Stylist’s Columnist Lucy Mangan on the trials and tribulations of working from home.
"O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" Such, I imagine, will be the expressions of joy throughout Whitehall (which I also, it appears, imagine to be staffed entirely by fans of Jabberwocky) at the news that they are to be granted permission to work from home this summer in order to take pressure off themselves and the public transport system during the Olympics and Paralympics.
I understand the impulse to exult. When I worked in an office, during endless temp jobs and as a trainee solicitor in the city, it was my greatest, fondest, most golden dream to be allowed to work from home. Imagine – no commute! No watchful authority figures! A cup of coffee whenever you feel like it, drunk at a leisurely pace on your own sofa instead of knocked back at your desk! No commute! No office politics! No commute! No wearing of uncomfortable shoes, tights in the summer or skirts ever! And no commute!
Now, having made the leap from solicitor (I qualified on a Tuesday, left on the Friday) to freelance journalist (via more of the aforementioned office temping jobs and a stint selling books in Waterstones), I have been living the dream for about eight years. And like most dreams, it has turned out to be something of a nightmare.
If you are working from home, you have essentially been released from prison on your own recognizance. This makes you, naturally, deliriously happy for the first few days. But then reality – aided by a few irate phone calls from your boss wondering why your tributary of reports/documents/ articles to the river of company output has slowed to the merest trickle – kicks in and you realise while you have gone away, the office hasn’t and that the work still has to be done.
Worker-from-home – know thyself. All your flaws – your inherent laziness, your tendency to procrastinate, your lack of self-discipline, of conscientiousness, your need to check with a peer or superior that what you are doing is right every 30 seconds, or whatever the grim cocktail of weaknesses an unbenevolent god saw fit to pour into your soul – are about to be revealed. You need to fight against them. Every day becomes a war between your good and bad selves. It will drain you more than the worst commute ever could. If you are lucky, your good self will triumph before you are sacked. If not – well, at least your internal antagonists will have the chance to reconcile in your many forthcoming waits at the dole office.
The second worst problem after the inward strife is the fact that your workplace is now your home and your home is now your workplace. Your domestic haven, your refuge, your former place of safety is no more. It is forever polluted by work. From now on there is no true escape. at first, I thought it was because this was literally true – I was living in a flat with my then-boyfriend/ future-husband who was also an officeless freelancer and our papers, our laptops, our general chaotic and proliferating professional paraphernalia was everywhere. Now we live in a house and my study is in the loft but it hasn’t helped because I manage to trail both paperwork and the consciousness of tasks left undone everywhere I go. Sometimes I almost see them, creeping like an evil black-tentacled monster down the stairs, reaching out to grab me as I try to relax in front of the telly or put an evening meal together.
Of course when you work in an office you still fret about the work awaiting you on your desk when you go in next morning. But there is still a great psychological advantage in being able to walk out of the building when your day is done, and mark the beginning of a time and a space that officially belongs to you and not the man. The man is everywhere when you work from home. It’s an advantage I certainly did not appreciate when I was office-based. I suspect it is still not an advantage most people ‘trapped’ in their office feel.
The pressure is always on to blur the boundaries between work and home, work and life, work and everything else. And to this the technology that puts no-one beyond the reach of the boss at any time and a recession that makes us all fear for our jobs if we don’t keep going the extra mile and the miles and miles after that; along with the modern myth that our jobs should define us, that we are only worthwhile if we are economically worth plenty. And it is near impossible to remember that work is not home. Whitehall, you’ve been warned.
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