How to make your home office work during lockdown
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For many of us, ‘working from home’ means working from cafes - and, in Richard Burton’s case - zoos. He sought advice from local WFH pros to find out how to work productively from home during lockdown.
I’m on a conference call - a lawyer, an editor and me. We’re discussing a weighty issue involving a press regulation and we’re all engrossed and comparing notes.
Suddenly, there’s a noise at my end. The editor ignores it but the lawyer appears startled. “What the hell was that?” I’m dismissive, not wanting to break the flow. “It’s a bear,” I say simply.
“A bear?” he persists.
“Yes. A bear. A European Brown. He’s just being fed. Now, where were we...?”
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What the editor knew and the lawyer didn’t was that, when the sun’s out and the connection’s strong, I’ve been known to work from a bench at Whipsnade Zoo. I’ve done interviews via earphones at River Cottage and once rewrote a client’s entire corporate brochure from the zoo’s Base Camp cafe.
I’ve also done PR pitches sitting amongst the hot-desking academics at Rothamsted’s cafe and even caused a stir among the retired couples and their cakes by doing a celebrity interview at the food hall at Harper’s cafe in Pepperstock. I’ve even written some of the columns you read here fuelled by the lattes the girls bring over.
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So, for me, the concept of working from home has, for a long time, been anything that doesn’t involve the M1 or Thameslink. Like Carrie Bradshaw or JK Rowling, I go to the office for meetings, but work as much as I can among the bustle and banter of the local countryside.
Now, of course, that’s all over.
The office, actually, there are four of them I’m tied to - plus a plush clubby room on Savile Row a tailor lets me use for meetings when I want to impress - are now all empty and the cafes are closed. So too is the ultra-hi-tech library at the university campus in Harrow where I lecture.
So, for someone grateful enough to be able to pick and choose according to need or mood, having to utilise my actual lap for a laptop is suddenly unsettling to put it mildly.
I sought advice from Deborah Fitz, the Harpenden-based interior designer who has created many a homeworking space, and has a lot of personal experience to call on.
She told me: “I’ve worked from home for 25 years and around two children. I’ve worked in basements, bedrooms and sheds although I’m now lucky enough to have a whole room to call my own.”
A designated space is critical, she said. Even if it’s small, it does the important job of setting boundaries, not just in terms of family life but by helping to retain what she called “the professional and productive feelings you’d get in a more traditional workspace”.
She added: “Try to keep work materials out of sight if you can and close the door on it or pile neatly away come 5pm. Organisation is key to proactive and stress-free working and it is worth thinking about what you will need and ordering some files or storage products that will help with this.
“It’s very easy when working from home to just sit at a desk for eight hours. Think about taking regular breaks and get up and move around. This can refresh both your brain and your body and it’s good to keep active throughout the day. I set my Fitbit every hour to remind me.”
Komal Pandya-Rao had to adjust her work pattern when she left her analytics job in banking and set up her stationery design business at home.
“When I transitioned, the hardest thing was to create structure in my day,” she said. “I didn’t have meetings or deadlines given to me so it was up to me to ensure that I created them.
“I find keeping the same schedule as when I was working in a corporate environment helps, so I start and finish work the same times as I would have normally and I do personal errands only in my lunch hour or before and after work. I also find Trello, the organisation tool, to be a life saver!”
Komal, who runs The Design Palette from her home in Stevenage, added: “I find having a separate room where I do my work really beneficial as this helps separate work from personal life. Initially, I was working from my living room but found I needed wall space to stick up inspiration boards and moodboards. I need to reference my initial sketches when developing my designs so I needed the extra space.
“Designating specific tasks to certain rooms is helpful, but if you are in the creative field, this can be difficult. I generally feel more creative with a change in environment. In the current climate, this could be simply moving to another room, whereas my office is where I can develop my ideas and do my business tasks.”
The north London-based custom rug designer Sonya Winner added another interesting point. “Don’t isolate yourself from all contact. Pick up the phone or get a video calling app and speak to your colleagues,” she said.
“While you can’t see people in the office for easy communication, being completely alone can be a big depressor on your mood so make sure you keep up-to-date with others working remotely and don’t be afraid to call instead of sending emails.”
There’s an interesting culture split I’m noticing too: the natural and the reluctant home workers. The natural ones often tend to be the more tech-savvy. The high-bandwidth ones who tell us how they’re looking forward to 5G and boast about their “unlimited data” package, as if we know what that includes.
Then there are those high-octane corporates who are used to having IT take care of everything who are now desperately video-conferencing their way through tutorials on VoIP, VPN and how to access the CRM remotely.
Major organisations are having to smooth the way too. Any one of the zillions calling HSBC about mortgage holidays over the past week were warned that staff were now working at home “with family and pets” and to expect “home life sounds” in the background.
It’s a culture bloggers embrace easily. And professional couples without children. One pair of animators I know well simply set up a table in what is now a redundant guest room, placed their 34-inch monitors back-to-back and share a two-man office.
Another took the dining table to the shed-office his wife can no longer use for Reiki and let the kids take over the dining room floor with their toys as there won’t be any dinner parties any time soon.
The interiors industry has been in overdrive, extolling the virtues of everything from bespoke office furniture to flexible pieces such as tables that double as desks and everything in between.
Kirsty Pope, of St Albans-based shelving specialists ON&ON Creative Systems, has seen a definite uplift in enquiries for the company’s wall desk system since the country went into lockdown. “Having to work from home has forced people to think about how they use their spaces, as most don’t seem to have enough space to work effectively,” she said.
“We’ve seen customers with whole families at home finding it really difficult to create new places to work. Parents are juggling with home schooling and their own work and just putting up with a bad workspace. They may be aware their workspaces are not correct, but are finding it hard to do anything about it.”
Kirsty added: “Our concern is that people working at home should be considering how their spaces are set up. In an office environment it’s the responsibility of the company and is covered within health and safety, but at home everyone is forgetting that weeks of this will have a knock on effect.
“We would recommend not only investing in a new well set up workspace, but also a set of noise cancelling headphones!”
Quite apart from the fact that everyone’s been compelled to work away from the office, a brief search of the jobs portals showed how thriving the market is. A search on Indeed for ‘home working’ opportunities within 25 miles of St Albans yielded 3,892 while a similar search on Totaljobs returned 1,074 within a 20-mile radius.