If you’re struggling with the fact that remote working isn’t going anywhere (literally) we’ve got some expert tips and solidarity… especially if you’re a gobby creative type like Isabel
You might be able to sense from the excessively hysterical headline that I’m not a big fan of remote working. Sure, the odd day at home can be handy when the laundry pile’s mounting up or you’ve done something weird with your eyebrows, but for those of us who crave human company, flirtatious glances on public transport (hasn’t happened since 2009) and all the free post-its you can cram into your handbag [maybe delete this bit, it’s actually stealing – Petty Crime Ed], the long-term picture of a more permanently remote world of work can be harder to stomach than a disappointing £11 desk-based salad.
As a needy extrovert and classic creative wanker, I simply do not believe people who say they’re more productive and energised at home, as it’s so far removed from my truth. My day job is at a lovely start-up called tiney which previously had a central London HQ but has now gone fully remote (or “distributed” – it sounds less sad). There are loads of really positive things about this… for other people. It means that there are team members working from Australia, Germany and even – imagine! – Birmingham and that everyone is able to plan their days more flexibly, with less frantic flapping around from tube to childminder to sofa.
But for those of us who enjoy – in fact, thrive on – a bit of frantic flapping and work faster and better when there are people around and a shared sense of accountability, working from home is tough. I am lucky though – while I know many people who’ve been left to their own devices for the best part of 18 months, at my work they look after us very nicely and shower us with tools to recreate office life. Plus we have access to an excellent hot-desking app called Desana, which means we can sometimes meet up with colleagues at jazzy coworking spaces and get a bit of work/home separation; much-needed after so many months of trying to work in the same four walls as my needy children and all their flipping Pokemon and My Little Pony paraphernalia.
And yet I still miss the grubby comfort of having my own desk in an office with a hot water tap with familiar idiosyncrasies, and I miss reading great books on the train every day (I’m a “voracious reader” who has finished a grand total of two books since March 2020) and I miss going for drinks after work and gossiping over hasty lunches in overpriced cafes and I miss having a reason to put on a nice dress and eyeliner (although I do this most days anyway; my cat thinks I fancy him).
Crucially I miss forming the kinds of close bonds with colleagues that are difficult to replicate on Zoom no matter how many virtual laughter yoga sessions (true story) are organised.
I think a lot about how all of this would feel if I was 23, and not 40. I developed at work so much from ear-wigging on more experienced colleagues and being spontaneously asked to contribute to projects because I was in the right place at the right time. Plus, as something of a late bloomer socially (I hated uni…), if I’d worked from home in my twenties, I simply wouldn’t have made any friends. In fact, there are at least three marriages (including my own) that would never have happened if I hadn’t befriended my wonderful mate Olivia at work in the mid-noughties and gradually merged our social circles until they were all sleeping together. I know today’s 20-somethings have other ways of expanding their networks (apparently there’s this thing called the internet?) but it still feels like a big loss.
It seems like it’s deeply uncool to admit to liking the office – remember that embarrassing Dettol ad that went viral last year? – but I don’t care. So, you love not having a commute and tending to your oh-so-hip hobbies and spending more quality time with your family? GOOD FOR YOU, YOU ARE DEFINITELY BETTER THAN ME IN EVERY WAY. But if you do find some elements of WFH a challenge – even if you’re slightly less woe-is-me about it than this here whinging geriatric millennial – I’m hoping our expert course creators on Discoco can provide some helpful advice.
Jo Carnegie is a writer, counsellor and loneliness expert who runs workshops on How To Work Alone. She’s also a seasoned home worker which may or may not be her reaction to spending several years working in the same office as me, during my formative years back in the noughties at heat magazine (possibly the root of all my problems – it was like an out of control youth club, but we got shit done). Jo is a loud and creative person, though, so I know that she will relate to some of My Struggle™.
“For lots of us, working from home has stripped the sociable side of work out and left us with the often boring nuts and bolts bit,” says Jo. “After nearly 18 months of a pandemic many of us have, quite understandably, forgotten to have fun in our working day. It might seem a bit contradictory but we need to make an initial effort to bring back spontaneity and casual conversation.”
But how? Jo goes on: “Make non-work time as big a priority as work time: schedule in downtime or chatty time in your diary as you would a meeting. Make a pact to talk about anything other than work. TV and food were always big topics of conversations in the office – how can you replicate that online? Start a Teams thread for what everyone is watching on telly or start a foodie club or even a lunch club, where people come together to chat about what they’re having for dinner tonight. It might sound massively mundane but mundane chat is what we’re missing right now.”
As someone who often derails meetings with their stream of consciousness creativity (that’s direct feedback from my last performance review; I don’t think it was meant as a compliment but I took it as one), this is all music to my ears. In my experience, talking about things other than work is often what inspires brilliant work brainwaves. Maybe not if you’re an estate agent or a zookeeper or one of the really really fast ones at Aldi, but definitely if what you do is vaguely ideas-based.
Jo has another, slightly more controversial suggestion too. “You could try a ‘Kitch Bitch’,” she says. GREAT I LOVE IT WHAT IS IT? “Another casualty of WFH is that we don’t really get to have a moan to our colleagues anymore. Moaning is actually a very bonding experience. It’s not about creating a toxic environment or slagging people off but having an outlet for letting off steam about anything – it doesn’t have to be work related. The office kitchen or pub was normally the place for a moan, so why not try a virtual ‘Kitch Bitch’ where you get together with a trusted colleague over a cup of tea or a glass of something at the end of the day?”
Thinking about it, a bit of virtual kitch-bitching with like-minded colleagues actually did help get me through lockdown; it just wasn’t our official team-mates we were slagging off, but the tiny little loudmouths who were suddenly invading every meeting and writing “POO BUM WILLY” on our to-do lists: no, not Jamie from accounts, but our kids. Sure, we love them, we’d just prefer them not to beg for a breadstick during the quarterly OKR review.
On a more serious note, Jo says anyone feeling the WFH WTF is not alone. “It’s very normal to experience loneliness or isolation working from home, especially during a pandemic,” she says. “Most of us have felt it at some point or we might still be feeling lonely and cut-off from colleagues, so don’t be afraid to reach out and say that you’d like some more social interaction. Most people will agree and will probably be relieved or grateful that you’ve suggested it.”
Of course, not every working from home gripe is psychological – there are physical issues too. So many of us are making do with less-than-perfect home office set-ups – I’ve spotted people on video calls working from sofas, beds, many a kitchen table and even an ironing board. If we chose our homes pre-pandemic, most of us didn’t factor in needing a productive work space – and when we thought lockdown might only last two weeks, and then six, and then 12, it didn’t seem worth reconfiguring the house. It’s only now, 18 months later and with many companies adopting a remote or hybrid model permanently, that you can’t walk down the street without tripping over at least seven loft extensions in action as millions of office drones have finally realised they’re in it for the long-haul. But this isn’t an option for everyone, and it’s why lots of people are suffering from new aches and pains.
Another Discoco expert, chartered physiotherapist Li-Yeng Choo, has created a useful and super-practical course tackling exactly this issue: How To Set Up A Healthy Home Working Space. She has loads of brilliant tips on making WFH better for you, physically and mentally – and of course, the two are often intertwined.
“Take regular, frequent breaks, and vary your postures and activities,” she says. “You can set up to stand at your kitchen counter for Zoom meetings, take phone calls while out in the garden or walking around the neighbourhood, and do simple exercises during a break.”
Li-Yeng also points out that laptops aren’t supposed to be used for hours and hours – and yet that’s how so many of us work (I am typing this with mine propped on the arm of the sofa, with my legs tucked underneath me. And it has Frozen stickers on it which, while not affecting my health, doesn’t exactly scream “dead serious work environment”). “The smaller screen and keyboard and lack of keyboard-screen separation makes it challenging to achieve a comfortable working posture,” Li-Yeng explains. “If using it as your main set-up, do invest in an external keyboard and mouse and place your laptop on a stand, box, or books so the top of your screen is at eye level or just below.”
And for both your body and your mind, creating boundaries is key. “If you hot-desk around the house and don’t have a dedicated workspace or room which you ‘leave’ at the end of the day,, implement a ‘clear desk’ policy,” she suggests. “Put away your computer and work materials when you are done – it can be a storage cupboard or a portable caddy or basket.”
Li-Yeng is also a big fan of the fake commute – going for a walk at either end of your work day. “This draws physical boundaries between work life and home life which then helps our brains unwind and decompress from work,” she says. Of course, if you work somewhere flexible and don’t need to be chained to your not-actually-a-desk for eight hours straight, you can take this a step further – I often try to cram a run in before a long meeting, for instance, or I create little incentives to get stuff done: in an office it would have been “write that article before 12.30 and you can go for lunch with Saskia”, now it’s “write that article by 12.30 and you can nip out and return the ASOS parcel to the Hermes drop-off point.” Simple pleasures, right?
Despite all my moaning, after 18 months of this shit I do admit that there are some positives emerging from the predicament many of us find ourselves in. I actually wouldn’t go back to full-time office life – I think three days out of the house is the sweet spot for me – because there’s stuff about it I’ve actually grown to like. I’m really attached to my local neighbourhood, I’ve become a weird exercise addict which is hard to fit in on top of a commute, and it’s nice to be able to do the school run in the morning and still start work at 9.09am. When I go into central London to meet colleagues, I put on ALL my makeup and get a genuine buzz from the sense of connection, plus I never moan about public transport anymore; it feels like a thrilling adventure (it’s way emptier than it used to be anyway).
And without all these months of remote working, there would be no Discoco. When Lucy and I decided to make a go of it, in the depths of lockdown, it partly came out of a desperation for the collaboration and creativity that we had both felt starved of for months. Our first proper meetings were long, late night walks, wearing four layers, clutching hot drinks and recording our ideas as voice notes, but they fulfilled a shared desire to let off steam and bounce ideas around next to a living, breathing, non-pixelated human.
But would it have been healthier to try and tackle my chronic need to intertwine the professional and the social, rather than blurring the boundaries more than ever by starting a business with a close friend? Probably. Am I ever likely to do anything about this ingrained part of my personality? Not remotely.
More resources on this topic:
Li Yeng’s course on setting up a healthy home working space
Jo’s course on working alone.
An article that spoke to me more than any others from the last 18 months, because it felt like it came along when everyone else was banging on about how WONDERFUL it was to work from home: Where’s the spark? How lockdown caused a creativity crisis, in the FT.
Long-term freelance writer Rebecca Seal’s fantastic book, Solo: How to work alone and not lose your mind (and she does a podcast on the same theme too, covering topics like burnout and mental health).
Maintaining Innovation in Isolation: a super-useful PDF from creative recruiters Handle, with great insight on different personality types from Discoco’s very own Lucy.
And if you’re really bloody bored… Drive & Listen allows you to simulate a commute to work in more than 50 cities around the world, while listening to their local radio stations (I’ve just torn up the mean streets of Kiev with some Ukrainian hip-hop for company).