Lessons Learned from a Year of Working from Home

I’ve been working from home for a year now. A fact that has not crept up on me but has nevertheless surprised me. My laptop is still sitting on top of cardboard boxes to make sure it’s the right height for me to work from and James is sitting on an exercise ball (apparently comfier than our chairs) so it seems that in many respects whilst we’ve gotten used to the fact that we’re at home, we’re still acting as if it’s a temporary measure. 

For many people working from home seems to be a bit like marmite – you either love it or hate it. I hated it initially and I think that was largely for two reasons. Firstly, I was out of the office the day that everyone was sent home to work. Many of my colleagues have slightly fond tales of enjoying a last cake and cup of tea together before leaving, or packing up their desks. I was on a flight home from Madeira, so received the news over the phone after I’d landed. I took a trip to the office that evening to make sure I had everything I needed before it closed, feeling somewhat like a fugitive stuffing things in my bag under the cover of darkness. Secondly, I was working from an old personal laptop that was very much on its way out. It was taking me a very long time to do anything, and my colleagues often couldn’t hear me in meetings over the noise of my fan. Thankfully, that was remedied and with access to a work laptop my life became slightly easier. 

I then decided it wasn’t too bad. In fact, it was quite handy being able to put the washing on in the middle of the day. Or start cooking earlier so we could have nicer meals. Or actually just taking a proper lunch break which was something I hadn’t been very good at in the office. But then I started to notice the issues with internal communication, and the missing corridor conversations which led to a lack of information being passed around. I became frustrated and felt disconnected. 

Now, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve adjusted rather than adapted. Adapting would suggest that I have not only got used to it, but I’ve actually improved the way I’m working, and whilst it’s nice to have an extra half hour in bed in the morning, I can still think of lots of benefits to being in the office. That said, I’m a little bit nervous about returning to the office and the day that we’re told we can come back. That’s largely because I’m not very good with change, and even going back to what was normal before would feel like a big change having done something completely different for the last year. 

minimalistic workplace with blank screen of laptop opened planner and retro globe
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com

People say that the world of work has likely changed for good now, and I agree. But I’m not convinced that working remotely rather than in an office is where the change should, or will, happen. ‘Flexible working’ seems to be the buzz phrase being used but that encompasses so much more than the physical space you’re working in. Whilst it would be nice to be able to choose how many days a week I’m in the office for, and might even make the possibility of living further away from work a reality, for many people it’s been the ability to adapt their hours which has been helpful. I’ve tried to stick to my usual working pattern while being at home as I find it useful to have routine. However, on some days I have broken off, taken a walk towards the end of the afternoon, and then returned to my desk in the evening once I feel refreshed. This is something I never would have done in the office.

So, without further ado, here are some of the things that I’ve learned from the last year of working from home:

Flexible working is not just for people with children

I am very lucky to work for a company that is flexible and understanding. From the beginning of home-working we’ve been encouraged to take the time we need to make sure we, our families and loved ones are ok, and to prioritise that above all else. At the start of the pandemic we were actually actively encouraged to not work our contracted hours, with new ‘core’ hours being introduced so that people could fit home-schooling and other responsibilities around their work. This was something I didn’t take advantage of at the time. Partly, because I already had too much work to fit into the hours I was used to working, but also because somewhere at the back of mind I had convinced myself that this was for people with children and I didn’t need it. It’s something that’s easy to do when you have colleagues struggling to home-school children and keep them out of the way from interrupting meetings. I felt incredibly guilty asking to amend my hours as we started to head towards the winter months because it was for me, rather than children or anyone I may have had caring responsibilities for. However, it made such a difference that I really wished I’d made the most of working flexibly a lot sooner than I did.

It’s important to see daylight in winter

As the days started to get shorter, I realised that working from home in the winter was going to be a lot harder than during the summer. I’d been focusing on the fact I wouldn’t have a cold or wet commute, but hadn’t really considered that the routine we’d neatly got into with an after-work walk would soon be in the dark. So I asked to adjust my hours. Since mid-October I’ve been taking a two hour break in the middle of the day, and working an hour later into the evening instead. It doesn’t happen everyday (unfortunately some meeting schedules prevent it) but I usually manage it a few times a week and it has made all the difference being able to get a dose of sunlight or do some exercise midway through the day. It has allowed and motivated me to keep running relatively consistently throughout the winter. It’s meant that some lunchtimes I’ve had enough time to go on a longer walk with a colleague. Now the days are starting to draw out again I’m not sure if I’ll keep my new routine, or if I’ll vary my days more, but it’s been a great privilege to have the option.

Lunch breaks are important

I have valued lunch breaks so much more since I started working from home. Part of this will be because I’m not surrounded by other people also eating lunch at their desk, or rushing their way through a sandwich before heading off to their next meeting. Part of it is because I have access to the entire contents of our fridge and cupboards, so can eat a more interesting and varied lunch than I had been taking to the office with me, and make a decision on the spot about what I actually want to eat that day. It’s probably also because it means a much needed break away from my screen. I’m really lucky to live in quite a green area, so in the summer we could have picnics every lunchtime – something I’m looking forward to again as the weather improves.

It’s too easy to work overtime

One of the negatives of being at home is that it’s an awful lot easier to work longer hours, often without even realising. When you know that you don’t have a half hour walk at the end of the day between you and turning the oven on to start cooking dinner, it’s much easier to just keep going with the task you’re doing or reply to one more email. Before you know it, another hour has passed that you convince yourself you’ll take back at another point, but know that in reality you never will.

Meetings start on time and are shorter but there are more of them

I recently read an article which spoke about the average person attending four hours of meetings a week. I’m not sure which profession these people are in, but that doesn’t feel true for an office worker. I’m lucky if I don’t have that many meetings a day. One of my greatest delights when we switched to working from home was that all my meetings seemed to be cut shorter. What would have been an hour’s meeting was now a half hour Teams meeting, supposedly allowing for greater efficiency. Unfortunately, the reality is that there are just more meetings crammed into the day. They start and finish on time because nobody has to travel anywhere to get there, but on some days they are relentless.

Screen fatigue is real

I’ve never had screen fatigue to the extent I have over the last year. It can be difficult to tell people that you don’t want to Zoom them socially in the evening or at the weekend, not because you don’t want to interact with them but because you can’t face yet more time staring at a screen. The amount I’ve written on this blog over the last year has varied massively, simply because the thought of using a laptop on an evening or weekend is the least appealing thing I can imagine. It’s not until you don’t have a ten minute walk between buildings for your next meeting, or you don’t have a random five minute conversation with a colleague in the corridor, that you realise how valuable those moments of time were because you weren’t simply sat at your desk, staring at a screen.

It’s hard to maintain and build relationships with colleagues

It is a lot harder to maintain existing relationships with colleagues, or build new ones, when you work in an online environment. I now have a considerable number of colleagues who I’ve never met in real life, including someone I line manage. It’s a bizarre situation and despite seeing their faces on screen most days, I’d probably walk straight past them on the street. I have no idea how tall they are, or even what style of clothes they like to wear. I have other colleagues whose duvet case choice I am well acquainted with (due to them working from their bedroom) but I don’t know the names of their children. It is bizarre. And however well-intended online work socials are, they just aren’t as good as the real thing.

So, a year from now how will I be working? Good question! I hope to be able to continue with a mix of working in the office, and working from home. I hope that some of the positive changes my company have brought in, such as meeting free Fridays, continue to exist beyond the pandemic. I also hope that some of the positive changes I’ve found for myself, I’ll continue regardless of whether I’m in an office or not.

Have you been working from home this year? How have you found it?

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