For many, the pandemic was their first introduction to working from home. Working, for many office workers, was stripped both of the burdens (commuting and all its expenses, using the 'clean' office microwave, having to book half a day off to go get your fridge fixed) and the perks (enjoying the company of your co-workers, in-office snacks, regularly leaving the house) the office brings. In its stead we had makeshift desks at kitchen tables or on chest of drawers, rolling over in bed to sign into work at 8.59am, and negotiating your housemate’s conference calls.
This has brought on a divide between those who miss the office and those who never want to go back, with each side arguing the benefits. And as the Rishi Sunaks of the world make claims that working from home can inhibit your career, the debate rumbles on as to what is better not only for your work life, but your life in general.
But this debate misses part of the point. The way that we have been working from home is not the reality of working from home. Pre-March 2020, remote or flexible working didn’t always mean being confined to the same room for months on end, trying to learn if there’s a way to speak during a Zoom meeting without interrupting anyone (there isn’t).
To get a picture of the reality of ‘working from home’ outside of a pandemic we spoke to three women who have been doing just that, long before the first stay-at-home order was announced. Not only do they offer a glimpse of a flexible working world outside a pandemic, but offer their advice for how to manage continued working from home if you're clamouring for the office.
Sophie, 31, in Nottingham has been remote working since September 2018
I'm really looking forward to being able to do different types of task in environments that suit me best... for example, proposal writing and emails in a coffee shop, calls and meetings in my home office
"Before the pandemic, I was able to get out of the 'cabin' and work in a coffee shop somewhere! I was also planning my days to balance my own needs as well as company needs, so there was more of a flexitime feel to my working pattern. During the pandemic, there obviously hasn't been the opportunity for socialising or nipping out in the work day, so I've found that early mornings and later nights (which were part and parcel of the job anyway!) are just tacked on to a standard 8am – 5pm office day. I definitely didn't feel so tied to my desk before the pandemic!
I also feel that lots of other people have understood the challenges of working from home, like that I'm not available just because I'm at home, or that it is important to have boundaries about when I'm contactable and in work mode. I feel like my employers have recognised the importance of this much more and are more respectful of my time now that all their staff are working remotely rather than just a handful.
I'm really looking forward to being able to do different types of tasks in environments that suit me best... for example, proposal writing and emails in a coffee shop, calls and meetings in my home office. Also looking forward to being able to travel and meet clients face to face, so that working from home is actually working from anywhere... a concept that most haven't experienced yet during the pandemic!
My advice for people who miss the office depends on what they're missing. If it's the people you miss, arrange to meet (if you're all local). Meetings don't have to be over Zoom just because you're not in the office!
If its the structure of day in the office, plan your days in advance. I incorporate my personal tasks as well as my work tasks into my daily planner so that I'm always on top of both and don't feel like I'm getting the balance wrong."
Emily, 32, is a Public Affairs Consultant in South Yorkshire and has been remote working since 2015
My advice for people who continue to work from home is to crack on with work and then build up your social life outside of work rather than trying to add in unnecessary meetings during the day to feel less lonely.
There were far fewer online meetings before the pandemic — people did quick phone calls or the odd face-to-face meeting, but when everyone went remote they wanted Zooms of teams and far more often than we previously spoke or met. I also used to pop out for lunch with friends or take a random weekday off before, but when things closed that obviously stopped.
I'm excited about the continuing flexibility in the future, and more remote work opportunities being available as more people now understand it can be effective.
My advice for people who continue to work from home is to crack on with work and then build up your social life outside of work rather than trying to add in unnecessary meetings during the day to feel less lonely. And go for a walk during the day!
I'm really looking forward to there being more choice in the future.
Gemma, 29, works for her local council and has been remote working since October 2018
Before the pandemic, I worked from home three days a week. I tended to work from my sofa or dining room table and was less productive on those days. While it was great to not have a commute and sit in my PJs it didn't make me feel like doing much work and so sometimes I would find myself doing an extra day in the office when I had deadlines!
Since the pandemic and moving to working from home full time I've become much better at it! I put this down to the fact that I get dressed when I wake up and that me and my husband have an office with proper equipment now — desk, office chair, extra screens etc. We actually moved our 2-year-old daughter to the box room and took over her room when we realised working from home was going to be long-term.
It's also been a change working from home with my husband. It's just really nice to have company, although it can be difficult at times with us both having meetings! Before I wouldn't speak to anyone on my days working from home until he came home at 6 which was very lonely.
I felt quite isolated from colleagues in my team before COVID as no-one really spoke when working from home - we usually organised meetings for when we crossed over in the office. But with the rise of Teams and wellbeing or cup of tea meetings it's been a really positive change for me.
I'm really looking forward to there being more choice in the future. I actually started a new job during the pandemic which will only require me to be in the office one day a week. The commute is much longer and more expensive than my previous commute (over an hour) and would cost $20 per day for the train, but since I only need to do this one day a week it's fine!
I would never have taken this job opportunity I had to be in the office full time as I value the time spent with my family. Working from home becoming more of the norm has definitely opened up so many job opportunities that I never would have dreamt of before!
My two key bits of advice for continuing to work from home are: one, make sure you have a defined office space as it will help your focus. And two, make sure that you have regular contact with your colleagues — you might not want to but video calls as opposed to audio has been a huge benefit to me as you can see expressions and really get to know people!