Yesterday, exactly 25 weeks – 175 days – after his last pre-lockdown day, Isaac finally returned to school. With all three of our children now back, the house is empty once more. Which means that I can start to experience what ‘proper’ working from home (WFH) feels like.
It’s not that I haven’t been working from home this past six months. I have. In fact, I’m regularly working more hours at home than I did in the office.
And it’s not that I’m a newbie to working from home. I routinely spent one day at home even before lockdown. My job covers the whole of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I spend most of my day in video calls rather than face-to-face meetings. And, as my manager, my direct report and the rest of our team are all located outside the UK, there’s very little need for me to be office-based. In truth, only convention and habit prevented me from working from home more.
Now, though, things are different. Virtually all my company’s office-based staff worldwide have been ‘WFH’ since at least mid-March. But for me, like many others with school-age kids, it’s been a diluted form of working from home.
My last ‘normal’ working day was 13th March. I have been working from home for nearly six months. But, with the exception of my first two days, I’ve always had people around me; never home alone.
It makes a difference. There has always been a background level of noise and bustle outside the closed door of our study, where I work. It can be a distraction in some ways but it’s also positive in others. It’s reassuring to know you’re not on your own. Poking my head round the dining room door to say hello to Heather and offer her a cup of tea. Asking the kids to keep the noise. Crossing paths at lunchtime or between calls. These connections are small but significant.
In some ways, ‘WFH 1.0’ has been the easiest form of working from home. Social contact in a busy house. Empathising with colleagues immersed in the same experience of remote-working. There have been times when it has been stressful. There have been times when it has been annoying. But it has never been lonely because there have always been five of us in the house together, even if that means constantly having to tell the kids to stop streaming Netflix or Disney+ because I desperately need the bandwidth to make a presentation in a meeting.
It has been seductive in many ways. Given all the obvious upsides – no commute, no office dress code, no overpriced sandwiches, more flexible hours – it’s no wonder so many of us are questioning whether we should make working from home, on at least a part-time basis, a more permanent arrangement.
But is this what ‘proper’ working from home will actually look like in the long-term? Is the grass really that much greener?
Toby and Kara went back to school last Wednesday. Five became three and the house immediately felt much emptier and quieter.
Then yesterday three became two. Now Heather and I are talking about taking advantage of the opportunity to have lunch and maybe a walk together, unencumbered by the need to feed or care for the kids.
Even though we barely notice each other’s presence for much of the day, it’s reassuring for both of us to know simply that the other is there.
As far as returning to normal office working is concerned, that’s a long way off for both of us. I will be in the last wave of people to be asked back into the office. My current guess is that this won’t be until after winter has passed. Heather will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future, although as of next week her team have agreed to get together in the office every Monday.
That will be my first taste of what WFH 2.0 will really feel like. A whole day working alone in a quiet, empty house. Even then, though, it’s still a far cry from the full work-from-home experience. Being at home one day a week is very different to doing it, say, four days out of five, which is what I’m hoping to agree longer-term. (It helps that my company is quite progressive in terms of supporting flexible working practices where this is a possibility.)
And it will be even more different if I continue to work at home when the majority of my colleagues are back in their offices. It’s one thing participating in a video call when everyone is dialling in from home. It’s quite another dynamic when everyone else is in the office and you’re the only one calling in remotely.
I still think – from my personal situation at least – the benefits will far outweigh the downsides. But I won’t really know for sure whether WFH 2.0 is the right thing for me until the novelty has become routine.
For now, though, the kids returning to school is a welcome step back towards normality. And it’s an opportunity for me to test whether working from home should become my new normal for the future. We will see.
What started out as a temporary arrangement for many brought on by the pandemic will evolve into a more permanent practice for some.
So yesterday it wasn’t just Isaac who was starting a new year. In many ways, it felt like I was too. Only it may turn out to be much more than just a year.