. According to Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade, more than half of communication about emotion is transmitted through facial expression. That’s something Mr. Blokland understands firsthand when he’s working with a director on a movie. Over the last five years, he’s observed a shift in the way he collaborates.
“Instead of being in the same room and looking at something together physically, the new room is the Internet,” says Mr. Blokland. “We use it to fire off cuts back and forth. A lot of the people I work with are like me, on their computers all the time, so they respond right away. It’s very direct, but you’re not reading body language or tone, and it takes away from the immediacy and more visceral response to the material.
“In every feature I’ve worked on, there’s that moment where you finally get together and play the thing. You know right away [if]it’s working or not. You can feel it. Ultimately, there’s no substitute for that.”
Tips for the solitary worker
- Allow yourself some space to goof off: “Sometimes you can sit there at home and the day goes by and all you’ve done is sit there. I argue that distractions are part of the creative process, so I don’t beat myself up too much about that. People goof off at the office too. It’s not an exclusive privilege to working at home. As long as you deliver, nobody really cares too much how you got there.” – James Blokland
- Don’t pretend you’re at the office: “Be very transparent with others about your working arrangement. If you are calling in from home, don’t hide it so they won’t be surprised when the dog barks. Also, make sure you don’t lose the social side of work. Ask people how they are, how their vacation went and create your own water cooler. Otherwise, it’s easy to get isolated.” – Alexandra Jacobs
- Be good to yourself: “Take frequent breaks, visit your local coffee shop and get some exercise. Eat well.” – James Blokland
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