Back when I started doing it 20 years ago, working from home was a deep dark secret.
I didn’t know anybody else who worked from home (although obviously on reflection there could have been more of us secret-keepers out there), and my contemporaries divided firmly into those who worked and commuted and those who were stay-at-home parents. The people I indirectly worked with all travelled daily to a central London office from varying distances, and as I was developing a new side project on their behalf my invisibly working from home suited all of us very well.
When I started to work with clients, my location and status as a home-based worker remained discreet. I didn’t need to be heartily advised of this necessity by my centrally-located colleagues. I would never have dreamed of telling a client that I worked from home, and if I needed to meet up with them I got on a train and went up to town – to their offices, or to my parent company’s head office, which had a dedicated large room for this purpose, and a nice reception with fresh flowers to meet people in. More than once I took a babysitter and baby along with me to walk around outside the meeting venue, because that baby was being fed on demand. Indeed, there came a point at which the beep of a text message was in danger of triggering a reflex every new mother will be familiar with.
I would never have considered suggesting a client visit me at home out in the sticks or asking if somewhere less central would work better for us to get together. At that time video calling was not a meaningful option, and the expectation was that business relationships would be consolidated face-to-face in person.
On the phone or through email my location wasn’t an issue. My registered office whose physical address was in my email footer at one time had a central location, and as soon as I got my hands on one of the earliest VoIP phone systems I had a central London phone number to match. We certainly didn’t have to worry about what was visible during a Zoom call, because there weren’t any.
In those days when working from home often meant feeding a baby and sorting laundry at the same time as setting up a project and receiving a research briefing by phone, I can remember occasionally looking around me and being very relieved indeed that no one could see the physical circumstances in which I was actually carrying out their work. I was fortunate enough to work with some famous global brands, and I enjoyed it when I got to put on business attire and visit their fabulous HQs, while harbouring my secret setup of domestic chaos, and being amused at the disconnect between the two. I am pretty certain I never directly lied to anybody I worked for, about how and where I worked – as it would never in a million years have occurred to them to ask.
All in all there was a definite sense that working from home was not compatible with a professional service business identity, and it needed to remain discreet. I would never disclose it to a client until I had proved my worth in terms of successful delivery and probably after meeting up with them socially, at which point it was a fascinating curiosity – who’d have thought? Among my colleagues, particularly the non-parent colleagues, my existence outside of work was equally invisible and expected to remain that way – there would be no greater breach of etiquette than overhearing a bawling toddler during even an internal business call.
Obviously it got easier as my girls got older, but I remember so many occasions throughout their childhood where professionally I had to apologise for them, close a door on them, feel embarrassed/ashamed, or pretend they didn’t exist.
For me then this is one of the biggest positive changes about the remote revolution of 2020.
Now, everybody has a context, within which their work takes place. We can see and hear that context and it no longer has to be hidden away – because we all know what it’s like to be working from home.
A friend who works in the City of London, whose organisation experienced home-based working for the first time this year, told me she had got to know her manager during the weeks of lockdown video calls better than she ever had during three years of sharing an office. “It’s not that I didn’t know he was a father, or an ice hockey fan – I’m sure these things have been mentioned around the office at some point.
“But I had never had a meeting with him interrupted by a four-year-old chiming in and sharing snacks, or seen the Red Wings match memorabilia he chose to decorate his personal space with. He never brought any of that stuff to work with him, so it didn’t come up in conversation, I don’t think I’d ever seen a picture of his boys. Nor had I talked to him about parenting and work and life and health and all sorts of things which now arise naturally in our Zoom calls, because we’re both in our spare bedrooms and getting on with work around physical and visible personal stuff.
“Even when we go back to the office, things will be different, because we’ve experienced this time.”
In my own work as a technology journalist I frequently have to speak to quite senior and busy people, conducting short interviews, during which I try to get beyond the dry facts of the press release to a personal take or opinion. Even with video calling this can be tricky occasionally, to build rapport and develop disclosure rapidly, and get some interesting quotes from them. They’ve all been briefed to stick to the script from their media colleagues, and frequently their latest app isn’t as unique or different as they think it is.
Today though, not only does every call start with a brief check-in as to where they are located and how things are going there, there is every chance the interview will take place in a room in their home, rather than some groovy downtown coworking spot.
That home context gives me immediate clues as to what makes them tick, and if we are interrupted by a slobbery dog or a preschooler demanding they stop being a CTO for a moment and help open a carton of juice, well, that won’t make it into the article – but it will deepen our connection, and help us to relax with one another, helping me to see this stressed entrepreneur as a parent or an individual with opinions and passions and beliefs and above all a context, outside of their professional role. And once I have paused to admire the latest artwork or homeschool worksheet, they’ll know I appreciate this glimpse of their background reality, and it really doesn’t matter if they finish the interview up with that homeschooler on their lap, or joining in with the occasional pithy soundbite.
As the immediate crisis has now given way to a more settled period – even if we are a long way off anything resembling a new normality – many people have managed to organise time and space to work from home in a less stressful and thrown-together setting. They’ve figured out how to trade off childminding duties with a spouse, blur their video conference background, or create a suitable environment for delivering webinars and other more professional interactions.
But these interactions are still largely taking place between individuals within their own homes, and it really matters in terms of the qualitative relationship aspects of that communication. Just as for those people returning to the office, they have become much more comfortable with the use of video, and with a remote-first approach meaning they are likely to meet with people via their own screens rather than walk to another part of the building (meaning physical proximity to more people than strictly necessary), these are the among the changes which I think we are going to keep.
I truly hope it means that we keep connecting and collaborating with colleagues and customers in this rich and contextualised way, which enables us not only see the whole person, but to relate to their individual situation and experiences and stories, in ways which go beyond the business interaction.
We often talk about the difficulty of getting to know each other in remote work, and the way our communications can become highly transactional, perhaps unintentionally presenting only a very narrow slice of our whole selves as a professional facade. But this period of forced and ubiquitous homeworking has shown us that the same collaboration tools can provide the cultural glue within organisations who are no longer sharing an office space, to share a bit more of their individuality and what makes them interesting and unique.
In the same way, it can provide the customer loyalty and commitment of an account manager within that relationship because they see one another as whole individuals. So it is my sincere wish that we can continue to embrace the technology that facilitated initially just communication to continue to provide that connectedness between us.
The world is going to remain stressful and uncertain wherever we are working from for a while yet, so relating to each other in our holistic and contextualised individual environments is one of the few positive aspects of the 2020 crisis – one we might want to hold on to.