INTOUCH : Comment on: The Benefits of Remote Living

My family and I live in Hawke’s Bay near the Tuki Tuki River. I work in Auckland. There is way to make this work.
People are interested when they learn I live five hours away from the office, but in reality many people in the United States and Europe travel to work on Monday morning and home again on Friday night. It’s unavoidable in larger economies where you simply can’t live near your customers.
SAP has had work-from-home policy since 2004. While it isn’t practical to work from home in some roles, like receptionists or trainers, for many it can work if you put the effort into managing your time effectively.
On many projects, SAP runs 5-4-3 model, meaning you’re available to the client for five days, spending four days on site and three nights away from home in given week. There are performance standards in place: you have to be online and available if you’re working remotely. But our experience shows it motivates people. They can work when it suits them best. Some people are early birds and some are night owls.
SAP New Zealand was named 2006/07 Hewitt Best Employer and I believe this policy is partly why. If you want to motivate and retain the best people, flexible working conditions matter. You can’t motivate people by simply offering money.
The secret to living remotely is simply time management and scheduling. It’s actually not difficult.
Clients react very well once it’s explained to them that, unless I’m travelling, I work from Hawke’s Bay on Monday and am in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch for the rest of the week.
To start with staff were bit concerned I’d be disengaged from them because I would not be as visible. I think that concern has gone now.
Initially it was sometimes challenging to manage perceptions about my living remotely. Some business partners pulled my leg: “Oh, you’re ‘retiring’.” But now they see I am as available as ever.
It hasn’t affected my availability with clients, partners or my own team. At home I’m only an email or phone call away, which is exactly the case when I’m in Auckland. And when people call and ask for me, my PA just puts them through – whether I’m in Wellington, Christchurch, Sydney, Singapore, or working from home.
There’s now clearer demarcation between work and home life. I can totally focus on work during the week, so am more productive. I can take breakfast meetings, I can work after dinner. When I’m at home I feel free to really relax with my family. It makes it easier to unwind at the weekends. I do miss breakfasts with my kids. However, if we still lived in Auckland they’d be in bed by the time I got home.
I spend an hour at each end of the week in plane, and I can work during the flight and in the taxi. When I’m in Auckland I live in an apartment and walk to work. So I probably spend less time commuting than many Aucklanders.
Travel is the nature of my job. I actually spend less time travelling now because from Napier it’s easy to fly to Wellington or Christchurch. I also spend one week each month in Sydney.
Funnily enough this represents greater stability for me professionally. Throughout my working life I’ve moved every two to four years. (I grew up in London and worked in Europe and have lived in Indonesia, Singapore, the US, the Philippines and Australia.) But I’m as mobile as ever, though I’ve organised things differently. Mobility is way of life.
A few years ago SAP brought in career planners to work with all of us. What do you want from your life and career in five years, 10 years? The more my wife and I thought about lifestyle, the more we thought, why wait years before moving to where we want to live? Let’s do it now. So we did.
The downsides are probably more for my wife than me, and these are mostly to do with the challenges of rural life. It’s Murphy’s Law that I’m not there when the water system breaks down or there’s rabbit infestation.
In Hawke’s Bay we can take time to do the things that matter to us, like taking the kids fishing on the river, or going four-wheel driving or camping. The gains for us as family have been huge.

Ian Black is managing director of SAP New Zealand.

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