Speed and quality from a home worker

A memo sent to Yahoo employees telling them they must be physically present in the office has caused quite a stir this week.

CEO Marissa Mayer has put the new rules in place, overturning policies allowing staff to work from home, with the view that to get the best out of employees they need to be “working side-by-side”.

When the news hit the media, it prompted a huge debate on the pros and cons of so-called tele-working.

So I thought I would do a bit of jumping on the bandwagon and argue my case as one of these skiving homeworkers.

Colleagues are potentially less annoying for the home worker. Image by SuziJane

Colleagues are potentially less annoying at home. Image by SuziJane

Now from the start I should make it clear that I don’t work for Yahoo or for any other one company, I am self-employed.

Which puts me at a distinct advantage when not having to deal with office politics including edicts sent down from on high which in one fell swoop disrupt routine working practices.

For this I am incredibly grateful. And working for myself I don’t really have to care about HR policies that have little impact on me.

But I do take issue with the assertion that we home workers are a lazy bunch.

This line in the memo particularly raised my ire: ‘Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home’.

It is true, I have been known to work in my pyjamas, but this does not make me any less efficient or professional.

It just means I am comfortable and getting straight down to business rather than faffing about with make-up and getting my hair in a fit-to-be-seen state.

Most interviews I do are over the phone, and it makes no difference to anyone that this is done from my home study, rather than being sat in a open-plan office somewhere.

Train tedium

I spent years doing the commuting thing. First in London where you have to travel for at least an hour whatever distance you live from the office.

That just led to many post-work trips to the pub because I couldn’t be bothered with the journey home. Not good for the liver or the bank balance.

Then for about four years I travelled between Sheffield and London, dividing my week in two. And I can hand on heart say, that I did not slack off on my days at home.

Of course I could juggle my time more easily – a godsend when training for a marathon – but those hours were always made up elsewhere or I wouldn’t be able to meet deadlines and get paid.

Now I work fully at home – with the odd trip out to teach some students, the one bit I can’t get away with doing in my PJs.

And I am busier and work longer hours than ever before – but with the ability to set my own flexible timetable I only need to find part-time childcare for my toddler.

This does not mean I work with a toddler sitting on my knee. I do it when she’s gone to bed or is having an afternoon nap.

Of course not all jobs are suited to home working – I think we can all agree that pilots, GPs and builders need to turn up at the ‘office’.

Even within journalism, it is very much dependent on your work with daily editorial meetings and specific computer software providing a barrier for many.

But I take umbrage at the idea that just because you are working from home you are slacking off.

If anything, when you’re trying to get an article or report done, there can be fewer distractions.

Finding a sensible balance, judged on an individual basis and dependent on the needs of the job would be a more considered and grown-up approach than ‘you better all sit where I can see you so I can check you are busy enough’.

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What to do when the words won’t flow

These days I rarely suffer from writers block – too busy trying not to drown under a sea of commissions.

But when the words just won’t come or you cannot find a way to get the article started , it is blooming annoying.

The nearest I’ve come recently is on a piece I’m doing about stem cells that had an open-ended deadline and I made the fatal error of leaving it too long between the interview that told me everything I needed to know and writing the thing up.

It is only 1,000 words and the draft has been sat untouched for weeks.

And actually the key point is that there was no tight deadline to focus my mind.

It has now become a huge pain, constantly pushed to the bottom of my to do list as other more pressing matters vie for my attention.

I think I’m vaguely hoping that publicly admitting to it will shame me into finishing.

Perfecting procrastination

When I was a student of course I was an endless procrastinator. I could have won awards.

There was always an excuse, or a night out, or some epic sleep session that was more important.

And actually it was never that I was lazy (epic sleep notwithstanding) just didn’t know how to get past that ‘staring at a blank page not knowing where to start’ feeling.

Photo on 01-02-2013 at 11.42 #2

What do you mean I’ve already had four cups of tea and it’s not yet ten?

Then the deadline would be on top of me and I would be forced to do it and the words would come.

If someone had told me I would be eking out a living sat on my own in my little study with no one to crack the whip I would have dismissed them as unhinged.

Yet nothing’s changed really, I am exactly the same now, except my deadlines are constant and usually its a race against time to get it done.

I spend way more evenings sat at my desk slaving away than I ever did as a student.

But then if I don’t do it on time, I don’t get paid, or repeat commissions and end up looking seriously unprofessional which focuses the mind somewhat.

My saving grace is that I have opted for a career with constant deadlines which mean I don’t have time to procrastinate.

And now I can see my students suffering the same fate as I once did.

When they eventually enter the real world and have to churn out hundreds if not thousands of words every day, they may be in for a shock. I certainly was.

So here are my top tips for becoming a prolific producer of words.

  1. Set yourself achievable deadlines. Don’t wait until the big deadline is looming and then panic. Break it up. Something like write 150 words then have some chocolate (I fear I’m giving away too much about my working practices here).
  2. Just write something, anything. Don’t worry about starting off with a perfectly constructed intro, just get something down. Nothing worse than staring at a blank page willing the words to come.
  3. Write for fun. The more you write, about anything, the more it flows. Those with blogs now have a perfect excuse to keep putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).
  4. Get busy when the idea is fresh. If you’ve an interview, write it up right away when it is still all clear in your mind. Same goes for any ideas you might have. Even if you end up with a draft or a load of notes. It gives you a good starting point next time you sit down to work on it.
  5. When in doubt, get planning. If you’re really stuck it probably means the idea is not properly formed or you don’t have enough to work with, so instead of staring at the screen, do some research, write a bullet point list of what you want to cover and a get yourself a plan of action.

Wading through the waffle

When thinking about how to introduce the concept of putting together clean, crisp, readable copy to my blogging students, it occurred to me (flash of inspiration if you will) that several news articles I had done this week were notable for one reason.

They all came from source material that was lengthy or dry or incredibly technical.Bill Burris

Not perhaps unusual for a journalist specialising in medicine and science.

But there did seem to be more chopping and simplifying than usual.

Which brings me to my tip of the week – be ruthless.

Deciding what to leave out can be just as vital as the text that ends up in your final copy.

It is tempting to be precious about every clever metaphor/explanation/quote.

But the readers will not thank you for waffling on.

This week’s haul started  with a bit of molecular biology from a team of US scientists who had worked out the nitty gritty of how zinc can help the immune system fight infection.

Crafted from a 1,200-word press release going into some pretty high-level scientific detail and a 25-page Cell Reports article with the snappy title ZIP8 Regulates Host Defense through Zinc-Mediated Inhibition of NF-kB, this was not straightforward.

In fact very little of the scientific detail even included in the press release made it to the final version.

This was all about a novel concept with a little bit of context.

Then there were the results of a trial comparing treatments for stroke where the main problem was trying to explain the concept of intra-arterial device-based approach for clot removal to the non-vascular surgeons in the audience.

And a sigh of relief as a slightly more simple paper crossed my desk showing that GPs are pretty quick at picking up cancers – unless you have a hard to spot type of cancer.

Chop, chop, chop

Yet complex science papers are not the only time I get to practice cutting out reams of text.

The next day started with a survey from a cancer charity who were launching a report on patients who lack support from families and friends.

I had a well written press release and report to work from.

But piles of statistics.

No one wants to read a long long list of survey results and so there I go again, choosing which is most important, finding new ways to present figures, and chopping through the bits that can be excluded.

Last but not least was an exclusive story on doctors missing signs of being underweight in children – one I found in a medical journal.

Researchers do not write for the general public and use lots of strange phrases that would not spring to mind when chatting about study results down the pub (as I have been known to do).

It means coming at the information in front of you from a completely different point of view, with the reader always at the front of your mind.

All this shows one thing, whatever source material you are working from, always look for better, snappier, shorter, clearer ways to say what you need to say.

Whether it is news or views, the rule remains the same – be ruthless, tell the story, and above all, keep it simple.

What type of blogger are you?

So my intrepid band of student bloggers are on the starting line ready to go.

They all have an idea for a topic – related somehow to student life – they want to write about.

Credit: Maria Reyes-McDavis

The next step is to get them up and running.

With that in mind, I am going to offer some thoughts on what I think blogging is for.

I have to admit, I was a somewhat of a sceptic when blogging first became the latest cool pastime.

And I still do not believe on any level that blogging will replace or poses any real threat to traditional journalism.

But it does have several important functions.

1. Reportage

Eyewitness reports are a vital part of journalism and with traditional hacks increasingly chained to their desks or without the budget to travel to far off lands, a blogger can provide that all important firsthand account of an event.

This has been shown to great effect in recent uprisings in parts of the world the media cannot easily access or where stringent censorship is in place.

And of course, the blogger can put themselves in grave danger by telling their story.

Reading this sort of writer makes me think that the media could often do a lot better at getting to the heart of a story, and without blogs and social media there are those who would have barely any voice at all.

2. Shared experience

The first thing that comes to mind for me under this category is the mummy bloggers.

Often stereotyped in the media as bored middle-aged women used to being at the cutting edge of whatever world they once worked in, I am actually a huge fan.

There is nothing that isolates you from your old life/friends/reality quite like having a tiny human to care for and while you are completely obsessed over your new responsibility, few others care at all.

Mummy blogs basically create a community of people going through the exact same, crazy, head-wreaking, life changing experience as you.

As someone who often read mummy blogs on my phone in the early hours, while trying to get a unsettled baby to sleep, I would say do not knock it until you find yourself craving a connection with someone who knows exactly what you are talking about.

Also under this heading would come all bloggers writing about life experiences – divorce, illness, bereavement, etc, etc.

3. How to…?

The most obvious how to blog that comes to mind is the cook trying out recipes.

But this category is incredibly broad.

For anything you want to know how to do there will be someone teaching you how. Off the top of my head – dog training, make-up lessons, knitting tea cosys.

4. Professional promotion

I probably come under this category, having set up a blog partly as a teaching tool but partly as a way of having my very own opinion column.

As a freelancer, I do not often get the chance to do analysis, comment or editorial style writing.

Blogging gives me the chance to do all of the above.

Researchers and academics are among those who commonly use blogs in this way.

5. Campaigning

Then there are the bloggers who are using their site as a platform to promote a certain political view or to raise awareness of an issue.

According to this piece in the Guardian, feminist blogs are booming.

One of the most famous bloggers from last year was a young schoolgirl posting images of her school dinners to highlight the fact that Jamie Oliver may not have had the impact many claimed.

While a lighthearted take, it raised awareness of an important issue.

Bloggers can often shine a light on topics forgotten about or ignored by the mainstream press.

6. Unique perspective

Do you have an interesting tale to tell?

From the paramedic, whose blog became a bestselling book, to the researcher turned escort which led to the TV series Diary of a Call Girl, bloggers with an individual take on life can stand out from the crowd.

It does not have to be a completely unique experience like the man who won the ‘Best job in the world’ competition to be a caretaker on a paradise island, blogging about his adventure.

Even the seemingly day-to-day can be intriguing if you have a quirky take on it.

7. The reviewer

From music to film to books, if you want an independent opinion of the latest release then the blogosphere is where you need to be.

For anyone wanting to go down this route, it is hard to stand out.

The key, it would seem, is having a different insight, perspective or covering stuff that does not normally get picked up by the mainstream reviewers.

8. Hyperlocal

A group of Sheffield University students won the Guardian Student Media Awards best website last year for their take on independent people, places and organisations in the Steel City.

These types of blogs have in some cases proven pretty successful and build an audience by creating a niche guide, tips or insights into a community.

In fact such is the interest in hyperlocal media that last year Nesta announced a £1m funding drive.

Seems counterintuitive when journalists lament the death of the local paper but there you go, maybe we are coming full circle.

Where will the next generation of bloggers take it?