Escape the grind

Are you an underpaid slave who’s working in, rather than on, your business? Brad Howarth explores how you can change the way you run your business so that you’re not stuck in the grind every day.

When Denise Shrivell left working for a large media company around 10 years ago, it was in search of a more flexible working life to support her young family. While today she runs a successful advertising directory, MediaScope, from her base in Artarmon, NSW, achieving the balance she began looking for a decade ago has not always been easy. And it certainly doesn’t mean working fewer hours.

“I’ve done 60-plus hours a week, because the business dictates it, and that has been one of my key challenges,” Shrivell says. “Every time I hear the ping of an email coming through it is an irresistible pull. You do have to work to get some balance, and sometimes it just means turning the computer off.”

She is certain, however, that she would never have been able to achieve what she has without the help of the new online and mobile technologies, including social networking, which have sprung up over the past decade.

“Technology has helped women like me have a career and still be a parent. You really can operate a business no matter where you are,” Shrivell says. “It has helped me be very involved in the market, when the reality is that I’m at home, in my home office.”

The 40 hour week: more or less?

Many Australians dream about a flexible working life, especially those inspired by books such as Timothy Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek.

It’s now fairly easy to get equipped with gadgets that make our working lives portable, although it then becomes just as easy to allow work to invade our homes. This might be OK if you live to work, but there are some people who ditched the corporate life for the flexibility of small business or sole trading, only to find they’ve brought the hellish hours home with them.

So how do you switch off and actually have some time to yourself? The secret is to find ways to stop your so-called “flexible” work life from taking over your entire life.

Kylie Dowell, who almost single-handedly runs her occupational health and safety (OH&S) and human resources (HR) consultancy Dowell Solutions in Tumut, NSW, says it all comes down to making the most of current technology.

“In OH&S and HR, documentation is almost 50 per cent of what you do, and it was chewing up my time where I could be earning money – so I started using whatever I could find to save time, and with a bit of trial and error I found things that work.”

She now spends less time at her desk, and instead uses her new iPhone to check email throughout the day wherever she is, and online service Dropbox to store and share documents securely on the internet, making working with partners and clients easier.

But her greatest praise is for her virtual assistant – a real person several hundred kilometres away – to whom she delegates administrative tasks such as uploading information onto the website; proofreading and editing text; and co-ordinating a monthly newsletter. Dowell says her virtual assistant has freed her up to earn money rather than get stuck on processes. The relationship works because it’s built on good communication, with the pair regularly checking in via email and Skype.

“If I don’t understand something or she doesn’t understand something we just have to ask – we never assume,” Dowell says.

Good communication – in this case through social media tools – has also been essential for Kirsty Wilson, who built Interim Business Solutions into a solid virtual administration business. She founded the company five years
ago to give other business owners more flexibility through the use of virtual assistants, and today services clients all around the world, all from Bayswater in Victoria.

Thanks to social media tools such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, Wilson has created global networks without sacrificing the flexibility she needs to spend time with her family.

“I’ve never done a lot of face-to-face networking because usually it is at a time that just doesn’t suit family situations,” Wilson says. “The clients I am getting from Twitter are very much my target market. I don’t think a lot of people understand the power of it, and social >
media is just networking, but you are doing it in a virtual space at a time that suits you. And it doesn’t cost you anything.”

Can’t someone else do it?

While delegating your business admin to a virtual assistant is a good way to start freeing up more of your time, some small business owners have taken outsourcing even further.

Andy Lamrock of Plus Factor Group, a business compliance and continuity consultancy in South Melbourne, says his business uses services such as to harness a wide range of skills, and save time and money.

When the company started, Lamrock budgeted $40,000 on building its brand. After exploring his options on, he says he was able to do it for less than $1000, including the creation of the brand, logo, business cards, website and banners. “It was everything we needed to start the business.”

A core team of seven freelancers create brochures and presentations (including animations), and Plus Factor has also commissioned another to research what the business should include in
its social media feeds.

“We’ve got a global workforce there for us,” Lamrock says. “I can go to bed and wake up the next morning knowing that I’ve got a 24-hour production machine working in the background for me. And it saves me an incredible amount of time and lets me do what I’m good at.”

Futurist and author Ross Dawson (Living Networks) believes online outsourcing is one of the great revolutions brought on by the world wide web. But he cautions that if you want to get the most out of it, you should be using it to build connections, rather than just getting the cheapest deal. “Price is a subsidiary issue,” Dawson says. “Try out a number of people with some small, clearly defined tasks, and find who does them best or with whom you have the best working relationship.

“And then build a relationship based on mutual respect, where you are training them to understand what you want and how you want it.”

What if everyone had a flexible work life?

While it might seem easier for sole traders and small businesses, modern online and mobile technologies are making the dream of a flexible work life possible for growing businesses, too.

Michelle Gamble has built an entire virtual business at Marketing Angels. So while she’s based at the company’s HQ in Manly, NSW, she’s created a team of marketing experts that don’t share an office, or even the same work hours.

“A lot of our Angels have children, so they might have childcare two or three days a week, and then work other hours, such as at night,” Gamble says. “One of our Angels down in Melbourne is an Australian ballroom dancing champion and a writer and was looking for more flexibility and ways to follow all of her passions.”

The group gets a lot of use out of Google Apps for working on documents together, and instant messaging makes it easy to see when people are available for conversations. Once every three months the entire team gathers in one location to share the work they are doing.

The online marketing company Titanium Group may have a postal address of Elwood, Victoria, but out of its 14 full-time staff, 11 live overseas. Managing director Dan Dobos says the key to co-ordinating a spread-out workforce is to set plans which are reviewed daily, with each worker emailing an update on what they have done and what questions they might have.

“Once people have a plan in place you can see whether they have done work or not – you don’t need to be sitting next to them to figure that out,” Dobos says.

However, he stresses it is important at the outset to explain exactly what it is that you require. “Someone might be able to produce really high quality work, but won’t have understood what you wanted,” Dobos says.

“So, at the start, you really do need to spend more time with people.”

Dobos says his staff save time tracking what each member is working on by using a web tool called Jing, which takes a snapshot of the work on your screen and shares it with the rest of the team online, saving the need to write up any detailed descriptions.

He also uses a range of project management tools, such as Basecamp, although he doesn’t just rely on smart online technology. Old-fashioned communication still plays a part.

“With every team member I like to have a chat once a week and look at where we are at and where we are going – even once a day, depending on the person and what they are doing,” he says.

But he also stresses that it’s important to let people breathe. “When you do that, people produce much better work than when you are constantly nagging them every 15 minutes.”

According to Anne-Marie Orrock, managing director of Corporate Canary HR Consulting in Crows Nest, NSW, if you want to offer flexible work arrangements to an employee, you must start with a trial period of six to eight weeks, and during that time make sure you put in place
very clear expectations. Once that’s completed it is also vital to draft an ongoing agreement with a review-and-renewal process at fixed intervals.

“Quite often if there is no defined agreement, things can get difficult when the situation may change and the employer needs to revoke conditions for whatever reason.”

She says it is also important to remember that flexibility affects other workers in the business, so a “flexibility committee” from across the business should be formed to contribute to policy decisions and changes. And new flexible work policies and practices must logically link with older policies, such as those relating to sick leave: “If they contradict each other, employees will be confused. It even may result in conflict with management over what constitutes ‘flexible’ and in whose favour,” Orrock warns.

How to set boundaries between work life and ‘life’ life

Even with the best policies in place, business owners – and indeed all workers – need to also set their own boundaries for their flexible working lives. As a mother of three young children, Dowell has set her core working hours as between 8.30am and 3.30pm, and she is diligent about basic family social appointments, such as eating dinner together.

“It forces me to close the computer down so we can eat together as a family at the kitchen table,” Dowell says. “That generally gives me closure for the day. Quite often I will respond to an email afterwards, but then set it so that it doesn’t leave the email box until the next morning, so it doesn’t look to everybody else that I am working strange hours.”

And it’s not just Dowell who needs to be fully aware when her business has shut up for shop for the day. “There are some clients whom I have had to be very strict with about not calling me after hours,” she explains. “And I put my phone on silent from 6pm.”

Webify your working day

Here is our pick of online tools that help you get more done:

Start a design contest and refresh the look of your business without leaving your desk thanks to this crowdsourcing website.

Store documents securely on the web, to be accessed by you and your trusted partners.

Capture thoughts, recordings and images to save forgetting anything.

500 million people can’t be wrong, and it’s a great place to show off your business.
Don’t want to do it yourself? Post it here and have someone else do it – anywhere in the world, often at heavily discounted rates.

A handy tool for online meetings.

Take snapshots of your on-screen work and share them with the people who care.

Automatically finds upcoming must-do items in your emails and turns them into actionable tasks.

Essential profile-building tool for any professional and a great way to create networks.

Automatically logs the computer activity of workers anywhere.

Keep track of pesky receipts and save hours at tax and expense time.

An essential tool for keeping tabs on a far-flung workforce as well as providing cheap audio and video communications.

Broadcast your activities and updates to find new clients. You never know who is looking.

Run conferences, presentations and meetings from your desktop.

7 ways to rebalance the work/life balance       

  1. Put clear boundaries around time that you consider to be personal time and don’t give up this time under any pressure.
  2. Don’t advertise that you work long hours by sending late-night emails and answering after-hours phone calls, as some clients and co-workers will come to expect it.
  3. Even if you don’t turn off your mobile phone or computer, turn off any alert sounds after hours to remove the temptation to read new messages.
  4. Outsource where you can by taking advantage of online services and virtual assistants who can help your business with tasks including bookkeeping; design and graphics; web design and website management, copywriting, proofreading and editing.
  5. Make sure your family understands when your business and working hours are.
  6. Avoid doing household chores in the time you work at home to maintain focus and productivity.
  7. Don’t use your home phone line for business calls, and consider getting separate mobile phones for work and personal calls.

10 rules for managing flexible workers

  1. Be careful who you give more flexibility to – lean towards those who seem capable of self-motivation.
  2. Manage and reward by outcomes, not by hours spent sitting at the desk.
  3. Be clear about what your expectations are, particularly with any new workers.
  4. Set any flexibility agreements in writing and make sure you review them regularly.
  5. Give workers room to breathe – micro-management produces lower quality work.
  6. Keep the human touch – the odd phone call does wonders for morale.
  7. Pay non-employees promptly, and even pay upfront – they’ll feel valued.
  8. Learn your workers’ strengths and use them accordingly, it will benefit both parties.
  9. Briefs should live up to their name, but without skimping on detail.
  10. Give your workers the tools they need to collaborate with any colleagues who aren’t physically present.

Expert advice

Flexibility is a reward in itself

Marcus Barber, futurist and director of training company Looking Up Feeling Good, says that for many workers, flexible work arrangements are a huge reward, especially if everyone is focused on a common goal, rather than ticking off hours per day.

For example, consider any staff who are worried about an elderly parent or sick child and find it difficult to concentrate at work. “If they were allowed to work from home and get their tasks completed in a less linear time frame, but still achieve what is required, everyone benefits,” Barber says. “This is the biggest challenge for managers dealing with Gen Y team members that have different ways of working – often sporadic and non-linear. They still get it done, just not in the cookie-cutter style of previous generations.”

Job sharing can double your team’s talent pool

Author of the book Passionate Leadership, Bruce Rosengarten says another concept in support of flexible working is job sharing, where two part-time workers perform the task of one full-time equivalent. Rosengarten cautions that not every job is suitable for sharing, and for those that are, processes must be well defined and handover between workers clear and logical.

“Each party must have strong trust between one another and will need occasional overlap times to ensure they are reviewing their work processes,” he says. Also, providing a forum to raise any concerns is crucial, even if it “may need some external facilitation between the parties to make it work”.

Self-motivated workers can build your business

Michael Carter, director of accountancy marketing firm Practice Paradox, says that while it isn’t necessary to reward flexible workers differently to regular workers, it is worth considering. The arrangement is more likely to work if the flexible worker is self-motivated. “It’s the ideal situation you want in any team member: for them to treat their role as ‘a business within the business’ that has costs and targets and a daily commercial reality,” Carter says. “The modern organisation is morphing into a network of micro-businesses, each having to manage and sustain itself. When you think about it, that’s the ultimate in productivity – no passengers.”

You can keep staff who move away

Kenelm Tonkin, chairman of multinational media group Tonkin Corporation, says remote working can save companies money by reducing the costs of replacing employees that move away, as well as the cost of car allowances and other expenses. But to make it work, the way you measure performance must be unambiguous, and apply regardless of how the employee chooses to work.

“In my extensive experience, no manager should expect a work-from-home employee to be at the desk 100 per cent of the time,” Tonkin says. “This expectation will drive you mad. Remote working arrangements are best achieved with mature employees who have a plausible reason asking for it.”

“No manager should expect a work-from-home employee to be at the desk 100 per cent of the time.”

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