It wasn’t too long ago that remote working was something of a rarity: ‘working from home’ was a thinly-disguised excuse for one of the senior bods to slope off for a round of golf, an extra-marital liaison or even just an afternoon down the pub.
But Industry 4.0 and Work 4.0 are upon us, and evolved collaborative and mobile technologies mean that the concept of ‘the office’ is changing from a bricks and mortar location to a digital hub that everybody plugs into.
Businesses are increasingly keen to reduce their rental overheads by shifting bums onto distant and more comfortable seats, and a copywriter who can get by with a laptop, phone and a Nespresso machine is a better candidate than the guy or gal doing maintenance on a 6000rpm steam turbine.
But whilst Terry Pratchett used to say that he chose a career in writing because it was indoor work with no heavy lifting, working from home isn’t necessarily a bed of roses.
It’s Monday. You’ve got your brief and it needs to be delivered by Thursday lunchtime. That’s no problem – you’ve got everything you need, the concept is already clear in your head, and you’re right there in the same room as your secret archive.
You’ve got no meetings, no hovering boss and no colleagues asking you if you’ve got 'just a minute' to create a landing page, mailshot or poster for a missing cat. Which means that you’ll probably have it knocked out in half the time. So you get up a bit later, have a nice long bath, then run out to the shops for a bun to go with your morning coffee and – oh look! – Cash in the Attic is on…
If the path to Hell is paved with good intentions, the hallway between the kitchen and the lounge has them all over the walls, ceiling and floor.
The truth is, it’s a lot easier to maintain a degree of discipline when you’re operating in a formal framework. It’s harder to constantly check your Facebook feed when your screen is visible to everyone in an open plan office, and it’s 100% less tempting to dick around on your guitar when it’s not in the same building as you. Discipline is vital, as is blocking out those distractions.
Louder than words
If you’re sharing your living space with other creatures though, some of those distractions might be out of your control. Humans are usually the worst – they’ll turn on the telly or start practicing their DJ set while you’re trying to write some eloquent prose about vehicle platooning, or they’ll just be there. It’s amazing how someone in the same room reading a book in silence can be far more irritating and distracting than someone at the next desk listening to Skrillex on their headphones and eating a stinky pot noodle.
At least you can have a quiet word and reach an agreement in those situations; if you’ve got pets, all bets are off. Cats have an uncanny attraction to keyboards, paper, or anything that you’re working on – or they just seduce you with a purring frenzy. Or decide that deadline day is also the day to get stuck around the back of the fridge.
Dogs alternate between the sad eye stare, needing feeding, needing a walk, or needing a massive shit when it’s throwing it down outside. If you’ve got a parrot, lemur or a goat then you’ve brought it all upon yourself and deserve no sympathy whatsoever.
And then there’s the neighbours. Unless you’re living in a yurt on top of a hill, the chances are that you’ll be packed like cordwood with other people above, below and on either side, all capable of their own unique take on distractions. It might be the trainee Flamenco dancer upstairs, or the hipster foodie preparing Kiviaq below you; it might be the extensive building works taking place either side; or it might be the aforementioned senior bod re-enacting that scene from Last Tango in Paris.
You don’t have to be crazy to work here…
All of which can be more than a distraction; they can take their toll on your mental health. Building works in particular can be invasive and a source of stress, to the degree that new legal mechanisms have appeared to address them. But even the most minor annoyances can become amplified, leading to stress, anxiety, and a breakdown in neighbourly relations.
For on-site workers, it’s less of an issue – daytime annoyances play out at home while you deal with a whole different suite of frustrations in the office. But when your home is also your workplace, it’s a whole different matter. In fact, you might start to miss not only those frustrations, but the day-to-day interactions that are part of everyday work life.
It’s not just that it’s harder to spontaneously grab your laptops and thrash out an idea over a coffee when you’re separated by a wonky broadband connection; you find yourself missing out on the round of cakes that Alan brought in for his birthday or your daily flirting session with the receptionist. This lack of human contact (other than arguing with the builders) can have a serious impact on your mental health, leading to depression and altered behaviours such as a poor diet, poorer hygiene, befriending cutlery, etc.
Let’s get physical
It’s not only your mental health that can suffer. In an office, your workstation would (hopefully) have gone through a DSE assessment, with your monitor, keyboard and desk being adjusted to fit your height and posture. It’s less likely that your home environment will have been subject to the same scrutiny.
If you’re sitting at your kitchen table or that hand-me-down desk in your study, you might start to notice some pains in your wrists – a sign of early carpal tunnel syndrome. If you're doing the majority of your work on a laptop on your sofa, you might be interested to know that those burning pains in your elbow are in fact signs of tennis elbow…
…or even gout. If your dietary standards have slipped and your alcohol intake increased (say, from working down the local pub to get away from the noise), there’s a fair chance of a build-up of uric acid in your joints. The fact that you’re suffering from the same ailment as the scribes of yore isn’t really much of a consolation.
Banishing the homeworking demons
It’s not all doom and gloom. Remote working can be a perfect solution for many – a morning commute from the bedroom to the lounge is far more pleasant than being wedged into a crowded and smelly tube with the added disappointment of once again failing to appear in Rush Hour Crush. For those with childcare needs or demanding pets, it’s a godsend.
But it needs to be approached sensibly. Discipline is essential, and there’s plenty of online advice on how to build this into your daily routine; some good, some not-so-good, such as listening to ASMR videos. But the one that everyone agrees on is creating a structure.
This’ll vary from person to person, but treating a working day like a working day is a good start. That means setting an alarm and being at your desk by 9am, taking a lunch break and – and this is important – putting your tools down at a sensible time. As anyone in a creative role knows, getting into the zone can make it hard to clock off.
If possible, make your working area as distraction-free as possible. No TV, no PlayStation, and as far away from neighbourly noise as you can manage. If the latter is impossible, invest in some noise-cancelling headphones or succumb to the inevitable and be that annoying person with the MacBook nursing a coffee for three hours in Starbucks; or if you’re not actually a sociopath, your local library might be a better bet.
Varying your working week is a good idea, and it’s also worth insisting on one or two regularly onsite days to maintain your presence and nab one of Alan’s cakes. The quicker that you establish a work pattern that feels like a work pattern, the better the chances that you’ll deliver the brief on time instead of sitting up until 3am on deadline day.