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Is home working dead? Or does it just need a virtual assistant?

Yahoo chief, Marissa Mayer, recently cracked down on employees working from home – it sparked an outrage of this “backwards thinking” in one of the world’s biggest tech firms.

(Now I have to insert a little disclaimer here: Marissa Meyer is one of my business heroes.  A woman who deals on an equal footing with men because she plays by the same rules.  She truly believes in equality and that women don’t need “special treatment” to succeed in business – you’re either good enough to make the grade or you fail.  Good on her!)

Let’s look at the case for home working: You don’t spend the first hour of your day battling rush hour traffic, arriving tired and grumpy at the office.  You aren’t suited and booted with your heels rubbing a blister.  The annoying employee that WILL NOT SHUT UP isn’t bugging you.  Nor is anyone dropping by your desk to ask about your weekend and wasting 15 minutes gossiping.  You don’t have to make 12 cups of tea for everyone else in the office every time you decide to take a break.  You skip office politics, backstabbing and general nastiness.  You’re more effective because you can switch off distractions.  Your boss is thrilled since he’s not paying for your desk space, phone line, stationery or coffee supplies.  You love it since it means you get to cut out that dreaded commute and get home in time to play with the kids.

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Except what Ms Mayer found when she looked at the logs for her home working employees was that they weren’t working the hours they were supposed to be, nor were they being as productive as in-house employees.  In fact, questioning further, she discovered they were really demotivated and isolated.

This doesn’t surprise me at all – humans are social animals.  We crave contact with others.  Those 15 minutes “wasted” gossiping are actually refuelling our brains, we need it!  I know several VAs who had successful businesses but quit to go back to the world of traditional work, simply because they missed the buzz of being in the office.

What’s more, the USA is 10 years ahead of us in terms of home working – here in the UK, we’re still in the honeymoon period.  Their technology has been in place for a long time in terms of telephony and broadband availability.  Even when I started my business in 2004, we still had fixed phone lines as the quality just wasn’t there to use VOIP on a commercial basis.

There’s also the temptation of not working properly when you are unsupervised.  As a self-employed person, I have to be self-motivated, otherwise the mortgage doesn’t get paid.  As an employee who gets paid whatever, the temptation to have an extra 25 minutes in bed or to watch a daytime soap must be absolutely enthralling.  I defy anyone who as a virtual assistant claims they have never worked in their PJs or snuck off for a spot of shopping or bunged a load of washing in the machine when working from home.  The flip side is, they’ve probably been working till 2am the night before… we don’t always switch off from work as home workers.  Which is demotivating in itself.

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Then there’s the actual environment  of working from home – not only are there distractions such as washing up/TV/you mum popping round etc. but you also very rarely find that home workers have a designated workspace.  Working from the sofa is uncomfy for long periods of time.  Having work laid out on the kitchen table is just asking for a small person to smear jam on it.  There’s also no IT dept to call when the printer decides to pack up or your computer randomly drops its internet connection.  No wonder home workers are less productive!

I mentioned small people – specifically I get a lot of emails at SVA about people wanting to quit their jobs and become VAs “in order to save on childcare”.  Hmmph…    How I wish this horrible stereotype of the VA being a mum without childcare would just die!  Because it’s simply not true.   The UK VA Survey shows that only 3-4% of the VAs were working mums without some form of childcare.  Even if you work from home, you will still need to be available to your clients in working hours, you need a professional environment to work from, and your kids will need supervision!  (Well unless you really want your hall decorated with crayon…)  However I do see why it gets perpetuated by trainers/coaches who haven’t actually worked as a VA themselves – childcare is a massive drain on family finances, being able to banish it is a massive pull for people entering the industry and buying their courses, so naturally they are keen to promote this Mummy Myth.

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The good news is that as a virtual assistant, we bypass a lot of the problems of employee home workers.  We’re motivated by our self-employed status; as a client you aren’t paying for me to either gossip with colleagues or put the washing in the machine; we have brilliant support networks like SVA and professionally network too; our set up is one which we’ve chosen and you’ll often find our “home offices” better equipped than the average city centre office (mostly due to a large majority of us being gadget freaks!).

As the technology evolved, so too did the business model  – you need the flexibility that freelancers bring to a business.  I can’t help thinking that maybe Ms Mayer should have been hiring VAs instead of employees!

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