Nearly half the world’s population was under some form of lockdown in April this year; international travel was closed down, offices shut their doors, billions of people across the world were restricted to their own homes with limited freedom of movement or social interaction. It was a profound and sudden change that impacted all of us, with huge ramifications for the way that we live and work.
Gone are the days of the traditional nine to five, of office banter and endless rounds of tea as sixteen people say yes to your rhetorical offer of a post-lunch cuppa. Now we’re experts in sofa desks and kitchen workspaces. We’re square-eyed from back-to-back zoom calls and squinting over emails that may or may not be passive aggressive.
In the UK, we’ve gone from Google Trends data revealing a spike in searches for ‘how to work from home’ in late March, to 91% of Britons saying that they want working-from-home to continue in some shape or form post-pandemic. The same YouGov survey showed that less than four in ten people said they wanted to leave their house to go to work in the future, and many have expressed an interest in moving into greener, more rural areas that wouldn’t typically be considered commuting distance. Happiness levels also appear to have risen, with workers enjoying the lack of long, crammed commutes and greater control over their working experience.
There have been challenges. Isolation and loneliness have been a struggle, particularly for single people and the elderly. The average UK worker put in an extra 59 hours of work in the first five months of the pandemic – that’s whole extra seven days – and over half say they’ve been working outside of contracted hours as well. Nearly a third (30%) of Britons have also noted an increase in their utility bills during the crisis thanks to more time spent at home (although many will be able to claim some back as tax relief from the HMRC). Plus, there’s been the stresses and uncertainties around furlough, job security and sector resilience. Despite early hopes that the pandemic might help more people find a better balance between life and work, for a significant proportion of people it has felt like the opposite.
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Dave Cook, an anthropologist at UCL and author of The Freedom Trap, said in April, “COVID-19 has meant that a lot of people are suddenly finding themselves working remotely, but a lot of the advice for them is quite basic and self-evident. What was worrying to me is how many people were working from home for the first time and how they really don’t understand the basics of setting boundaries between work, non-work, and the home.”
When talking to people about how lockdown and remote working has impacted them, however, there’s definitely a huge range of experiences. The question is: how can we learn from them? How can we make sure that as vaccines emerge and restrictions ease, our work lives take a positive shape that’s good for our careers and our mental health?
From remote to flexible working
There’s a difference between remote working and flexible working – and it’s an important distinction.
Anna Whitehouse, founder of Mother Pukka and flexible working campaigner, told Stylist that what we’re doing is enforced remote working rather than flexible working – and it leaves a lot to be desired. “The definition of flexible working is for people to be able to work anywhere and everywhere, and they’re in control of it, not the employer […] Flexible working isn’t just about letting a few people work in a different way, this is about companies becoming diverse and inclusive employers. We aren’t working from home, we’re in our homes working in the context of a pandemic.”
In other words, working remotely is just one kind of flexible working arrangement. There are lots of ways a workplace can offer flexibility: home working, core hours, flexitime, part-time and so on. It’s when all of these options are truly available that we have truly flexible working with people able to control their working lives, not their employer.
For Miles, a 29-year-old consultant, the pandemic has given him more time to be with his young family. “Our son is nearly two and he’s changing fast so it’s good to be able to be there to see all. I missed the office at times for sure, but I want to see my kids growing up too,” he says.
However, he’s also aware that flexible working hasn’t been readily available in the past. “I’ve heard stories of dads who’ve asked for flexi-time options and stuff in the past and just been asked what their wife is doing and why they need the time for things like school runs. We’re not quite at that stage so I hadn’t encountered much push back, but I know it happens. I’m hoping the pandemic will change that and mean it’s easier for me to work around my family life.”
There’s a balance to be struck. And it looks like most offices are considering whether it’ll work to have some days at home for quiet and independent work, and some in the office for collaborative and creative work. I personally believe this could be hugely beneficial and bring an additional sense of freedom and trust to a workplace, ensuring everyone feels in control as well as empowered.
Balance is, of course, the key word here.
The search for balance is no doubt why so many of us, including millennials in lucrative London jobs, are looking to move out of the city to rural and coastal towns. It’s also why we’ve struggled with the isolation of remote working and the ‘always on’ culture that assumes we’re constantly attached to a computer or a smart phone.
Part of the issue is no doubt the fact that there wasn’t a whole lot to do in lockdown the first-time round, meaning many of us put extra hours into our jobs and were eager for contact with each other.
But some of it was likely also born of insecurity – with digital presenteeism booming as we tried to prove our productiveness to remote colleagues and value to distant employers.
“I was working all the time,” says Lauren, 30, a business development manager from London. “It would get to the end of the day and I’d just be starting a new task, but I was so worried about not performing and losing my job that I’d just keep going until it was all done. I felt so isolated and so stressed out all the time … and my team was also massively downsized with people being put on furlough. Those of us still working were under so much pressure. I never thought I’d say it, but I actually miss commuting for that clear cut off point at the end of the day.”
Lauren ended up having a conversation with her manager who then set up an online team lunch to discuss how they were finding things and what tips and tricks each of them found useful. “The advice ranged from dressing in more work-y clothes to taking breaks every ninety minutes to not eating in the same place you’re working or taking your laptop to bed. But it was helpful because I realised we were all experiencing these things together. I’ve been stricter about respecting my own boundaries since then, but I’d say it’s still a work in progress.”
When home becomes the office, it’s essential to draw very clear boundaries that protect your downtime. Working long into your evening, not taking breaks, forgoing the freedom to escape, decompress, or prepare for what’s next, can have deep repercussions. The least of these is burnout. Characteristics of burnout include “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy”. It can result from chronic workplace stress, particularly left unmanaged. In recent years, the rise of workplace burnout, particularly in young people, is why there’s been such push back against ‘hustle porn’ and the glorification of ‘busyness’.
Given the uncertainty of the last year, stress over our financial situations, career landscape and job security has been inevitable. But in the long-term, having a better balance for ourselves is something we must learn to proactively address. Creating strong routines for ourselves and setting aside time for self-care are good places to start.
But what about the rise and rise of side hustles and multi-hyphen careers?
Some may call this the flipside of work/life balance, but between the furlough scheme and more time spent at home, it’s not terribly surprising that more people are monetising their passion projects and starting their own businesses. According to the Centre for Entrepreneurs, almost 50% more businesses were created in June 2020 than in June 2019, with July setting a new record with more than 81,000 businesses registered.
This was certainly the case for Jemima, 26, who says she was able to finally make her side hustle profitable during lockdown, with the flexibility of working from home meaning that she had more time to commit to her freelance writing projects. “I’ve been working in HR since university, but I’ve always had side projects that are more creative. With lockdown, I ended up furloughed for a bit and had to find some way to break the eat-sleep-netflix-repeat routine that I fell into by like day three. So I decided to treat my writing as a nine-to-five. It’s not going to pay my rent any time soon, but it covers utilities and builds my name up too.”
Multihyphenate or portfolio careers have been a growing trend over the last few years, with writers like Emma Gannon, podcaster and author of The Multi-Hyphen Method, championing them as a means to build a working life that you actually want. And in coming years, it’s highly likely that more and more of us will seek the financial security of having additional income streams, particularly when that money can come from skills or hobbies that you enjoy. It can give you a little more freedom, a little more release when it comes to your creativity.
Of course, in lockdown there was considerable pressure to be productive with all that ‘extra time’. Lockdown goals ranged from writing novels and starting side hustles, to gyming every day and taking online university classes. But it’s important to remember that it’s ok if you didn’t quite achieve those goals.
As Emma said in a recent newsletter, “Side projects can start off as being just for fun, but sometimes the growth of a tiny seed can allow you the freedom to side-step a job, manoeuvre over time, pivot, transition, strategize. […] It’s not about monetising every area of your life — it’s about asking yourself: what would I do even if I knew no one else was looking? What would I do anyway, even if it didn’t turn into anything much — that would give me pleasure just by doing it?”
Again, it’s about boundaries – having the side hustle for your own fulfilment and sense of achievement or committing to goals that bolster routines and support your financial and mental wellbeing.
The fact is there’s been a radical change. There are implications at every level, from the individual to the civic and economic. Whilst many of us have become pros at pivoting to meet rules that shift and change on a sometimes-daily basis, it’s also fair to say that our adaptiveness has not come easily and there’s still plenty we need to learn.
Our careers are in a moment of flux. It’s up to us to find our balance and ensure that this transformation is for the better.
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