But this wasn’t what I meant, when I said working from home was great!

Written by Maya Middlemiss

July 16, 2020

work from home corona virus

For me, working from home has always been a choice. A positive and happy choice, made at the end of a former millennium, and one on which I have never looked back. It’s enabled me to pursue interesting creative work, emigrate to where I wanted to live, and be there when my family needed me. Even when I was working essentially as an employee and under incredible pressure, I still had my choice of place to work and some autonomy around how to to structure my time and space.

That’s the big problem, with the 2020 remote work revolution. And I honestly do not know what the long-term outcome will be, what the ‘new normal’ will really look like (nor when we’ll ever know that we’ve actually arrived there).

But before I go into the issues around present circumstances, I just want to point something out: Whatever else happens, and whatever gets said about the results, there are two important facts to hold on to in all of this, there are two big and lasting changes on the remote work front, that we won’t be able to reverse.

We have the experiences

The first is that far more people than ever before have experienced working from home for the first time. Among those number a great many who never thought they could do it, would want to do it, would be allowed to do it – for whom it simply wasn’t on their radar. For whatever reason, and whether that was a carefully considered decision or an unexamined assumption, it had never been for them. 

As such whatever view they held about working from home, working remotely, was essentially theoretical and speculative, rather than evidence based.

Now they have some inkling of what it might involve, even if it’s a weird and distorted one, they know how they coped – or otherwise.

Secondly, there were a great many organisations and managers who held the complementary position, that home working or remote working, having people distributed away from where they could see them, was an unknown factor. Whether holding fast to a resolute decision that it’d never work for us, or simply not having considered the option seriously, there was no data either way.

Since lockdown rolled out around the world in the Spring however, and most teams had a scant couple of days to grab their gear and go home, the one thing we do have is experience to draw on.

But some of it was terrible…

Not all of that experience was positive, far from it. 

For my part I did my best to help both individuals and organisations adjust to the overnight shift – friends I had been talking to for years about the benefits, as well as those in leadership roles for whom we’d normally think in terms of a phased transition to implementing distributed working practices, rather than it being the sole overnight solution for business continuity.  

While I was glad to be able to help in any way I could, I felt a need to punctuate every response with something along the lines of, “but it isn’t supposed to be like this! This wasn’t what I meant, when I said working from home could make you happier, and well, and more productive!”

What we all lost during lockdown was freedom of choice. For the greater good we complied with requirements to stop all socialising, exercising, shopping, being in nature, to varying extents (here in Spain it was really tough at first, with no leaving the house other than for essential errands). Whether it was fear of the virus or the sanction that kept us indoors, that’s where we stayed. And that’s why we ended up with this horrible contradiction, where the freedom to work from home became a restriction, for some people feeling more like a prison sentence.

In my work with Virtual Not Distant we often talk about office-optional, as a category description for work which has been liberated from a specific location or building, and can be carried out anywhere – the ‘option’ part indicating the choice, to suit the circumstances or mood or motivation of the person doing the work, within the constraints of effective collaboration and teamwork. It puts some responsibility for self-knowledge on the worker, along with trust from the manager, to let people work how and where they do it best.

And that of course encapsulates what went wrong with the 2020 work-from-home revolution, there were no options – for some people, being furloughed from their job meant they literally legally couldn’t do any work at all. For others, it meant trying to carry on exactly as usual, when their lives were turned upside down, and they had to try and carve out physical and mental space to work from a completely unsuitable home, frequently while attempting to supervise the education of their children, and all the time worrying about whether people they loved might suddenly die.

Everyone just had to do their best

Some bosses were supportive and empowering, others were not, and even expected similar levels of output and productivity from their teams as they’d accomplished when everything was normal. Some organisations were already cloud-enabled and essentially location-independence ready, even if they normally worked in one place… Others had no strategy whatsoever to enable people to work from home overnight and access the tools and assets they needed to keep going in a secure and reliable way. Some teams had the trust and psychological safety inherent such that their leaders let people get on with the work, offering the support they needed but otherwise getting out of the way…  while others found themselves paranoically micromanaged by people who simply could not believe that work would get done if their reports weren’t in their direct line of sight. Some homes had space and solid enough wifi, and enough devices to go around so that everyone could get on with their work and studies… and others did not. 

So as I fumbled to help people set up VPNs, get their local services set up online, meet up with friends and family to try and replicate social contact, and figure out where to buy the things they needed, to plan their days and their workstations and cobble together communciation and collaboration strategies, a part of me felt like I had to keep apologising and explaining – on behalf of the remote work movement in general.

Because, this was NOT what we meant, not ever.

Sure, I have long thought many more people could enjoy ditching the commute, the frameworks and conventions dictated by habit, and the wasted time and money and environmental costs of working in a central office, but I meant that they should be able to choose.

To choose different hours to those which are simply a legacy from manufacturing production lines. To choose how to connect and communicate with colleagues and clients. To choose where to be, what environment provided them with what they most needed to work happily – from the level of noise to the device to the lighting.

Forced working from home during lockdown was never the idea – and for some that will create a permanently negative impression, an entrenchment of the ‘not for me/us’ position. Incidentally this mirrors a recent conversation I had with a homeschooling advocate, struggling to convey the message that nope, this is not what I meant/what homeschooling is, this desperate emergency mess of trying to support your kids and their teachers through forced overnight online schooling.

I am sad that some people will negatively judge both homeworking and homeschooling on such a strange and distorted experience, but I also understand that it’s really not my job to try and convince them otherwise. Anyone who gets through this time with their sanity intact has earned a right to their opinion and so much more, and if they cannot wait to get back to the commute and the cubicles I honestly wish that can safely come their way as soon as possible.

For others though, it’s peeled away the blinkers, shown them a glimpse of what working life could look like – if they really had a choice about how and where to do it. A choice they’re ready to defend, and find out what I really meant when I said working from home could be happy, healthy, and actually great.

So that’s why Healthy Happy Homeworking is here, to explore that vision with you and help you create the balanced life you deserve, whatever the world is looking like out there in the ‘new normal’.

YOUR normal is yours to craft, and there have never been so many possibilities.

It might be challenging at first, but we’re creating a new community to help you through the Healthy Happy Homeworking Facebook group, so do come and join us there.

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  1. Sandra Piddock

    A really enjoyable read. I got into home working by accident -or by synchronicity, as I prefer to call it, so no time to think, it just evolved. Now it’s natural to me, and I’m actually working more now than I’ve ever done.

    • Maya Middlemiss

      Thanks Sandra, and great to see you over at the new Facebook community too. I am glad you found your calling and you’re enjoying working from home, many people do find it easier to be productive and get more done when in their own space and choice of environment.

    • Duncan Dalzel-Job

      An interesting read and I wonder how many people sit on either side of the various pros/cons. The numerous in house WfH staff surveys must make interesting reading. Who thrived and who felt marginalised.

      • Maya Middlemiss

        We are seeing quite a bit of research emerging already but as you noted a lot of this is in-house, as such not exactly neutral… Still a long way till the dust settles I think and we get a clearer picture emerging, not least due to the political pressure to get people ‘back to *work*’ (like they’re not already working their backsides off) to save the broader city economies


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