2. Work/Home – The Pivot: working from home

The pivot: working from home

Moving into the shed
The biggest issue initially was finding somewhere to work – my husband works from home running his own business and so the home office was already being well used. I was very aware of the need for some work-life balance and so I turned my garden room (a fancy shed at the bottom of the garden) into an office. Technology and storage space was a nightmare. It took ages to get this sorted out and I felt as if my personal space had been obliterated in the name of work. I built this as a place of sanctuary really and I moved out here thinking it was only going to be for a few weeks.  It never crossed my mind that I was going to still be here and yes, I was very resentful that I was shoved at the bottom of the garden and I had no real space, and yes, my space had gone.  That I think didn’t help with creating any downtime.  I used this room as a sewing room and painting and whatever I want to do and I couldn’t do any of that.   #20

Clearing the table
I started lockdown 1 with a laptop on the dining table.  My husband was working in the lounge, he brought home a chair and big screen and a desk, so it stayed there all the time whereas I was clearing stuff away to eat dinner.  In due course I moved my sewing machine off the desk in the study and started using that. You hear it all the time, don’t you, in heterosexual couples, that, you know, the man working from home configures that and negotiates that differently from the woman working from home, you know. And I heard it a lot during lockdown around self- employment, that if the man’s self-employed, “Well, I’ve got to work to earn money,” and if the woman’s self-employed, “Well, you’ve got the flexibility to do the home-schooling.” And as much as I consider my husband to be a modern man and a feminist, it always has to be pointed out, yeah.   #7

Keeping Afloat
I feel that I have, unknowingly at the time, had good training not only in working in a small space, but also working alone during my PhD, which has proven to be really helpful experience in coping with the challenges and changes in and of working from home. For me personally, as someone who needs silence to write and work, and as an ambivert, I have found working from home really quite helpful and enjoyable in terms of work. That said, working from home during a global pandemic, in a small space, and with COVID-19 having struck my household, this was not the same as before.  My work in the university intensified significantly, not least initially when I pivoted to running a block taught Masters course online from in person, over a weekend. The shift to online learning and teaching required much time and additional effort, and as such, I simply did not have the energy or indeed desire to take up a new hobby or gain new skills. I saw multiple articles in the Guardian and elsewhere proselytising the benefits of new skills and hobbies; I rolled my eyes and focussed on what I had to do to keep afloat and make it through each day, and not whether I would learn the guitar or take up bird watching or even learn a new language on duolingo.   #27

In kitchen, with laptop
My husband has a busy senior role and so my study became his overnight because he had more meetings and the need for uninterrupted space. My two teenage boys took to working in their bedrooms. This left me in the kitchen with my laptop.  It also meant that I was a point of contact for everyone as they came down for snacks, lunch or check-ins.  There was a real mundanity to the, “I’m stationed in the kitchen.  This is what my day’s going to look like.  Will I get any writing done?  I don’t know.  Maybe, maybe not,” because it’s an open door.     #15

The desk in the bedroom
The thing that REALLY got to me was that he insisted he could not get out of bed and take over ‘Parent A’ role until 9am at the earliest. Again, this has always been a thing – he places a high priority on sleep, whereas I am an early bird and my brain is sharpest from about 6am to midday. But he was adamant that he needed his sleep, and so it was often a wordless and resentful (on both our parts) handover of the kids at 8.59am. A few occasions, he was still in bed at 9am – and this REALLY pissed me off. I would sit down to work ‘on time’ and start typing loudly to make a passive-aggressive point (my desk is in our bedroom). His comeback was “I knew it would be a problem putting your desk in the bedroom!”.   #22

Surrounded by hay
Thankfully just six months previously, my mum and I had moved house, from a small two bedroom apartment with one open plan living, dining and kitchen area to a larger three bedroom house where, thankfully, we have a spare bedroom which I could quickly convert into my ‘home office,’ albeit also a storage space for a myriad of other items including suitcases, shelves full of accounts and paperwork (my mum runs her own business) and 5kg boxes of hay for our two house rabbits.  Had we been living in our previous home, working from home would have been a much more difficult situation given that I had no space to put a desk in my bedroom and no other room to work in except the one living space that I shared with my mum. I quickly joined the thousands of other people hastily online shopping for desks and office chairs in order to create myself a space to work in from our small box room.  The rabbits kept me sane while I was shielding for that length of time, so it’s a small price to pay to be surrounded by hay!   #28

How the house was used
My husband found many opportunities to chat with me as he passed my working room and seemed to find it difficult to recognise any verbal or non-verbal cues that I needed to concentrate and did not have time to chat. My son and his girlfriend would quite often spend their lunchtime watching TV at a volume not conducive for me working. This was in addition to them consuming everything in the fridge (causing extra supermarket trips for me) and not always tidying the kitchen after themselves.  Secondly, there was tension in terms of how the house was used. In the second lock-down my son (who was furloughed almost all of the lockdown period) decided to experiment and cook bread. He was successful and his skills grew. He went on to produce enough bread to deliver to local friends. He later started charging for his produce and extended the range to include a range of bread, doughnuts, pastries, buns and chocolates. I couldn’t access my kitchen from Wednesday onwards really other than to prepare simple meals.  #5

Always looking at my workspace
The problem was that I had to conflate my living space with my office because for two people to be working at the same time we had to be at opposite ends of the flat so that we couldn’t hear each other, and that meant that I had to work from the living room, whereas my husband worked in the tiny room. It had to be that way anyway because we don’t have other spare rooms in the flat. We had to buy these, what are they called, like GoogleNest so that the WiFi reached the other end of the room, of the flat, because I was near the modem but he wasn’t.  But it got to a point, because I was studying from the dining table in the living room and the sofa is next to it, so I was always looking at the workspace.   #6

The desk in the hallway
Not having a spare room, I tried different ways to work in the flat. From the kitchen (too hot –south facing), living room (distracting as also my relaxing zone) and ended up setting up my small office in the hallway. This change made me appreciate the benefit of having a home office, a space in which you can shut away the work artefacts at the end of the day and have a better chance of switching off from work. Initially, I found it hard because I am in a tiny flat, my bedroom is a meter away from my office desk. I just felt so frustrated because I was seeing just work, work and work.  The main strain for me has been the lack of boundary between work and home-life. Personal life entwined around work and work similarly creeping further and further into my personal space.  The last holiday I just had was the first time that I literally hid my computer, every single thing that could remind me of work was hidden, whereas I hadn’t done that before and I hadn’t switched off.  This time, I totally stripped everything, I covered the table, decorated it so it didn’t look anything like a workspace. Actually it did help. I know it sounds really stupid but it did help.    #9

Missing the commute
I think what I missed was routine. There was not really a need to get dressed, or to put make up on. That’s a very girly thing and not everyone does it, but for me that kind of marks a difference between the days that I would work from home and the days that I would go to work on campus. And actually, I came to realise how refreshing that was, because it broke the day. Also, there were different aspects that were missing, for example I like to walk a certain time to work, a good 20 minute walk, and I really liked that because it was like my planning time, it was time on my own that I kind of organised my day and I kind of mentally created a plan of what I was doing that day.  All that was gone because I would just jump out of bed into the living room, and that time of introspection is not there.    #6

As productive as possible, as visibly as possible
At the beginning of the pandemic … I was given loads of administrative and support tasks to perform. The push was to be as productive as possible, as visibly as possible. My PI was spending 8-12 hours a day on Zooms, reassuring our charitable funders and collaborators that we were still on track. We were having at least 2 lab meetings a week to check on progress and my senior colleagues were insistent that I should be productive for my working hours of 08:00-16:00 Monday to Friday. Given my job was very hands-on before lockdown, I didn’t find this shift in my duties easy. Often, it felt like I was just being kept busy, with no real purpose to what I was asked to do.   #26

Thoughts from a grumpy swan
Finding an extra four or five hours a day on-top and around the eight to ten hours of academic work was practically impossible. I had to get up early to start work early, then try to catch up in the evenings and weekends. I hadn’t realised before how much my commute had functioned as me-time, as time to adjust and recalibrate from academic to mother. Working from home and all hours to blend home-school with academic work, the switching required is constant, immediate and exhausting. Like a swan I was paddling furiously beneath the surface just to try to stay afloat.   #1

No outlet
Taking school out of the equation helped my youngest cope better with the challenges he faces and meant we had respite from our daily worry of whether he would cope.  Being at home, together and safe, helped.  But it also meant there was no outlet, no distance between work and home. Sitting on the bypass in a traffic jam, listening to music, was something I’ve actually started to look back on fondly!  My working day started ever earlier.  While previously I had the occasional 6 or 7am meeting to align with colleagues overseas, 5.30 or 6am became my default start time and the day extended into the nighttime. 18 hour days simply became the norm and responding immediately became the expected response time.  While we laugh about how my eldest took up bread and pizza making as he was being ignored and needed to eat, there’s an underpinning grain of truth that sits rather uneasily.  Work-life balance really tipped over in ways that are really quite difficult to look back on and justify from the viewpoint of summer 2021.  #21

My students were in my front room
I felt as though my private space was being invaded by work. I like coming home and trying to shut the door on work but now my students were in my front room, seeing my front room. My son kept peering into my laptop and waving, there was a blurring of professionalism and a blurring of home/work. Now they know what my son looks like. There is no space between work and home anymore and this was something that slowly upset me. I felt that work was invading my private life. There was no separation.  I think it took real reflection to get my head round it – okay I can deal with it, these are the good points, okay, somebody might be taking the mickey out of me at home or their husband or boyfriend or kids might be watching and thinking oh, isn’t she rubbish at teaching but I can’t do anything about that. I had to go through a process of self-acceptance, I suppose.  I very quickly learnt to have a routine of when I finished teaching at 4:30, to shut everything down, put it away and my workspace became my dining room table when we had tea together as a family.  I had to really separate it … because I needed to allow the kids not to feel that I was working all the time.   #8

Living at work
There’s been something quite disconcerting about having your home in the background and somebody asking you if you want a cup of coffee.  When I’ve had quite challenging meetings or conversations or something there’s been a sense that the room has felt a little bit hostile.  Hence my blurred background.  Somebody said “We’re not working from home, we’re living at work,” and there is a sense of that.  I started off working in the bedroom and actually felt like my line manager was in the room.  You know, I felt a little bit violated, I just didn’t want him in my home.   #4