It’s been five or six weeks now since I have been mostly working at home. To be honest I have lost count.
I have worked at home before, about 20 years ago for about three years. Although then, I was out and about frequently delivering work and meeting up with people at work and socially. Things are different this time. It is lockdown. The outdoor world is scarier and more dangerous place. This isn’t a choice.
When I reflect on my past experiences, I remember the flexibility, the efficiencies gained by not commuting, and the work-life balance benefits. Those were the good things, easier to recall. But with deeper thought, I also remember the blurred boundaries, the many compromises, the loneliness and the real lack of tangible, practical and emotional support at work. This time around, in a time of crisis, requires careful consideration.
It is okay to enjoy the benefits of lockdown. Even with a partner at home, I have noticed how much more connected I am with colleagues and friends on the ‘phone, talking not emailing or texting. It is also normal to hold feelings of guilt if we are feeling okay, and are fit and well. Such feelings seem to well up after each daily briefing. Survivor guilt (also called survivor syndrome or disorder) is a mental condition when a person survives a traumatic event when others did not. Something first recorded in the 1960s when therapists were working with holocaust survivors. These feelings should be acknowledged and support us to better enjoy the positives.
Working from home is tough. Now, being asked to stay-in for weeks and maybe months is hardly difficult on a scale of what my grandparents were asked to do in WWII. But this is a multi-faceted challenge. One that includes health risks, financial uncertainty, emergency planning, logistical difficulties, leadership and management asks, and all sorts of changing personal and professional responsibilities. We are being asked to stay at home during the day, evenings and weekends. Over and above the practical considerations, the emotional and relational impact is huge, and there is anxiety and pressure, and at times stress on top. Yet, it is a privileged position not everyone can enjoy, we have exposed many inequalities. Not all of us can continue to work, or work at home, or exercise choices that fully meet the needs of ourselves or our families. That said, I’ve become fed up with people’s common perception of working from home. Although over time I think this has changed and matured. It is much more challenging than people seem to understand. Let me put on record right now the realities of home-working for many. First, it is not an opportunity to binge on a Netflix boxset. And it isn’t an opportunity for friends and neighbours to pop round for a coffee, all the time. Thankfully our social distance and isolation rules help this time. But I remember having to tell people in clear times that being at home was the same as being at work. Then we have the issue of who else is at home. That could be your children and young people, your dog, your parents, or your partner. Or maybe you are at home alone. And what are their priorities and needs? Home-schooling, childcare, walks, health care, feeding, the list is exhaustive. How are we supposed to fit work in? These all make a big difference, you could be competing for space, IT, the ‘phone line, WIFI bandwidth, or feeling intense sense of loneliness. Working at home could be happening in a corner of a busy kitchen, on the floor in the bedroom, or outside in the shed. Available workspace is a basic need. Working from home breaks so many rules or compromises our personal and professional boundaries. Video calls are a huge issue in themselves, revealing one’s home to colleagues and clients. Not being able to work, and being furloughed for an uncertain and unknown and extended period is equally as tough.
We need to go back to basics. At the most challenging times, it is natural to want to tend to our own basic needs. To ground ourselves. Now is a time to press control-alt-delete, to reboot, and to set out our aims and ambitions through however long this takes us to recover from.
It is important to have structure. At home, like work, we have a strategy and a plan. We have set out the things we want to achieve during this period of change and difficulty. Underneath that is a long list of things to do. And then each day has the jobs list, we tick it off. That helps us to celebrate what we have done and remember what we have done (which can be a struggle a day or so later). And this works on good days. Days when we can be busy and happy to be.
Emotions and feelings are real and we should listen to them. On down days it’s important to be flexible and focus on self-care, riding with and naming the emotions. Accepting them and acknowledging we have time for them in our busy, and increasingly less eventful lives. Already I have started to struggle to differentiate daily routines. I often forget what day it is. Those at home are always sure themselves either. Clearly, I need more structure so as to avoid a feeling of living through ‘a month of Sundays’.
It pays to be prepared for a rainy day. I have always advocated a policy of being prepared. By that I mean having enough food and resources at home to last a couple of weeks or more: food in the freezer, fridge and store cupboard; and useful things like drinking water, matches, batteries, and medication; a full tank of petrol; and plenty of things to do. It’s the same at work, building up a reserve for a rainy day. I never really wanted to have to use these prepared stocks, this was more theory than practice. But now we are in real time. My well-made plans are being tested. Reserves are being used. Government is asking us, no requiring us to stay in, only leaving the house for essential supplies, daily exercise or to work in essential roles. Normal routines are massively disrupted.
It makes we wonder what clues this is giving me for my retirement.