Working from home: questioning the stereotypes

Maya Middlemiss says there are no rules around homeworking. Do what feels best for you, but make sure you have the equipment you need.

Working Mum

 

Having spent the past 20 years enjoying working from home, I have frequently had conversations along the lines of, ‘oh, I could never do that…’ I rarely get to explore why people think that is the case, as they’re usually too busy dashing off to catch a train to somewhere.

Now, however, a great many people are experiencing the prospect of working from home for the first time, and these assumptions are going to have to be examined in more detail. The ‘I could never’ lines in the sand will be tested to the limit. We’re in unprecedented times, uncharted waters, and flailing around in many other daunting cliches. But never fear! There are suddenly hundreds of wise gurus on hand to tell you all about what you should and shouldn’t do, in order to work from home.

A lot of it really depresses me. Right now, however, it’s more than just an irritation as people who are anxious about their health, career, finances and productivity struggle to get to grips with something they never chose to take on, so I wanted to bust through some of the annoying ‘rules’ I have seen solemnly spouted in too many places over the past few days.

If you’re suddenly about to be working from home for the first time, don’t worry, it will be fine. And for what it’s worth here are my dos centimos, to help you think through what’s going to work for YOU.

The hardware and software you need

If you’re employed rather than freelance then the latter at least should not be your responsibility, and hopefully everything you use all the time SHOULD be fully cloud-based. It doesn’t live in your office, or even on your computer — even if there’s catching up to do, your IT dept is probably working hard right now to make sure everything is distributed and accessible. What you need to do is make sure you know how to connect securely to what you use from wherever you are.

As to what you use to connect, that will depend on your employer and any present ‘bring your own device’ policies in play. If this choice is restricted by security, compliance, licensing or any other issues, then they need to provide you with a laptop somehow, or a virtual desktop on your own machine at home at a pinch.

Otherwise, it’s very much a matter of preference. I wouldn’t want to write or edit anything much longer than a tweet on my phone, but I can when I have to. Other people apparently actually prefer it or don’t need to write long things anyway.

Beyond that, of course, it all depends on the work you actually do. I have definite preferences for my long evolved home office set-up, including preferred paper planner and brand of highlighters, a big second monitor, a printer (which might go unused for weeks at a time), etc — but, can pare it down to a small laptop sleeve for essentials. So think about what you really use and what you can manage with.

But honestly, while there are really no ‘upsides’ to be pointed out in the current health crisis, the world of work is at least in the greatest place it ever has been for cloud service provision. Everything you typically use should be available online, as a service, that you can plug right in to. Even if it’s not the app you are used to, there will be an equivalent that’s very similar.

The only other thing you will need is bulletproof connectivity — reliable, uncontested and preferably unmetered. Use your phone plan as an emergency back-up only because anything like video calling absolutely eats data — to upgrade your home broadband plan if you need to first.

Where to work in your home

In an ideal world, if you’re planning to work at home long term, you’ll probably want a dedicated private office space.

In the real world of 2020, you need somewhere you can plonk your laptop and yourself reasonably ergonomically and peacefully and that’s it. You can experiment with different rooms and spaces available to you, and if you are getting by with a set-up which is a million miles from a health-and-safety approved workstation standard, then the best thing you can do is mix it up — an hour of sofa, an hour of kitchen table, an hour standing at the kitchen worktop. What you don’t want to do is hunch in the same non-optimal position for too long.

Privacy can be created with a door, but if that’s not practical then headphones can help block the world out. Or the TV or music might provide the mental equivalent of white noise — I prefer silence for writing, but I know others find silence deafening and need something going on in order to focus better.

Never work from your bed! scream The Rules — well, your home, your rules, why on earth NOT work from your bed if you want to occasionally, or the sofa minding the kids, or in the garden if you’re going stir crazy and need a change of scene? Adapt and find out what works for you.

Keep an eye on your bills, especially in winter. Warming up just the area you’re working in, or just you, may be a lot more cost effective than heating your whole house up.

What to wear to work from home

One thing I love about the way I work is NOT having to buy and maintain any kind of business wardrobe — but if you feel more work-minded when you get up and put on a suit, then go ahead. If you’re doing video calls, then business-casual from the waist up is pretty easy, otherwise, anything goes (and I reckon comfort rules).

Never work in your pyjamas, declare The Rules. But why on earth not? Pyjamas are really comfy and warm, both factors which contribute to my ability to work without distraction. If you need a hard demarcation between work and leisure time, by all means use your clothes to create it, but it’s up to you.

And if it makes you feel happy to work in your favourite ballgown or fancy dress outfit, to put makeup and perfume on, then go for it — your best work wear is whatever you choose and feel good in. Not what anybody else defines.

Working hours and work-life boundaries

‘Keep the 9–5’, ‘take a Proper Lunch Hour’, The Rules proclaim, maintaining utter separation of work and life like church and state — like you’re utterly incapable of managing your own attention and activity levels. A sub-rule here is that you should avoid or block all social media or the entire internet – even if your work actually involves this.

Obviously if you’re employed and in a line management situation there will be trust and expectations in terms of your availability and contactability and your working hours. But if you’re in a more results-driven environment, at least think twice before you duplicate your office routine at home.

This might be the perfect time to work out when YOU are at your most motivated/productive/creative, doing your best work in flow, and it might surprise you. At the very least it might not correspond to a paradigm dating from the manufacturing and agricultural era. Get up early and crack on in peace before the kids wake, go to the gym or out for coffee when things are quiet and socially isolated, eat at your desk if you want to, it’s not illegal. Boost your productivity with a siesta or a stomp mid-afternoon or burn the midnight oil if that feels right.

Also, stick on a load of washing, sign for your post — let life blend into work as needed, you have the presence and insight to be 100% engaged in a conversation with your boss or your kids as you should be and at other times let your mind wander to listen to local news updates on the radio during work or to check an email if you need to during a family evening. Manage the notifications on your phone so work doesn’t bug you during personal time.

You’re an adult, you can choose.

An emergency experiment — or a long-term solution?

No one knows what the future holds, in terms of ‘business as usual’.

In a pandemic, getting set up and settled into the ability to do your work from anywhere indefinitely feels like a sound strategy for career future proofing right now for anybody, and above all you’re creating options for yourself.

You might be longing to get back to the social contact and buzz of an office — or you might find other ways to fulfil those particular needs in your local community and/or online. You might find you really struggle with ‘the rules’ or expectations of your employer and really can’t make it work, you want the structure or the facilities or the face-to-face collaboration of your co-located office and can’t wait to get back there.

I hope you won’t have too long to wait, and I suspect long before this crisis can be considered over, it will reach a point where additional social contact is regarded as not adding perceptibly to risk and spread. Then everyone can go back to the office — if they want to.

I suspect there will be a significant number of people, though, who relish the freedom from the commute, the peace of their home (or a local co-working or coffee shop once we’re all free to mingle), the autonomy to plan their activities and their time. People who have demonstrated beyond all doubt to those who manage them that they can manage themselves in this way — they have the mindset, personal accountability, technical chops and creativity to thrive in a location-independent setting. In fact, they’ve loved every minute of it.

What happens then, to the rush hour, the commute, the watercooler and the conference room?

I don’t know, but it will be fun finding out.

Until then — plan your time, manage your passwords, wash your hands and keep well.

*This article is an edited version of an article which was first published on Medium.com.





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