My alarm goes off and it’s cold and dark again while I wait for the heating to kick in. I make a coffee, walk the dog, then grab a hot shower. Breakfast gets eaten and the news gets switched off before I savour the Christmas advent calendar surprise of the day— but I don’t grab my keys and leave the house, because I’m already at the office.
Since February, like most people, my workplace experience has changed because my home has been my office. I consider myself lucky that I actually have the space and setup to work effectively from home, but it was just by chance that I already had a desk, complete with screen, mouse, and keyboard before I was forced to adapt to remote working. Heck, I’ve even got little flashing snowflakes strewn about the place now.
Not everybody has that, though. Some people have none of those things and are stuck with a laptop on the sofa day in and day out. Some are in -style cupboards-under-the-stairs, rooted to one spot just to get a good Wi-Fi signal, while others have turned the dining table into their home-based war room, with hand-written signs taped to the door so the kids know you’re in a meeting and any disturbance is to be met with a swift and severe hushing, or maybe even the threat of coal in their stockings.
But what I’m wondering is: did remote working get easier?
In a way, I think working from home become easier because we never really had a choice. For those of us who had the capacity to function in our jobs away from the office, it wasn’t about whether or not we could do it, but how we would do it— because we had to. Before we knew it, we’d traded the monotony of our commutes for the solitude of working alone, no water-cooler chit-chat and no jumping up every 30 minutes to make a coffee. We traded human interaction with our teams for the joy of knowing that when you turned your laptop off in the evening, you were already home and the mulled wine was waiting.
I’m sure I’m not the only one that found the work-from-home experience odd to start with. For a while it was the newly-found weirdness of ‘going to work’ without actually going to work. It almost inherently came with added flexibility around start times, lunch times, and close-of-play times, which was nice. Nice, too, was the ability to catch up on that pile of washing or let the boiler-service man in without having to worry about how you’d get home in time. But it wasn’t without its drawbacks.
Gone were the morning team coffees, or popping into the supermarket to grab a croissant. Gone, too, was just poking your head over your monitor and asking if anyone caught the Bake Off last night or whether your mate’s landlord had sorted out that leak as promised. A new day was dawning on those of us usually bound to offices, where all of this started happening as… (takes a deep breath) …Teams meetings.
Meetings all day, meetings for everything, meetings forever. We somehow naturally swapped all the conversations, all the interactions, for virtual meetings. I guess this wasn’t too new to us— nobody is hearing the word ‘meeting’ for the first time and sprinting to Google to find out what that is. But what really stood out for me was the meetings that weren’t for work.
Sure, the majority of them were. After all, we’re talking about working from home. But we started setting time aside in our diaries not for tasks or focus time or team stand-ups; but time to catch up. The water-cooler chitchat, the jumping up every 30 minutes to make a coffee— we started scheduling it. And we’re good at it, too. We took isolation, immobility, and limitations and turned them into productivity, communication, and positivity. If anything, now the bigger task is finding the time in the day to actually step away from the laptop and ensure we get more than 300 steps in.
So I get out my new working-from-home checklist: Mentally prepared? Check. Physically prepared? Check. Emotionally prepared? Just about. Festive mug and hat ready for Zoom meetings? Check and check. Technologically prepared? Hmm. Maybe this was the hurdle most of us stumbled at.
Some of my friends and family were stopped in their tracks waiting for their companies’ IT teams. That was no fault of those teams– they’ve never had to meet the demand for an entire workforce's laptops before, let alone build and ship them in such a short time. On top of that, ensuring those machines were configured to enable their users to work from home in the same capacity as they were accustomed to, was no small feat. My Mum had never heard of VPNs (virtual private networks) in her life, but now she could probably tell you all about what they are and why she needs them.
These technological and digital hurdles were, I suspect, the main reason our society and culture had always feared a situation such as this, and assumed that a ‘remote-first’ approach wasn’t possible or realistic. But, we did it, and every problem that came after felt smaller by comparison.
We lost our desk phones, but then we didn’t really like them anyway. Skype and Teams are fine replacements, even if we have to get the kids to stop streaming Elf and Frozen back-to-back to give our broadband some breathing room. The ability to blast Michael Bublé’s Christmas album while writing this without an office full of people telling me off for it is nothing short of incredible– and outweighs any of the cons I ran into in February with everybody else while the world was on fire.
So, I’d like to change my answer, please. I don’t think working from home did get easier. I think the pieces of the puzzle were already there, even if we didn’t all need them for a long time– and we all just got better at it, really quickly. I know not everybody was as fortunate as me– already in an industry that catered for remote working and already being used to working from home– and my thoughts are certainly with those people. Now, my attention has turned to the experience of it all.
In a world that’s adapted to allow entire offices to work from the comfort of their living rooms, with barely a need to change out of your Christmas pyjamas– I find myself wondering– why would anyone go back to the office?