CoVID-19 ‘work From home’ needs to be ‘work AT home’

I’ve spent over a decade working from home. I stopped calling it ‘working from home’ a long time ago. For me, it’s just work. But for millions of workers, this is the first time they’ve had to commit to spending weeks on end in their home office. And many CFOs and other senior company leasers are seeing this moment of ‘reset’ as an opportunity to slash rental costs. But this period isn’t the time to make those decisions.

Why do I work from home?

When I speak to my peers and friends who work in a similar way to me, we generally agree on the reasons we work at home.

And that’s an important distinction. We work AT home, not FROM home.
For us, there are several factors that make it easier for us to work at home. Our jobs are generally solitary endeavours. We write content, create art, produce code or do something that is, more or less, a one-person task. Although we do collaborate with others, the core part of our work is solitary.

We also crave flexibility. Many, not all, of my peers and colleagues want to fit work around other commitments. In a typical nine-to-five job, your work day is your core daily activity. For my freelance posse, work and life are meant to fit in with each other, not be divided into specific time blocks.

I’m not saying work is unimportant. I’m saying it’s just one of a number of important things like family time, exercise and time for quiet self reflection. It’s about putting the worker ahead of the work. And the only way I’ve ever seen that done is where the worker takes charge and leaves the ‘traditional’ workforce.

Work FROM home is not about the individual

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed society in all sorts of ways, large and small. From physical distancing, to grocery shortages, to the close down of almost all forms of public sport and recreation to work – nothing is the same today as it was at the start of February.

Businesses have had to adapt, just as we all have. And that’s meant finding different ways to keep productivity moving, as well as providing tools so people can safely do their work from home as well as communicate and collaborate.

That’s been behind the boom in office furniture and technology sales and the rapid uptake of tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Suddenly, companies that have paid lip service to allowing personnel to work from home have had to shift from thought bubbles to action plans.

It all sounds great but the focus is not on the worker per se. I acknowledge that it’s incredibly important to maintain employment at a time of extreme disruption but the focus is very much on establishing a new normal work environment that operates as much like the old one as possible. It’s not about employee flexibility. It’s about resuming business as usual – or something as close as possible to the old BAU.

We’ll hear some well-meaning commentary on how this is saving jobs (it is and that’s a very good thing) but when the pandemic is over it’s likely many businesses will have seen that remote working works. And that giving employees a couple of thousand dollars to set up a home office is a lot cheaper than inner city office rental and fit out.

In other words, having been forced to embrace a new workplace paradigm, many businesses are now seeing the opportunity to cut costs and push them out to employees.

Real estate costs are cut as staff use their homes. And while employees can get a tax deduction for their home offices – the Australian government has introduced a flat $0.80 per hour deduction for home offices – staff are still paying for their home heating, power and other bills.

It doesn’t take a CPA to work out that the benefits will be well and truly in favour of businesses.

Don’t allow the lines to be blurred

It took me a long time to learn how to create boundaries between my work life and everything else. The birth of the smartphone, which arguably happened when BlackBerry released its take on the wireless communicator back in the 1990s, has almost completely obliterated the line between work and personal time. Suddenly, managers could message you 24/7 with whatever brain-fart crossed their grey matter.

Now, imagine life in 2022. The pandemic is over and your comfortably ensconced in your company-financed home office. You have a decent PC, comfy chair and ergonomic desk – maybe even one of those fancy motorised ones that converts to a standing desk when you push a button. It’s 6:00PM and the boss sends you a message or calls you to say something urgent has come up and you MUST get onto a conference call with someone across the planet.

In the old days, you could safely say that it’ll have to wait as all the information and tools you need are back at the office. 

Not any more.

One of the best things about being a self-employed person who works at home is that I set my boundaries. My wife and I usually have a weekly planning time to look at what’s ahead for the week. Now that she’s working at home, we do that daily so that we understand each other’s commitments and work out how to manage the kids’ schooling while they’re learning at home.

Perhaps we’ll need laws, such as those in France, that prohibit bosses from emailing staff and expecting responses outside work hours.

When the CoVID-19 pandemic ends – and it will in the coming months – we’ll be at the end of a seismic shift in how modern humans work. Some things will return to how they were before, albeit with some differences when it comes to personal space and contact.

But for those whose employers have set them up with nice home offices, there may be a sense of obligation to pay back the investment made to keep them in a job. More people will work from home. It will be up to workers to set the boundaries so the lines between work and life aren’t blurred or erased.

For businesses, it’s an opportunity to define a new, more cooperative relationship with their teams that respects the new way of working and understands that when people work at home that their productivity isn’t simply a question of time spent on a task – be that a number of hours being observed at work or when a task is done – but a question of output.

The work FROM home experiment can become a work AT home. But it’s about more than office equipment and technology. It’s about culture and attitude.