It was the beginning of March. The corona virus was wreaking havoc abroad, but here it seemed to be something only over-zealous HR policymakers were worrying about. Then, on the twelfth, we received the shock announcement that we would have to work from home until the end of the month. Three days later, the schools were closed for three weeks. Everyone I knew was counting down the days until we could get back to normal. Three weeks seemed like a long time.
On the seventh of April, a bombshell hit. During his press conference, the Dutch prime minister used two new phrases, ‘the new normal’ and ‘the 1.5m society’. My jaw dropped as my heart froze – surely it was impossible that this situation could become permanent? I could not believe in ‘the new normal’. Four months on, I’ve been forced to accept that many things I would have found bizarre back then, now indeed seem to have become normal. This series of blog posts will look at various aspects of the ‘new normal’ as I experience it in the Netherlands. This post: homeworking
‘Homeworking remains the norm for the Netherlands’, announced the Dutch prime minister this week. I’ve always been a great fan of homeworking. It offers a degree of flexibility that is very welcome in a busy life. It makes it possible to have a plumber come to visit without having to take a day off. To accompany a group on your child’s school trip and make up the time in the evening. To attend a late meeting and still be on time for dinner. Nor is the benefit only on the home side. For tasks requiring undisturbed concentration, homeworking (assuming the absence of children) is ideal. Also, heavy snowfall or gridlock don’t have to disrupt work, and meetings with colleagues or clients in different time zones are more feasible. All in all, I think it benefits both sides to be flexible about homeworking, and I’ve always been stunned by how much trouble many of my friends and family have in persuading their employers to allow them to work from home. Since corona, however, I find myself in a strange position – that of advocating a return to the office.
In my job, working from home one – or even two – days a week is pretty normal. On the other hand, finding ourselves all of a sudden at home en masse and for weeks – then months – on end, was anything but normal. Still, it was surprising how well we managed. We accustomed ourselves to virtual meetings, found the mute button (and forgot to unmute ourselves again when speaking, to general hilarity), worked out how to share our screens for a presentation, and got better at distinguishing each other’s voices. Glimpses – sometimes unplanned – into each other’s home lives helped a lot to build the camaraderie we desperately needed during lockdown.
Over time, the cracks started to show. Home wifi networks weren’t always up to the strain, leading to frustrating exchanges along the lines of: ‘Dave? Dave? I can’t hear you’. ‘What was that?’. ‘I said, c-aaaaaa-aaaaa-ann yyy-ooo-uuuuu heee-aaaaaarr mebecauseyouseemedtohavedroppedout’. The lack of an IT department in close proximity led to panic when my laptop simply ‘refused’ to switch on one morning. Luckily, I had my own home computer, so I could google ‘laptop won’t turn on’ and was also in possession of both the right screwdriver and sufficient bloodymindedness to get it going again on my own. The technical issues were, however, the least of it. Those with children were being driven nuts by the constant distraction, those alone were going round the bend from the echoing silence. Emotional moments erupted during meetings. We were all just holding on until we could get back to normal.
Little did we dream that both the government and many employers were starting to seriously regard homeworking as being ‘the new normal’. For the government, it is a great way of keeping people at home and safe while allowing business to continue – although it is noticeable that politicians, despite their enthusiasm for homeworking, seem very bad at putting it into practice themselves.
Employers, so long resistant to homeworking, are now embracing it with a born-again devotion. Many present this as being due to their ‘concern for the safety of their employees’. I suspect them of having ulterior motives. It’s very tempting to dispense with the costs of renting a large office building, paying for air-conditioning, cleaners, internet, electricity, water, not to mention rivers of coffee and tea. Far handier if these costs are borne by each employee individually. I can’t blame them, as in these uncertain times every penny counts. They may have selfish motives, but also altruistic – do you save costs by getting rid of your building or by firing employees?
I can see why many employers have acquired an idealized view of homeworking. After all those years of resistance, it must be a very pleasant surprise to find that things carry on quite well when your employees work from home. That it is possible to hold meetings at a distance, that your employees are conscientious enough to get the job done even when there’s no risk that you might walk in at any moment. I know of some employers who asked their employees how they were managing working from home. The answers were positive, so you can understand the mental calculations – lower costs, work still gets done, workers are happy. Win-win!
The trouble is, when asking their employees about homeworking, they didn’t take into account the fact that the positive responses were most likely given in the context of the current crisis, rather than based on their preferences for a permanent choice. Working from home temporarily or part-time is a whole different ballgame to working from home exclusively. The unfortunate fact is that homeworking has its own disadvantages, many of which only become apparent over time.
Utility costs, as already mentioned, don’t disappear but simply shift to the employee, who isn’t in the position to negotiate the bulk discounts available to corporations, and can’t deduct it from their taxes. Some calculations show that employees are paying 40 euros a month to work from home. In effect, employees start to become more like freelancers, a shift that has already happened in some industries such as parcel delivery. I’m concerned that this change will reduce an employer’s feeling of responsibility for providing facilities for their employees and caring for their well-being. Out of sight is quickly out of mind.
One cost that I actually avoid by homeworking is travel. My daily journey to work has been reduced from a forty-minute bike ride to less than a minute walking up the stairs to our home office. It’s a big time saving, but I miss the exercise. More than that, I seriously miss having the time to switch over. Normally the journey to and from work gives me time and space to free myself from one set of thoughts and start concentrating on the other. Time to forget my daughter’s early morning tantrum before I start work; time to disengage myself from a knotty programming problem so I can give my full attention to my family at the end of the day. Worse than having no time to switch over, is the fact that home concerns physically can’t be left behind. While I am working in my home office, I see my daughter’s school calendar and remember that I need to make an appointment to see her teacher; when I go to get a cup of tea I start thinking of what food we need to buy; when I visit the toilet I realise it urgently needs cleaning. I can’t tackle these tasks while I’m working, yet still they intrude and distract.
I am at least fortunate in that I have a home office, providing some separation from the rest of the house. At the start of the lockdown, many colleagues took pride in showing how creative they had been in finding a spot to work – kitchen table, garden, even propping a laptop on top of their piano. Now that temporary has become semi-permanent, these makeshift arrangements are showing their drawbacks. The recent heatwave made many attic offices unlivable, but was fortunately only short-term. A longer-term problem is the physical effect of not having a proper workplace. One colleague recently posted a message on our work chat asking for advice, as he suspected he was developing carpal tunnel syndrome. Many employers have made office furniture available, but someone who is sharing a cramped flat in the centre of Amsterdam may well not have any space for a proper desk and chair.
With all us scattered to our attics, kitchens and bedrooms, services such as Zoom, Hangouts and Teams have been an essential link. Virtual meetings work, but they are far more tiring than normal meetings. It is hard work to simply understand who is saying what; let alone get an impression of how ‘the room’ is reacting to your proposal. I find virtual presentations a nightmare. With my single screen at home, I only see my own slides, and I have no idea if people are listening attentively, looking sceptical, or bored to death. It’s like talking into a void.
The combination of homeworking and virtual meetings also strictly regulates contact. Bumping into each other by accident, having chats before or after meetings or at the coffee machine – none of this is possible. Work gets split into silos, preventing cross-fertilisation that can lead to new ideas, or can help to ease your path later on when you need the help of another department. It also makes it harder to keep tabs on how it’s going with your colleagues. Usually I can tell a great deal about the state of mind of a colleague just by the way they walk into the office in the morning. It makes a huge difference to know that someone has just heard that their mother has cancer, so now is really not a good time to remind them about the upcoming deadline and pressure them to deliver what they had promised. This sort of essential personal information is much harder to share when you have to announce it cold to a wall of sheep-like faces in Zoom.
It’s not only about the big dramatic events, either. Sharing an office lets you get to know each other in a way you never can during a meeting. You learn people’s character quirks – are they happy to be interrupted with a question, or do they prefer you to send an email that they can read later? When they are stressed, are they angry and irritable, or do they fall silent? Do they speak their mind during meetings, or do they vent their frustrations afterwards? All of this information is essential to correctly interpret their behaviour during a meeting and communicate effectively. This is a particularly tough time for people starting a new job, as they have to attempt to build a working relationship with total strangers via a screen.
Working at home can sometimes be a pleasant escape from the colleagues at the office. No need to negotiate over the heating, aircon or windows. No annoying telephone calls or loud conversations, no irritating sucking sound as your officemate eats an orange. But when this escape is permanent, the risk is of becoming steadily more intolerant and fixed in your own way of doing things. Accepting and accommodating each other’s differences is a vital part of being in a team.
Real-life contact with colleagues is more than just a means of building a good team. Work supplies a surprising amount of our social contacts. In particular for parents of young children, work often represents a rare opportunity to talk about something other than nappies and teething trouble. Now, with social distancing rules, work is also a vital lifeline for those living alone, who are cut off from their usual social activities.
Faced with the stick of corona and the carrot of financial savings, many companies are sticking to a firm line of ‘homeworking is the norm’. While employees have stoically complied with this since March, the need for real-life contact is visibly growing. Many departments and teams organise their own unofficial meetings, in parks, back gardens or at a café. I am extremely fortunate that my employer understands this need, and started early on with facilitating a safe return to the office for those who wanted to come.
When I walk into my office building, I get an instant surge of energy. It was designed to be iconic, and the vibrant colours and soaring spaces put me in just the right frame of mind for a creative day. On my first day back after the lockdown, though, the building was a beautiful shell, eerie in the absence of most of its inhabitants. Now that more and more colleagues are returning, the life is coming back. There is a buzz, a vibe, that inspires and motivates. Everyone is so happy to see each other, despite hand gel, distancing rules and a myriad of marked-out routes and signs. Chats over a cup of coffee have become precious, and being invited on the spot to join a meeting I might be interested in seemed like a revelation.
Don’t get the idea that I have given up on homeworking, though. While corona has opened my eyes to the joys of working in the office, it has also shown me a new side to working from home. Previously, when my partner or I worked from home, we did so alone. Now, we share the home office. Whereas our time together was previously limited to weekends and evenings, both filled largely with childcare, suddenly we spend whole days side by side. It’s given us a new insight and understanding of each other’s work. It’s also given us the opportunity to pay more attention to each other – a quick kiss while bringing a cup of tea, conversations over lunch, cycling together to get some exercise. In a strange way, it has helped us to rediscover each other.
The key to the benefits of working from home is flexibility. If homeworking truly becomes the new normal, then we simply trap people at home instead of in the office. My ideal ‘new normal’ would see both homework and officework being accepted and valued, and employees and their teams encouraged to find the balance that best works for them. I hope that the experiences during corona can provide the catalyst to make that happen.