Isolated accountants suffer home working loneliness

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Working from home promised flexibility and a reprieve from the daily commute but many home-based accountants also suffer from the pitfalls of isolation.

With the advent of cloud accounting and a competitive recruitment market, accountancy firms are tapping more into remote working. This week, US blogger Blake Oliver was the latest to bang the drum for working from home as the ‘future of accountancy’. Oliver cited a two-year Stanford university study which found remote workers increased productivity by a full week.

So not only is the working from home option an answer to that recruitment riddle but as the study shows, it can be a mutually beneficially proposition. It’s no wonder accountancy firms are unshackling their employees from physically working at their desk and establishing a flexible remote working policy.

Goodbye commute, hello flexibility

Will Farnell is leading the flexible vanguard in the UK. At the start of this year his firm Farnell Clarke rolled out six hour working days and unlimited holidays.

“If our teams get the job done and clients remain delighted our teams can work when, where and how they want. It took two years in the making but early signs are great,” Farnell wrote on Oliver’s post. “We received 50 CV’s in the first two weeks of the flexible working scheme going live.”

As someone who braved the daily London commute, AccountingWEB contributor Jennifer Adams has seen her productivity swing for the better since setting up at home. “I get much much more done than when I was in an office taking turns in making the tea every five minutes,” she recently wrote on Any Answers. “Best of all you are not timed to 9-5 or have to ask permission to leave early.”

As a proponent of the flexible culture, Adams even thinks the government should offer incentives to encourage more companies to allow staff to work from home. Imagine the savings in car emissions and reduction in cost of travel, she argued.

And all this is true. But for every dentist appointment you can make during the day or the flexibility to enable the school run pickup, the negative effect of working from home can also achieve the opposite of the flexible dream it was sold on.

For many sole practitioners, working from home is not driven by firm culture or for productivity reasons, but the kitchen table setup is a necessity in getting the firm off the ground.

The blurring lines between work and home life

When AccountingWEB regular Andy Partridge worked from home his work-life balance resembled more of a “grey soup” that required self-discipline to manage.

“Although the commute up and down the stairs was easy and usually clear, instead of switching off in the evening my mind would race with all the things I could be doing in the office to earn incremental income,” he wrote on a recent Any Answers thread.

As the rest of his house slept in darkness, Partridge recalled one post-midnight work email exchange with a local client. “After a few, we simultaneously sent each other one that said, in effect [of] 'What the are we doing this for?'”

The blurring lines between work and home also became a challenge for AccountingWEB member Gainsborough. “The first year I set up my business was horrendously tough and lonely - especially when you are looking for those initial clients and, to this day, I still have well-meaning relatives asking if "I am working this week?"

The productivity that Oliver mentioned is likely from the fewer interruptions, but the lack of social interaction when working from home is one of the common issues that added to the working from home loneliness.

Even though ScribbleD works two days at home and two in the office, the convenience of working from home does not make up for the loneliness. “I miss the hustle and bustle of the office and the general chit chat during the day. I would choose the office over home every day if it wasn't for the commute.”

Seek out social interactions and events

That's why seasoned home workers ensure they seize some social interaction throughout the day. VAT expert Les Howard builds networking events into his diary to ensure he has human contact during the week.

The same goes for Jennifer Adams. I go to networking events where you meet a variety of people - rather than others in the same profession - meeting people who are trying to make a success of a variety of businesses and have interesting stories to tell.”

Former practice owner Della Hudson loves the solitude of working from home, but even still, she breaks the isolation by getting plenty of human interaction through meetings and having an iPad at arm’s reach for a Twitter catch-up.

Established firms are always kept busy by their client base. Moonbeam is always on email and phone with their large clients so “it’s not lonely because of this interaction”.  But even those with little time to get sucked into distractions need human interaction.

“I used to live near a large Tesco's and if I wanted company then I'd pop down the road for some bananas and crack a few jokes with the lovely people on the tills,” wrote Moonbeam.

Be disciplined with your routine

Veterans of working from home have refined a disciplined routine over the years, ensuring they down tools at the end of the day. But with a TV always on standby and net-curtain twitching neighbours just a door knock away, working from home provides plenty of distractions when procrastination kicks in.

For these reasons, legerman had to rethink their living room setup and seek out a small office. “I disciplined myself to start at 9 am but at 9.25 I was bombarded with the Jeremy Kyle show and then the hoovering.”

Glenn Martin lasted only six months at home before he set up his own office. “I found I just was too easily distracted, and not productive. I seemed to spend half the day taking in Amazon deliveries for the full street. Once my daughter came in from school all work stopped.”

Another issue for Martin was having somewhere where clients could visit. He wasn’t keen on clients coming to his house. It was a lesson perhaps learned from his evening meal getting interrupted from clients “just passing”.

Work from home... away from the home 

It can be difficult to shake off that 9-5 routine of getting up and rushing out the door. To avoid distractions, many sole practitioners have found ways to recreate this routine.

Busacrun was able to achieve a boundary between work and home by working from a garden office. “I feel like I go to work and don't really feel the need to go 'home' other than to make a cuppa, but I can appreciate that working from the kitchen table or spare room could blur the boundaries for some.”

When Glenn Martin's plans of a garden shed office got supplanted by his daughter’s trampoline, Martin instead found a serviced office. However a small office back home also helped Martin keep up with the tight January deadline when the normal 9-5 office hours would restrict those long nights. 

Freshman firms, though, often have no choice but to setup at home. Sky_accounts has adjusted to their new found home environment after 18 years working in industry thanks to their daily dog walks every morning. But the young firm is looking to emulate the Martin and Busacrun setup to master the work-life blur.

“Time management is interesting at the moment as there's a lot to do setting up the background infrastructure and finding clients. As things evolve I'm hoping to move into a local office and keep the separation between work and play,” they wrote.

It's no wonder hipster beer emporium Brewdog is muscling in on this space with the launch of its remote working "hop-desking" initiative. Although the unlimited coffee and pint of Punk IPA may add another bleary-eyed hurdle for the home worker. 

Find the right balance for you

Over the last 12 years, Maslins tried everything from commuting to London to working from a spare room, before finally striking the right balance with their separate self contained office, which is a 10min walk from their home.

For them, the mental separation between work and home that this setup brings is the happiest balance that they’ve ever had. And that’s all you can ask for. “There's something nice about that "I'm done for the day" feeling when you leave the office...and it's not the same if just moving from one room to another in your home.”

The flexibility of working from home comes at a cost. But the price for many of the sole practitioners outweighs the horrors of the daily commute and the rigidness of the 9-5 life. The majority of sole practitioners working from home have faced a learning curve but each one has found a way of working from home that works for them. 

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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By mkowl
16th Apr 2019 10:40

My Mrs used to like when I worked at home, the washing was put out, the place was hoovered, dinner was made, garden looked great.

Saying that can't beat a 10 minute commute these days.

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16th Apr 2019 10:51

I find this particularly poignant as I currently sit working at my kitchen table whilst my 8 1/2 month pregnant partner sits watching Housewives of "somewhere unimportant". I miss my office.....

The distractions at home are overwhelming at times, our 8 year old is constantly asking to go on my laptop to play her games or watch You Tube.

I found changing my office hours to 6am - 2pm has helped with this hugely, the 3 hours of peace and quiet before 9am are the most productive I've ever had. I also get the benefit of being back at home later in the day when the family are at their most demanding.

I occasionally need to work at home in the evenings and am always at the end of an email or phonecall, but it's about finding that balance, early starts are not for everyone, but it works for me.

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16th Apr 2019 11:06

The beauty of Accountancy and having a laptop is that (if you set it up right) you can do the work whenever, wherever you like. So you can choose to have life as one big holiday with spasmodic times of work or vice versa.

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16th Apr 2019 11:41

Working from home is wonderful (especially as my wife is now disabled, so I am on hand whenever needed).

I set my own hours, take days off playing golf whenever I like and get a great work/life balance instead of wasting hours every day stuffed into some form of transport like I used to suffer back when I lived in London.

However, it is not for everyone. You need a lot of self motivation and self discipline in order to do it long term.

For me, the benefits outweigh the downsides.

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16th Apr 2019 11:43

There are advantages and disadvantages to both, I am unsure if i have been unlucky, but there is no way i could work in another accounting practice, apart from my own of course.

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16th Apr 2019 13:36

I tried it, and failed miserably. I simply don't have the self-discipline to work from home. I can always find something "more important" to be doing.

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16th Apr 2019 14:17

I love working from home. The solution to loneliness is having 2 dogs! I take them out every lunchtime for a break from computer and always end up talking to other people. Does help having a noisy hound that's an ex hunting dog from Cyprus as everyone wants to know what breed he is. I could never commute again - or have to put up with office politics!

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By sash100
16th Apr 2019 17:07

Actually I love the fact I can go bed really late and get up late too. I am not a morning person and prefer to work after midday after a run and then maybe work a few hours in the evening. Yes I am lazy and not discipline enough at times but do make sure all my clients are properly looked after and get things completed on time. Occasionally, it would be nice someone to talk too but then again I realise I am not particular a people person.

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16th Apr 2019 19:03

For those considering it, I say go for it. Follow the Della Hudson advice in her book and you won't go far wrong.

I have by far exceeded my goals from setting up in 2008.

Financially I make a low 6 figure salary. I have never missed a deadline of any kind for any client, and lose 1 per year on average to other firms, out of 145 in total.

But outside of that:

I took my son and daughter to their clubs every day until the last few years - they are teenagers now.

I have more time for my wife.

I am much less stressed than when I was PAYE.

I love golf and tennis. Then along came May 2018, wall to wall sunshine for 31 straight days.

It was tough at times, getting up early to sort out payrolls. But worth it. I played either golf or tennis 27 days in May 2018. The other 4 days I played golf AND tennis. Lovely month!

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17th Apr 2019 10:28

There is nothing wrong with working from home for those who love it, however, there are plenty of people who benefit from going to work and meeting people. My clients can pop into the office whenever they want if we are not having a meeting and this has brought us lots of work over the years and good conversations.

I was always brought up the better you dress and look the better you feel and work. It is so easy not to bother when you work from home and having done both I need my office for discipline.

I don,t get the argument that you cannot do other things. I, for example, go to the local pool behind the office for a swim for a few hours and start early. I need to do this for my back. Some of my colleagues come in later 11.30.

We always have a meeting Lunch or good chat at lunchtime. My company policy is no one ever misses a school event for their kids. Also working at an office has not stopped any of us going to the dentist that is about health. If you can,t go the dentist or doctor then that says more about the company you work for.

I love interaction every day with my business centre and my colleagues. I think you can become a hermit over time and lack social skills. Personally, unless you are hermit, working from home is okay but I personally do not think it is good for your wellbeing long term. I believe you are isolating herself from the everyday world.

We all see people less as we get older. I appreciate it is a personal view but I don,t think that is a good thing.

There a lot of things company directors could do in the office workplace to make it a nice place to work.

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18th Apr 2019 16:06

Love the isolation! I visit my clients when it suits me, have enough social interation at my local rugby club and Church. Nuff said.

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