Thursday, February 20, 2014

Working from Home

I've been meaning to write this post forever. I started working from home mid-September and wanted to share my experience in how I got to that spot, but then I decided to give it a little time so I could also talk about what it was like once I settled into a routine. And then, Christmas came around so I was busy with that. But even after that I was hesitant to write about it as I was at the end of my trial period. The trial period was extended into January as new documentation was evaluated and I finally just received an approval to work from home through 2014 (as long as it continues to meet business needs). So finally, about 5 months after starting to work at home I am ready to talk about it. This is a long post, but hopefully there are some helpful tools for those who are also thinking about asking for a work accommodation with their work.

Desk was on hydraulics so I could sit or stand

Back Story

This journey actually started over a year ago. I work for a company that provides work from home or alternative schedules to some of their employees, but it's often not full time (in fact, today I discovered quite a few people working from home due to a snow storm, but no one in my department has the luxury to decide to work from home on random days). In my department it's a little more challenging to get this in place as my position requires me to be on a phone queue so apparently it's easier to have everyone in the office.

For most of my co-workers this change in my schedule may have seemed like it came on suddenly as one day we announced it and the next day I was at home (I wish we would have done this differently), but this was a process that took about 9 long months to get to. In fact, in my original request I never asked to work from home - that was suggested later by leadership. I had asked to work 32 hours a week - having Fridays off.

I've alluded to it in previous posts, but I was having a hard winter last year. Part of if was my job (I'm very adaptable, but there were so many, many changes), and there were many other personal factors. I knew I needed to make a change, but I wasn't sure getting a new job would solve what ailed me. I had heard of a few other people in my department who were able to get adjusted schedules approved so I considered that as an option

Part of my issue was feeling a lack of balance in life and work. Probably the story of most people's lives, but it felt so heavy to me at the time. Between my husband taking on more of the parenting and household duties (due to his flexible work schedule), some health issues, and my dad getting older (and also having health issues) I felt like something had to give.

Once I established what I thought would work best for myself and my family, I approached my supervisor. I have to admit I felt lighter than I had in months and felt hopeful the accommodation would be approved.

Leaf to help block to too bright light

The Request

I know I wasn't the first and won't be the last to ask for some accommodation to a work schedule. I'm fairly certain I didn't do everything 'right' when it came to this process, but I tried to keep a few key factors in mind.

1. Really know why you need this accommodation.

Will it actually help? Will it bring you balance? Will it cause different stress? Is it less hours that you need or a different position elsewhere? Can you afford it?

When I first presented my 'wish' to work shorter hours I was looking for some work/life balance. Jesse was taking on more of the parenting duties and household stuff because his job was more flexible and he worked less hours than I did. We were both feeling the strain and for a while Riley was favoring her dad and it was killing me. Additionally, I had some annoying health issues and wanted to be around more for my dad who at 85 was having heath issues himself. I was hoping that working one less day a week would give me just the break I needed.

My boss and I had a long talk about if working less hours was actually going to help. Was it going to bring the relief I was looking for? When I made my request I was fairly burnt out and we were very short staffed. I had watched many of my co-workers and a supervisor leave and I'll admit, there were times I wish I was one of them. But to be honest, I wasn't sure another job would make me any happier unless it could provide me with more work/life balance. I really felt I needed to work less hours.

My boss and I actually had many conversations over multiple months about this. I was asked to submit a proposal and asked to write an essay of sorts. They wanted me to address how shorter hours would bring me balance and express what my dedication to the company was. To be honest I was really put off by the essay part. Really. Put. Off. It felt silly. I'd been there for almost 6 years and was known as a high performer. Did I really need to do this? I almost gave up at this time because I sort of felt like I was being strung along. It didn't help that my dad ended up in the Emergency Room during this time period which obviously stressed me out, but also highlighted one of the reasons I needed to move forward with the request. This was already taking so long, but I did it. It took me three weeks to put it together because I honestly didn't know quite how to sum it all up and wanted to be really careful with my words.

The proposal and essay led to many more conversations since I had mentioned some health issues (I have a number of health 'things' I deal with, but probably my migraines, dry eyes, and chronic myofascial pain impacted me the most in the workplace). It was a route I didn't really expect to take, but it led to a slightly different work schedule than I had proposed. It was a better accommodation because it addressed a lot of factors that impacted my health issues. I hadn't originally made the request, well... because I was told it absolutely was not an option (to work from home), but in the end it was the right one to address my concerns.

2. Really know what the company needs.

Is it feasible for you to work from home or work shortened hours? Does your team have the capacity? Does your position require face to face interaction?

When I made my request my team did not have the capacity to lose me even for a few hours. We needed more bodies, but I knew that we were working on hiring new people. In fact, we got a bunch of people, and then lost a couple more people. Sigh. It was frustrating for me that my request wasn't being moved a long faster, but I understood that there were business needs and they couldn't really cut my hours at that time.

After multiple meetings, I also offered up a different adjusted schedule. I had been challenged to come up with another option in case my "Friday off" request was turned down so I came up with a shortened Monday through Friday schedule which was starting to look more appealing to me. When I made the original request Riley didn't have daycare on Friday so Jesse was watching her while working from home (he has a job where that is possible - I do not). Our daycare needs changed over the course of this whole process and we decided to put Riley into preschool where she would be there 5 days a week. I was then able to present a back up option of working 5 days, but shorter hours. I would have taken either option at that point and recognized that the company also needed to have this work for them.

On the other hand, after my trial period ended I was repeatedly told by Human Resources that I was hired for an on site position so they wanted to make sure we explored all options to have me working in the office. I felt like I really had to defend myself, and was almost ready to cave into their request to come into the office a couple times a week. But I knew how much better I was feeling once the accommodation was in place and wanted to fight for keeping it as it was. I was able to articulate what worked and didn't work while in the office and at home and stressed that I was still performing at a high level from home. Luckily, they agreed.

3. Know what you are willing to budge on and what you aren't.

I knew I needed less hours, but what was the cut off for me? The down fall of working 32 hours a week was that I would lose some benefits such as health insurance. It was something I struggled with, but after assuring that Riley and I could get onto Jesse's work insurance I felt more comfortable with this option.

Knowing that other people were able to get this accommodation based on family needs made me hopeful, that I could use that rationale as well. It was true, but once I mentioned health issues that started to become the focus. I had originally mentioned my health issues because they really did play a role in all of this, but I NEVER wanted to use them as an excuse. And I never wanted anyone to think I could not do my job because of them. I had been frustrated from time to time because I thought I could work even harder... more effectively without such issues, but I knew I was still a high performer (I'm in a Senior role on my team). Once the accommodation started to shift towards my health issues I had to determine if I wanted to move forward or just back away.

In fact, my supervisor and I had 3 or 4 conversations over many months time before she understood the scope of my health issues as I was so uncomfortable using this as an excuse to work less. Ha - and that's the thing... when I was using 'work/life balance' it felt like a reason, but using my 'health issues' felt like an excuse. There was obviously a lot of internal stuff going on there, but I also think there were some valid concerns about what this would mean for me if I wanted to move into another department or if I felt ready to come back to full time work. I didn't want my health issues to define me.

Eventually, I decided this was important enough to me that if I had to use my health issues I would do so. Once we moved forward with that there were a few different work schedule suggestions thrown out. I wasn't happy with all of them, and luckily ended up with one that I was comfortable with, but there was a time that I debated what I would do if I didn't get the accommodation. Would I stick it out with the company or start a job search? I'm glad I didn't have to make that decision.

When it came down to signing the paperwork allowing me the accommodation I realized that my company wasn't going to provide a computer or phone. I already knew I would have to pay for phone and internet, but I assumed these items would be provided (partly because other's that worked from home were given laptops). I tried to negotiate this a bit, but in the end decided it wasn't worth the fight. It has caused some issues since work IT hasn't been able to assist me as they would if I had a company computer, but I have a computer nerd husband so it all worked out.

4. Do your research.

I connected with other people in the same department that had adjusted schedules. Everyone had their own reasons for asking (and getting) their accommodations and some even had different leadership who handled the process differently.

I got a lot of tips in talking to other people about writing up a proposal, how to present my request, and what other documentation might be needed. It helped prepare me for some things that I might have found to be larger bumps in the road, but I was somewhat prepared for them. Don't have anyone at work to share their experiences? Go online. There are a lot of tips there, and while some may not fit for your situation it can give you a better idea of some of the things you might need to be thinking about. I used a proposal outline I found online and changed it to fit my situation. Proposals aren't something that I put together every day so I wanted to get as much information to help me through it. I felt really confident that my proposal was put together in a professional and convincing way.

In my research, I also talked to co-workers that work from home to discuss the pros and cons and just get some general feedback. They all gave me a few pieces of advice and the most interesting was to see how everyone manages their day a little differently. One person told me they get up, make their lunch and get ready as if they are going to work. They head into their home office and don't come out for the day. Another said he wears shorts and a sweatshirt and his wife needs to remind him to shower. Ha! When I read about working from home I'd always hear how it's best to treat it like you are going into the office. One of my health issues relates to being hyper sensitive (lights! smells! touch!...) so I knew that a benefit for me in working from home was being able to wear very comfortable clothes without having to worry about being business enough. I took all these suggestions into mind, but in the end I did what I was best for me (and just so you know... I am not in my pajamas all day. Think one step up from there.)

5. Be patient.

And be patient some more.

Everyone with an accommodation that I spoke to told me that "it takes a really long time" to get an accommodation in place. Most quoted me 8 - 12 weeks. Again, mine took about 9 months. I often found myself frustrated, and that hopefulness I initially felt when I first asked started to fade, but my supervisor was trying to support me through this. There may have been big gaps in time between our meetings, but when we did meet I was given slight encouragements that helped me hold on.

I also knew that it was a terrible time to be asking for this since we were short staffed. Each time someone left it was a blow, but I was always assured that we were going to be hiring to replace our lost staff. I think if we were fully staffed the 9 month time frame would have been much shorter.

6. Document everything.

Document every meeting date and topic covered in that meeting. I didn't think this process would take so long so I was lax in this department, but it could have come in handy.

Working from Home

After all those conversations, my supervisor was the one to suggest I work from home. She was also the one that initially told me it absolutely wasn't an option. We were able to identify a number of things in the office that exacerbated my headaches, body pain, and dry eyes so it started to make more sense to work in a environment that I had more control over like my home. My supervisor suggested that I might be able to still work 40 hours a week since I was cutting my commute out, but I still wanted to cut a few hours as I knew I needed a break from sitting in front of a computer all day. So now I am at home working 36 hours a week. I work 8:30 - 4:30 four days a week and 11 - 8 one day a week.

So how is it working for me? Do I feel better? Has it provided me with the relief I was looking for? Yes, everything is better. I absolutely love it. I'd love if I didn't have to work late hours that one day a week and I miss seeing my co-workers, but overall this really was the right choice for me. Not everyone will thrive working from home, but it is a good fit for me. I feel like I'm more efficient and focused. I'm not distracted by all the conversations around me. I can control my lighting (no more florescent lighting or makeshift fort above my desk), heat (I'm not freezing anymore and my eyes aren't nearly as dry), smells (no perfumed co-workers or musky people on the bus), and the general comfort of my work environment. I happened to already have a desk at home that I could sit or stand at, and although it's not on hydraulics like the one in the corporate office it does the job and allows me some relief from sitting all day. I even found that I benefit from the cordless phone I have at home as I can actually walk around while on a call, and while this might not seem that important it really is wonderful when you are mostly tied to a computer all day and your mobility is limited.

When I first started working at home I found myself on overdrive. I felt like I had to do ALL THE THINGS now that I was at home. I felt like I had to work extra hard to show my employer that I was still performing well from home and I felt like I now had to cram in as much house stuff that I could as well... I mean, part of the reason for this adjustment was to bring balance to my household. So before work, during lunch, and after work I was doing dishes, laundry, playing with my kid, going to the gym... all stuff I did before, but I tried to do it all in one day. Eventually, I found a balance that didn't leave me feeling absolutely exhausted every day and I still feel way more efficient than I could be while in the office.

As I've been at home I've also needed to make adjustments. When I first started working from home the weather was still nice so I would often take a lunch walk as my steps per day dropped significantly when I no longer had to walk to the bus, through the skyway, and around a corporate office. Once it got cold I found myself stuck inside so I now try to find little ways to move more. Sometimes I do some exercises right in my office or I walk around the house. I've even found YouTube videos of Zumba and followed along to that for 10 minutes over lunch. I can't wait for it to warm up so I can get outside again. I also used to be able to decompress on my bus ride home from work and since I no longer have that I often will take 5 minutes to myself before heading upstairs where my family is already home. It doesn't sound like much, but it really makes a difference.

I've discovered that asking for what you want isn't always easy, and doesn't always work out, but sometimes it really is worth the fight. I absolutely am in a much better spot personally and professionally. Yeah, there are some opportunities at work that I might not get to take advantage of, but I've realized that right now my biggest priority is my family and my health. That doesn't mean that I don't put my everything into my work when I'm working, but work isn't my everything. Focusing on what's important to me and having a company that is willing to work with me really does make me a better employee. So there you have it. This post was originally three times as long, but I figured you probably didn't want every single detail and random thought that ran through my head. I'm sure there are some things missing that I really wanted to hit on and questions you might have so don't hesitate to ask.

1 comment:

  1. This was such a helpful and informative post, Jo! I am really glad you (finally) found a solution that works for you. I find it so maddening that this is SO different depending on what department you are in there too, and just how rigid the whole process is there. Great advice for anyone considering trying to make a change to their work arrangements in any way!


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