Two years ago, I sat slumped at my desk, an empty packet of Haribo Supermix floating in-between the stacks of empty Costa coffee cups, motivation at an all-time low, health most likely at an all-time low and one eye on the time in the bottom corner of my screen.
I would have sacrificed a fair whack of my salary for the privilege of working from home back then. To be able to do both school runs for both children sounded like the ultimate representation of someone who had conquered the school / life balance. The thought that I could just pop a load of laundry in whilst making a coffee in-between calls sounded like a lucky luxury I could only dream of. Usually, I would cram all domestic duties into one exhausted hour after the bedtime battle with my daughter.
Fast forward to 2021 and I have been exclusively working from home for over a year as have most people. I do both school runs most days and I also pop that load of laundry on whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. However, I can also confirm that a lack of time at home was not the reason I did not get all my chores done and my life organised. Anyway…
In about eight weeks I am heading back to the office, albeit in a new country and for a new company. This role affords me the luxury of choice – the choice of whether to work from home or the office – the choice that I had so badly wanted and needed two years prior.
For myself, it is this hybrid working pattern, AKA the best of both worlds, that now feels like the 2021 version of conquering the school / life / self-care balance, but I still consider myself fortunate to have it. I know that I am one of the lucky ones. And I know I will still be knackered.
As I reminisce fondly on the sounds of the office banter, the creative brainstorming with colleagues and the tap, tap, tap of a better dressed, higher-heeled version of myself I got to thinking about what a year of home working has taught me. What have I learned about work, about myself and about my future?
Well, here it is – everything I have learned about working from home.
Hustle-porn – the over glamorisation of working hard all the time, is real. If you aren’t working more than one job, getting up at 5am to exercise daily, starting your own side business, probably raising a child or two and posting updates about your day on the ‘gram, then you aren’t pushing for your dreams hard enough. Or so the hustle culture we have fallen into would have us believe.
Working from home seems to have simply fuelled this hustle-flamed fire and blurred the work / life boundaries more than before. Most people I know have simply succumbed to it and there is now no real start or finish times. Offline used to be a recognised status, a necessary one at the end of a long day. Now I find colleagues are either online or ‘away’, indicating that they may come back when you need them regardless of the hour. Working from home means that your laptop can be opened at any point and the WIFI almost always works. Colleagues and managers seem to have less respect for your working hours than they did before, primarily because nobody respects theirs either.
It is easily solved in theory – you put your phone away. You set your working hours and stick to them. But, when you do this, you feel like you are missing out, seen to be offering less value than your peers. Perhaps that is just how it feels but the fact that it does feel this way, will inevitably dictate a reaction, assumed or otherwise. And that reaction keeps you online.
Recently I have been cheered to see some companies step up and acknowledge the burden this has placed on their employees. For example, just this week, Hootsuite announced they are shutting shop completely for a week to give all staff a proper break after an incredibly busy and stressful year. This is a bold finger in the air to consumerism and a kind acknowledgment of the importance of rest and balance that I hope to see a lot more businesses follow.
Rest and relaxation time should not be seen as something that happen once you have worked yourself into an exhausted frenzy, nor a selfish luxury for the lazy. Instead, we should all be looking at them for what they are, a necessity, and this past year has emphasised the need to amend the work, work, work narrative that has entrenched itself alongside our kitchen workstations.
Sitting with the discomfort
Being isolated is uncomfortable. Wondering what people might be saying behind your back is uncomfortable (they are saying nothing, they are just wondering too). Constantly having to second guess projects because you are missing out on valuable snippets of office conversation, is uncomfortable. Sitting at your kitchen table day in day out, is uncomfortable. Working in isolation with small children climbing all around you is uncomfortable. The guilt of leaving your kids to fend for themselves because you are working is unbearable, not just uncomfortable. You get the drift.
Working from home means not only learning to sit with the discomfort but facing it head on. It isn’t all cups of tea, pyjamas from the waist down and rounds of toast at 11am. It is often frantic, difficult, lonely, confusing, and yes, downright uncomfortable. But you learn to live with it. I have and so have all my friends in the same boat.
This week is the school half term in the UK. Both of my children are in isolation as someone in their bubble has tested positive. I am also a single parent, and I am working, and I mean, really working, all week. A friend has just asked me how I will cope with children and work, and it occurred to me that this level of discomfort is now just an ordinary part of my life. I have adapted to something that felt utterly impossible during lockdown number 1.
I am now comfortable with being uncomfortable. Go figure.
I am so damn lucky
The privilege with which I life my life has been a massive, inescapable revelation for me this past year. To be safe at home, discomfort or not, to have kept a steady income and to have all come out unscathed and healthy is a privilege which many people did not and do not have.
Perspective has therefore been one of my biggest lessons this year and it has come from working from home and from staying home in general. I know it sounds incredibly trite, but I feel enormously grateful. To what and to who I’m not sure.
We have all seen the disparity with which humans live their lives, most often determined by their birthplace, but never more so than during a global pandemic.
Is it enough to just acknowledge my luck whilst others suffer? Probably not but whilst my thought’s swirl on the topic, any tangible action with which I should act still escapes me. For now, it would be impossible to write a list of all that I have learned without acknowledging that I am enormously lucky, and I am grateful for it.
A simple life
Perspective has led me to feel further drawn to simplicity and I know that I am not the only one. I’ve written about my craving for a simpler life several times and been overwhelmed with the feedback from people expressing surprise that they are feeling the same way. Perhaps it is the greatest flaw of consumerism that the only job it is there to do, to teach us to work harder so we can buy more, is having the opposite effect. We are working harder but many of us are wanting to simplify, declutter, own less, and appreciate more.
The inevitable mundanity of working from home sitting starkly against the collective fear of facing our own mortality has created an almost euphoric appreciation of the tiny moments that make us happy. Or at least it has for me.
Taking a step back from the frantic rushing from home-to-school-to-office-to-Aldi routine has allowed me to really note and embrace this shift.
I tussled with the transition initially, as my Amazon delivery driver can attest to, but eventually I succumbed to the periods of inevitable boredom, a more make do and mend mentality and developed appreciation for smaller moments of happiness in an otherwise stale day. It was the tiny little things like a sticky toddler hug at the end of a long day, a hot coffee in the peace of the early morning, a really good book read in the glow of the winter sun – you know the stuff that cliches were written for. Those little moments of happiness I would have overlooked two years ago, were unveiled against the fragility of the world outside and the repetitive, uninspiring hum of domestic life inside.
I learnt to love them and appreciate them. I hope this is something I will carry with me into my next chapter.
And finally, in complete juxtaposition to the simplicity, working from home has given me the courage to be brave. Sick of conforming, of making do and of grinding away in a job that I hate, I finally made a huge and bold decision – to live my life on my own terms.
Who says a single mum can’t move to Dubai, find a brilliant job, and have an adventure with her kids? I don’t accept the narrative I feel I am supposed to conform to. Working from home has given me enough head space to realise that I can and must do something differently. And so, I am. I am scared but I am also brave. You can be both. If not now, when? There is an urgency to the pull of trying something new that working from home has unearthed in me. Breaking the shackles of office routine has disrupted the patterns of behaviour I have been used to for the past thirteen working years and change is no longer the scary beast it once seemed. And so, I will take my happy moments, a newfound gratitude, and a better understanding of my need to be both with people and away from people to this new life and to this new adventure.
Working from home was not the way I had imagined it to be. I have found it a strange kind of melting pot of unimaginable stress mixed with moments of relative calm. One thing is for sure, the juggle is endless wherever you base yourself, be it home, office or in my case, Dubai.