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Working from home: how professional growth could be stunted

In my last blog post, I intimated that our organisation, The Open Institute, has resolved to close our offices and for all of our staff to work from home. Based on this, I talked about my considering to move to shags (back to the village whence I came) to continue to work from there and seek to be productive as well as happier. As we continue to work from home – now in earnest, not as a temporary measure to social distance – we have to learn about the benefits and risks involved in the working from home for our team.

The benefits are fairly easy to see. First, is the death of the daily commute, which with the legendary city traffic (especially in a city like Nairobi) could mean two hours each way on the road to and from work. One could literally stay in bed and churn out a great deal of work even before they brush their teeth and have their morning coffee. Workers have the opportunity to have much healthier meals and a healthier lifestyle given the reduced stress exemplified by the daily hustle and bustle.

What a person pays for an apartment in Nairobi’s leafy suburbs (left) could pay for a large home in another town (right).

It is amazing to me that what a person pays for a two bedroom house in Kileleshwa could get one a 4 bedroom house in a one acre plot with a pool in Malindi.

Working from home also could mean for many people moving away from the centre of the city to the suburbs where they are likely to be more surrounded by nature and community. One of the direct benefits of such a move is the massive reduction in cost of living. It is amazing to me that what a person pays for a two bedroom apartment in Nairobi’s Kileleshwa could get one a 4 bedroom house in a one acre plot with a pool in Malindi close to the beach.

For a lot of people – especially those with young families, working from home can be filled with distractions that do not allow for dedicated work. Worse yet, couples may not be able to get some space from each other and that may mean more friction. This then leads to somewhat reduced quality in output. An office provides a clear physical distinction between work and home life. Conversely, working at home can lead to staff forgetting to differentiate between work-life and home-life and to keep working long after they should have switched off. This could easily lead to burnout and frustration.

The most common downside that affects as all is that phenomenon called Cabin Fever, where a person is driven stir-crazy and feels claustrophobic in their space.

While all of these are true, I was recently made starkly aware of the challenges that many professionals especially the younger ones are prone to facing while working from home. Having worked for two decades now, I am very aware of the significant value that personal relationships bring to bear in the quality of work as well as in the professional growth of a person. in my thinking it operates in multiple levels.

  • I think that while working, a person benefits greatly from the mentorship of more senior professionals – not even by being actively taught, but by observing how they work. On this blog I have on numerous occasions talked about how watching such great professionals as Duncan Onyango, Paul Kukubo, Prof. Bitange Ndemo and Jane Delorie influenced how I work and even speak professionally. They didn’t set out to teach me for the most part. Instead, I learnt a great deal while working with them and observing how they managed problems and their perspectives on issues. In the isolation of working from home, one may struggle to find such opportunities to apprentice under experienced stewards.
  • As we work we often get much fulfilment and joy in the approbation and positive feedback that we get as we complete, even the most basic of tasks. That “great job” from a colleague often provides one with a small surge of happy hormone that encourages one to keep going and achieve more small tasks which invariably leads to big achievements. As one works on tasks and ticks them off on a tool like asana or a checklist on google keep, one will fail to have that rush that comes from that pat in the back.
  • Personal relationships have great play in professional growth insofar as the relationships one builds as they go through work. People build personal relationships over time that allow for them to call in favours, for them to build the personal social capital that is necessary to get some tasks going. Say, you need a meeting with that senior manager in that company or organisation. It helps that you have a relationship with them outside of work – that you played basketball at a different time or you have met with them at a conference and had lunch – something that enables you to develop a human level connection with them. In so doing you develop a social stake in each other’s survival and this comes in handy at some point. Zoom meetings do not quite bridge the personal divide.

Most organisations and companies that are considering a Work-From-Home dispensation will have to contend with figuring out how to support their employees as they experience the isolation that it gives. But perhaps more importantly, professionals have to device ways to try and counterbalance these negative effects of working from home on their own careers. Some suggestions that I have:

  • Video always on: There is value in always having your video on when you have virtual meetings – and encourage the other parties to have their videos on. The Face to Face nature of it allows for some camaraderie that can be useful in building a connection even in these times. Of course this will make it necessary for you to wake up, wash your face and dress up – a great subliminal tool to get you in work mode.
  • Comment then complete: Before you check off that task, put a small comment about what you have done and explain what next. Something like, “@boss, I have finished proofreading the report and I found some errors that I have corrected. I also noticed that the chart on page 17 is wrongly structured and I have corrected it.” This gives the boss a chance to say, “Great work!” as well as creates awareness that you are delivering well on the job.
  • Over communicate: Find ways to express your experiences, observations as you go through life – tweet a thought and create conversation around it, post a regular update about the houseplant that you are growing or the kitchen herb project that you are growing. It will make a huge difference.
  • Always speak up at meetings: There is a tendency of many young professionals to attend meetings for an hour and say nothing in the entire hour – unless called upon, during which they respond only with what direct question is put to them. Prepare in advance for the meeting, think through what you would like to know or contribute to the discussion that will be held. Volunteer to take up a task. The value of this is that it allows for you to showcase your willingness to serve the team, demonstrate your ideas, thinking and preparedness and be noticed as “available to pitch” – that is to say that you are willing to do more and grow with the team. It builds trust and a relationship. Unfortunately, in silence in a virtual world you will disappear from the minds of the people who matter and who you need for that promotion.
  • Share a bit of yourself: In every conversation, find a little nugget to share about your personal life – something you are doing, experiencing trying. “I have taken up pottery lessons from 4-6pm so I will do that report after that. Can I have it ready for you at 10am tomorrow?” This has the effect of humanising you and also finding common ground with the other person, who may have the same interests or at the very least will be intrigued enough to want to know more about your interest. Showing your humanness improves people’s estimation of you and increases the dimensions through which people see you. In a virtual world, it is easy to be seen as 2 dimensional – tasks and work delivery and not much else.

I am a writer first and foremost. I am passionate about social entrepreneurship, which I define by finding ways to innovate the world’s processes to make life better for people – whether in business or in the non-profit sector. I am professionally involved at the Open Institute, Thellesi Co and various agricultural ventures.

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