This is a great article from the FT [paywall] reflecting on the past year of remote working. It hits the nail on the head that there was a real novelty in March which differed greatly from the trudge of familiarity in November. In this respect 2020 was not necessarily different from any other working year. Few people can maintain the same levels of productivity across the year while sustaining the same level of enthusiasm. Hitting targets on a dark and dank winter’s day requires far more effort than on those days when the sun is shining and the days are long.
Indeed, the ‘work’ of working life has changed surprisingly little for me since working from home in March last year. I'm a lawyer and I still sit at a desk typing emails, dictating longer documents and telephoning clients. A reliable IT infrastructure has allowed for a consistent and near-seamless transition from office to home.
What has changed, though, for me at least, has not been the core ‘work’ but rather the ancillary aspects of being ‘at work’. In 2020 it has been the impact on those liminal spaces between work life and home life that have been the most interesting.
- The lack of a commute has simply given me extra hours in the day - the one thing we all complained we needed. I was lucky in that my daily commute was only ever a 25 minute walk door-to-door, but I have still gained an extra hour. Every day. This has allowed me to have dinner with my family far more consistently each evening. Even more beneficial was that as I was already home, my transition from working lawyer to home-Dad no longer led to the same adrenaline-fuelled excitement from my daughter that “Daddy’s home!”: while flattering to my ego, that excitement is what made the nightly bedtime routine my most challenging negotiation each day.
- I have also found it far easier to attend seminars and know how sessions this past year. A 17:00 seminar used to mean leaving the office at 16:00, and with Oxford traffic there was still no guarantee I would arrive on time. I would then not get home till 19:30 or later. A London event meant a four-hour round trip just in travel time. Now, I can click on a link at 16:58 and still be on time; at 18:01 I can be finished and start my evening. I don’t think I’ve ever done so many CPD-hours in a single year...
- I moved firms mid-lockdown, but have still built solid relationships with my new teammates. Regular Zoom-meetings, free-flowing group chats and impromptu catch-ups make for supportive relationships and a productive department. There is still no replacement for catching one side of a colleague’s difficult phone call and knowing that prompt delivery of a cuppa and a biscuit will provide an essential balm. But being available to one another, and watching out for colleagues over our myriad comms platforms has proven effective at building relationships.
Work in progress
But some consequences of these changes still need work.
- I have yet to find an effective replacement for those office kitchen chats with colleagues from outside my immediate team. For those impromptu conversations while waiting for the coffee machine that allow for the building of relationships and the osmosis of information that help a business to really work smoothly. I have found that keeping my finger on the pulse of my firm aside from my immediate teammates is proving far trickier away from the office.
- I think we’ve all become aware of the isolation that can ferment when working from home - even if you’re not actually alone. The current absence of those half-a-dozen “morning, how are you?” conversations when you walk in the office door removes a helpful daily barometer of one's own mood. But we are all part of various professional networks, both formal and informal - and I realise it’s important to reach out, acknowledge that this too shall pass, and recognise that most of my professional contacts are likely in similar boats.
- Networking over Zoom has been good, but it seems much more structured than it was when in the flesh. Not entirely a bad thing, but I feel we’ve lost some spontaneity. Those unplanned conversations with a stranger over a stewed-coffee or lukewarm glass of wine after a seminar; introducing two contacts to one another at an event who you realise could have a mutually beneficial conversation; catching up in person with an old contact you realise you’ve not actually seen in a year.
So my New Year’s resolutions are to reach out more spontaneously, and to be more receptive to others. Please drop me a line, say hello, and let’s Zoom over coffee - freshly made and brewed just how you like it.
The great work-from-home experiment was a chance to re-examine white-collar life, although the pandemic distorts the results.