Working from Home: Staying Sane and Staying Sociable

March 20, 2020

I was asked to update my reflections, written 20 years ago, on the perils and joys of working from home. The original can be accessed by SCL members here (though I cannot think why you might want to access it). A lot of tech has changed but, judging from some of the home-working tales I hear, a lot of the issues remain pretty much as they were in 1999 so this is a very lightly edited version of the original article with a virus-inspired postscript.

I am a leading expert on the perils and the strains of working from home. Of course this is only because one of the key advantages of working from home and being the only person in the building is that you become a leading expert on practically everything – that is also one of the minor dangers. The major dangers arise from the effect working from home can have in making you mad, bad and really rather boring to know.

I have worked from home for almost 30 years. While my work focuses on writing and editing rather than legal practice, there must surely be some lessons of general application which I can impart. The sad truth is that my qualifications for advising on working from home are very limited – but my experience of how not to do it is almost unparalleled.

Being Organised and the F Word

For most of us, right from the start of our working lives, the expectation is that work has a pattern and that we will fit that pattern. There are other work-related expectations:

  • Work has a structure and makes demands and we get paid for meeting those demands.
  • There is someone out there who pays us and they have an interest in making it easy, or at least possible, for us to work effectively.

Working from home can demolish those expectations – it brings with it a certain freedom. Even if you are working for a large organisation which has kitted you out and has ‘a policy’ for homeworkers, you will find that there is more for you to decide and more for you to consider than ever before. You will be able to work the way you think best and the way that suits you, and that of course is the route to total disaster.

While most lawyers will be working via VPNs onto firm servers, backed up in the cloud, you may be tempted to work in an unorthodox fashion, especially if your wifi is struggling. If you only keep back-ups because somebody made you or did it for you, the freedom of working from home allows you to alter the back-up schedule. It is almost certain that the new schedule involves a catching up back-up which was due the morning after the hard disk crashed the night before.

Remember only you can know that you are about to run out of paper, toner, envelopes or space on the hard disk. If it happens, a whole morning can be lost in a fruitless search – for somebody else to blame.

It is also worth noting that things go wrong with even the best computers and printers. There is a big difference in the sort of response you can expect to a plea for assistance when you are not there. If you go for the charmy, smarmy approach while flashing legs and eyelashes (my personal preference), you have to accept that it loses a good deal of impact down the phone. If you prefer the ‘I am coming to get you if you don’t fix this’ approach, you will soon find that the level of intimidation you can generate is diminished once staff realise that you are not going to come storming down the corridor for at least 12 weeks. Speaking as one who has lapsed into the intimidatory approach from time to time, I find it has little effect when the intimidatee does not answer the phone.

Being Disciplined and some more F Words

Since home is, according to no less an authority than the IKEA catalogue, the ‘fun part of living’, there is an obvious need for a measure of self-discipline when working from home. Most of us have enough of a Puritan streak to get some satisfaction from turning our face away from temptation and can eschew the ‘fun part of living’ if it seems necessary or appropriate to do so.

But there are two catches. First, if you are a naturally disciplined person, you were probably never attracted by the idea of working from home in the first place; you may have convinced yourself that it is petty rules and procedures or unusual personal circumstances which prompted the change, but can you honestly deny that the word flexibility was never mentioned. Secondly, temptation is most easily resisted when it offers and then turns away piqued by your refusal – but this temptation never goes away. It will seek you out in dark corners, it will find your weakest moment – it is like a chocolate éclair that chases you down the street. No matter how often you refuse it, it is there whispering: ‘Aw Go On – Just a little bit of flexibility won’t do you any harm’.

But I have sage words of advice, inspired by Mary Poppins, to combat the dreaded flexibility temptation. 

In every job that’s to be done there is an element of fear. The trick: to find the fear and focus on that. So, if the effect of failing to prepare promptly and thoroughly is the near collapse of the civil justice system (again), then you are likely to be motivated to do it right – if not because of the effect on the civil justice system then because of your fear of the effect on your livelihood when people find out it was all your fault.

Separate Work and Home

Of course all the experts agree that it is important to make a clear delineation between work time and home time. If you are working from home, they suggest that you might like to walk out the front door and in the back, wearing a pin-stripe suit and carrying a briefcase no doubt, so as to properly mark the start of your day. At the end of the day, they suggest that you repeat the journey – perhaps aiding the wind-down by a trip to the paper shop. Partners, children and friends will soon learn to distinguish between your leisure time and your working time and will adapt accordingly.

These people know nothing.

The reality is that you are likely to be rushing from a home-schooling moment or from a crumb-covered breakfast table to cram in as many working minutes as possible. If you are lucky, you have had time to brush your hair and squeeze in a shower; if you are less than well organised you are beset with a stream of urgent jobs and phone calls and are still in your dressing-gown at 11 am. Trying to separate home and work when you work from home is like parting the waters of the Red Sea, and keeping them parted.

The whole point of working from home is that the division is muddied and indistinct. If you try to emulate the division which applied when you commuted, and you succeed, then you are not working from home at all, you just have a short commute. I have not had the difficulty of explaining to very young children that I am working and must not be disturbed, and certainly accept that young children need to learn restraint, but I cannot feel confident that a four-year-old with big news is going to get the right message if sent away. If you are going to work from home, some disruption (and the four-year-old’s news may be delightful disruption) is inevitable and you should simply learn to accept it. Certainly I felt that deterring my teenage son from communicating on those rare occasions that this extended beyond grunts would have been like stepping over the Kohinoor diamond on the way to Tesco – on the grounds that diamond-collecting day is Tuesday.

However, there are two more ‘f’ words to be wary of. The first is likely to leave the lips of the worker from home not long before the agreed time to leave his or her desk: finish. ‘I’ll just finish this’ if the next phrase is ‘before I come up to bed’ then you know that you have problems. The second is likely to be addressed to the worker from home by his or her partner who is not working from home: favour. This manifests itself in phrases beginning ‘As you are at home’ and ending with a description of the size of the favour. The greater the emphasis on the favour being small, the greater the disruption to your working day. Under no circumstances should you ever agree to do a teeny-weeny, minuscule favour – you will find yourself painting the Forth Bridge.

Keep Fit and Maintain Outside Interests

It should be easier to keep the division between work and social activities. It should be easy to down tools and exercise. The reality is that not only is work always there but that you are likely to be running in deficit on your home account too. The other reality is that, for most people, work is their major social activity: it is made up of a host of minor events at work, casual conversations at work, informal hints, recipes, film reviews and gossip, and even sexual encounters (real or imagined). It may also be that your only exercise is a product of going to work, whether because that is where your badminton partner is or because the only exercise you get is walking from the car park or running for the train.

The events and experiences from work are also likely to be the source of your views, insights and anecdotes when you do socialise outside work. If they disappear from your life, you are left to make a drama out of running out of sticky labels and rushing down to the shop for some more (and, believe me, there are surprisingly few people interested in such tales).

Working from home poses a threat to your social life. Assuming that you have a partner and/or children, the first thing to go can be a separate social life because you are making up time when you should have been around but were working. You can then easily find yourself becoming so boring that only your nearest and dearest are prepared to spend time with you.

There used to be a small but crucial test to apply here. If you find yourself with a group of friends telling jokes which were tweeted to you, you need to get out more. But, as you are now advised to get out less, I think the test fails. Sod it, just recycle that cyber joke until you have run out of contacts. 

Remember that Others have Colleagues

Isolation is one of the aims of working from home. You may be surrounded by family, but, even if you are, you probably fend them off during working hours. One of the characteristics of working from home is that you will spend a lot of time alone. Now you may think that you spend most of your time alone in your office, and perhaps you do. But there is a crucial difference, there are people the other side of that door. You may not like any of them, but at least they are there.

The telephone is of course your salvation when you are working from home. However, it is as well to remember that you may have colleagues who have already spoken to someone socially before 11.30 am and are not therefore necessarily as keen as you are to exchange views on last night’s TV, the latest Covid-19 news or whatever. If you find yourself speaking to someone you hardly know who keeps you chatting long past the point of simple courtesy, it is probably a home worker having a truly ‘isolated’ day. The same rules apply to text/WhatsApp exchanges that never end.

There are other worrying symptoms of excessive isolation.

  • Talking to yourself is OK – but having conversations with your alternative personality is dangerous.
  • Feeling tired during an all-day meeting at a client’s is fine – explaining that it is nap time is not.
  • Expressing your assessment of people aloud (e.g. replacing the telephone receiver and saying ‘what a lovely chap’ out loud) is OK – but if you are still doing it when walking down the street, especially when the comment is negative, you are putting your mental and physical health at risk.
  • Mid-day showers are OK as is answering the phone naked (but only if you have just got out of the shower) – the danger signal is telling the person on the other end of the phone that you are naked.
  • Making your personal communications more personal than is required for business purposes is OK – checking every seven minutes on the off-chance that someone has liked your tweet or responded in any other way might be overly disruptive to the tasks for which you are paid.
  • Being bright and chatty in shops and to doorstep callers is OK – forcing the Jehovah’s Witnesses to say ‘Oh well, must get on’ is not.

Coronavirus Extra

I write this as many of you enter into home working because of Covid-19. Perhaps you never wanted to work from home or perhaps you have tried it for occasional days and now face a long period of working from home that is most unwelcome. This is new for all of us but, in light of some of the problems I hear about, I have a few tips even for this new context.

I hear that, in a spirit of maintaining morale and no doubt inspired by the joy that team-building days engender, some firms are spicing the working day with fun tasks – like matching the baby picture to the partner or online games. This may appeal to you. For my part, suffice it to say that team-building days are one of the things I remind myself of when the burdens of freelancing appear overwhelming (‘it could be worse, I could be building a raft’). You need to bear in mind that (a) normally you are effectively being paid to socialise with your colleagues, to a polite extent at least and (b) you already have friends (probably) and can keep in touch with them instead.

Schools are about to close across the UK so many of you will be sharing space with children of various ages. Let’s face it – it will be hell. 

With older children, you will no doubt want them to stick to the rigid timetable that they spent two days creating and keeping to the curriculum as set by their school for distance learning. When you fail, console yourself with the thought that Jaden Ashman – a 15-year-old from Hornchurch won over a million dollars in July playing Fortnite. Many of you take more than a month to make that sort of money. 

With younger children, you need to accept that the day when they know that you know very little is coming that bit quicker than it otherwise might. Don’t be tempted to impress them or older children with your current mastery of force majeure as this will either confirm their view that you are the most boring person on the planet or, worse, they will show an interest and understanding that leads to the application of the principle to each and every argument about room tidying, bedtimes etc.

You may also be faced with the horror of a partner seeking to share your workspace. If you are the one that started working from home first, you may tempted to point out that there is room in the shed – or at least there will be once the extra packs of toilet paper and tins of lentils are moved. (Toilet paper packs can make a comfortable seat and an ergonomic desk.) If that doesn’t work, keep as far away from each other as possible and stagger tea breaks and lunch so as to avoid contact. That way, you might survive months of social distancing and working from home. If full-on social isolation follows on from social distancing, you may be tempted to research how long it takes for a body to dissolve in an acid bath but it’s longer than you think and, anyway, they are probably expected on Zoom in the morning.

Happy home working to you all.

Laurence Eastham is a freelance editor and legal writer and was formerly Editor of Computers & Law.