An Actuary’s Guide to Working from Home

For many CAS members, social distancing requirements have changed work/life balance for at least the next few weeks. Many of you are learning how to deal with an extended work from home period for the first time.  For some folks that means they are alone; others may be dealing with spouses, roommates and kids of all ages sharing your workspace. In the last week I have heard many children and dogs in the background of my conference calls.

When I joined the CAS 16 months ago, I transitioned from working 26 years in a corporate office to primarily working from home, except for a few days a month I spend in the CAS Office in Arlington, Virginia.  One of the first things I did was call CAS Research Actuary Brian Fannin, who also works remotely, my sister, who has worked at home for many years, and a few other colleagues that have experienced working from home.  Their advice was great and though I adopted quickly, there were a few bumps on the road.

Below are a few tips I collected and lessons I learned on the way:

  1. Keep a routine – For those who work in an office, we get up at the same time each morning, take a shower, get ready for work, and proceed with our daily commute.  The best advice I was given was to keep this routine.  I get up at the same time, take a shower, put on work clothes, and “commute” to my office about the same time every day.  I try to eat lunch around the same time, and I try to LEAVE WORK when the day is over.  Leaving work at the end of the day can be surprisingly hard when working from home.
  2. Find an office space that works I am fortunate to have a room in our house that was set up as a TV room for my teenagers. After trying several places around the house, this became my new workspace during the day.  If you have space to close the door, this is beneficial.
  3. Communicate – Working from home can be very isolating. At the CAS, we have started using Microsoft Teams, which helps close the gap.  We use our webcams (another reason to shower) and have a virtual watercooler where we get social interaction.  As great as Teams and web chatting can be, it is also good to pick up the phone sometimes and have a conversation.
  4. Get up and move – In an office environment, we get up and talk to coworkers, go to meetings, meet with your boss, etc. You lose that when working at home.  I sometimes find that when I get busy working, I realize I have been sitting for three hours.  It is important to get up and move, preferably every hour.  Use your Fitbit, Apple watch or phone timer to remind you every hour to get up and move.  Take your dog for a quick walk (keeping your social distance), empty your dishwasher, any reason to get away from your desk for a few minutes.
  5. Be careful what you eat – Working from home, all the food in the house is just a few feet away, especially if you are at the kitchen table. It is easy to snack all day when working from home.  I try to keep healthy snacks (fruits, almonds) around, but like any diet the key is learning self-control.
  6. Invest in your workspace – For many of us this may be difficult, as we don’t know how long working from home may last. The great I.T. staff at the CAS provided me with a webcam, laptop, and dual monitors.  I purchased a relatively cheap adjustable table from office depot, and recently added some upgraded computer speakers and a desk lamp with built in phone charger and a USB port.

For the other actuaries who work from home, what works for you?  What are the challenges for those who are new to working from home?

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About Ken Williams

Ken Williams is the Staff Actuary of the Casualty Actuarial Society. Ken is currently chairperson of the Professionalism Education Committee and has been a member since 2009.

1 Response to An Actuary’s Guide to Working from Home

  1. avatar Kelly McKeethan says:

    Ken,

    Well-said. I agree with your points and especially like the comments on staying healthy.

    I have had the good fortune of being able to work from home for nearly thirteen years and offer the following observations:

    Working from home first of all means that you are working. My suggestion is to treat your workday at home as similar as possible to your workday in the office. To me, this means

    1. Go through your usual pre-work routine, whatever it is that you do, whether it be exercise, devotion, morning newspaper, shower, shave, breakfast, TV, etc.
    2. Have a separate location in your home dedicated to work. Most folks have had to adjust on the fly and have not had time to create a designated office, but try to create as much physical separation between work and home as you can.
    3. Greet your co-workers first thing as you prepare to start working. In a remote environment this can take the form of an e-mail, instant message, or other form (I would avoid early morning calls and texts unless there is an urgent situation).
    4. Don’t be afraid to communicate electronically on non-work matters (it’s a little harder for me to do this with no sports taking place currently!) As a manager I encourage this type of camaraderie and usually initiate it myself. Of course, you probably don’t share this type of information with everyone.
    5. The workday begins around 8 AM and ends around 5 PM. Working from home does not mean working 24/7. Certainly there are urgent situations that require overtime, which is easier when there is no commuting involved, but excessive hours should not occur regularly. Note – the fact that I’m sending this e-mail right after a Sunday School Zoom lesson indicts me I suppose.

    I see the following advantages and disadvantages associated with working from home:

    Advantages:

    Productivity – granted, there are distractions when you work from home, but to me the distractions at work are more counter-productive because they are more likely to be constant throughout the day.
    Concentration – it is much easier to think deeply about complex concepts when no one else is around.
    Independent Thinking – obviously this is a double-edged sword, so hear me out. From my experience, the best work product results when each individual begins the project thinking on his or her own (so I have not copied our entire team on this e-mail). Quickly after this occurs, everyone needs to bring ideas to the table so that the team can make decisions – like a best of the best selection. Clearly it is imperative that we are all rowing in the same direction. However, I stress the importance of beginning with independent thinking to prevent the company from succumbing to group-think.
    Diversity – somewhat similar to the concept of independent thinking, it can be a two-sided coin, but I’ve always thought it was an advantage for a group to be geographically disperse. We have different experiences, use different media sources, are members of different communities, interact with different local businesses, all of which we can lead to new ideas that we can share with our teams
    Employee Retention – certainly a long-term issue for companies to handle, but the ability to work remotely helps with retaining employees, especially when an employee must relocate if a spouse gets a job in a different city.

    Disadvantages:

    Potential Disconnect – certainly there is the potential for not everybody being on the same page. However, I’ve worked in offices when people sitting next to another were unaware of what the others did on a daily basis. Clear written communication solves the issue. In fact, you could argue that communication is better in a remote work situation because being apart forces communication to be written rather than verbal, which is better for record-keeping and getting everybody aligned.
    Less Collaboration – working from home means that we may not have the “a-ha” moments that occur when we gather around the water cooler or in the break room, but we can still share thoughts immediately via e-mail or even more urgently via instant messaging. Employees who are more introverted may feel more comfortable sharing information in writing than in person, so working remotely might bring some folks “out of their shells” so to speak.
    Isolation – fortunately I have not struggled with this issue but am aware that many folks do. One way to help deal with this topic is to have a morning hello (and maybe an evening good-bye) with at least one co-worker, as in point 3 in the first section. The informal communication in point 4 in the first section can also help.

    I recognize that all companies are different, all people are different, and all jobs are not created the same, but from my experience the advantages of remote work outweigh the disadvantages. To me, the disadvantages can be pretty well mitigated, in a risk management way.

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