I’m no stranger to working from home. That was the only option for me for a long time – and it can do serious damage. We should not romanticise it.
For five years my house was my whole world. My hospital, my cafe, my sanctuary – and my office.
I achieved everything I could from a poorly set up desk, in bed, or on the couch. I tried to create my own ergonomic spaces, but I had neither the understanding nor the resource. My physical health suffered from the many discomforts. My mental health suffered from isolation, and from the fact that I never truly ‘switched off.’ I worked in the same places I needed to relax in. There was no distinction and no official quittin’ time. As someone who requires structure for survival, this may as well have been my crucible.
I have a workplace to go to now, but my fiance works from home. Prior to COVID-19, he commuted to Auckland two days a week. Until last week, he’s been stuck in our study since the start of March. It doesn’t look like regular travel will resume any time soon, if at all.
I had my head injuries to deal with, so I’d been home since November, but I was able to do some work during lockdown, and returned to the office in Alert Level 2. The stark juxtaposition between the two gave me a sharp reminder of just how uncomfortable and unhealthy “WFH” can be.
I think we need to stop calling it 'working from home' and start calling it 'living at work'— Heather De-Quincey (@H_DeQuincey) June 22, 2020
This tweet made me consider the reasons I’m suspicious of the surge of positivity for WFH.
I know for many people this will make work more accessible, increase the opportunity for flexible hours, cut out commutes (therefore reducing both wasted time and our carbon foorprint), and leave more time for family, exercise, eating well, and other self care or hobbies that go neglected. It could be a great solution for people whose bodies are not required to be in a static physical place to do their jobs.
But for me, it is not enticing. In fact, I think unilaterally accepting and endorsing it could put people at risk. Here’s why.
There’s a bunch of basic things most of us need to do our jobs. One of these things is being comfortable, regardless of whether we’re in an office chair or on our feet for hours or work outside in variable conditions – we require the right equipment to keep our bodies happy and safe.
I can speak as someone who’s worked in all the above scenarios, but I’m mostly going to talk about office work, because that’s what I do now, and those jobs are the most likely to become WFH. By ‘office work,’ I mean anything that requires you to sit at a desk on a chair in a room using a computer.
I knew very little about the importance of an ergonomic workspace until I developed my spinal arthritis. I swiftly discovered that sitting in a standard desk chair became excruciating. I bought a new chair (but without any knowledge of what support it should actually provide), I bought memory foam pillows, I got a footrest. Nothing particularly helped.
I didn’t really start to learn why until I hit my head and started going to a specialist head-and-neck physiotherapist. Sure, I knew posture was important, but I had no idea how much additional pain I was causing myself. I started to get my workstation sorted – and then lockdown began.
I don’t own the right desk, monitor stands, or chair. It was pretty much impossible to work without exacerbating my injuries and my arthritis. A huge part of this was looking down too much. Every time we look down – at a keyboard or a notepad or a book or our phones – it puts more strain on our neck muscles. The main problem with this for me is I can’t touch type, so I’m trying to learn. I imagine it looks a lot like a toddler bashing the keys and makes about as much sense.
The key points, thought, is you need a chair with the right back supports, a desk at an appropriate height, adjustable monitors, and keyboard that keeps your arms and wrists at the right angles. And that’s just the absolute basics.
There are other things that are basics for a comfortable physical environment too. Warmth, for one (WFH over winter suuucks if you can’t afford the power bills). Access to clean, reliable kitchen and washroom facilities. Natural light. And that brings me to my next point.
MENTAL AND SOCIAL NEEDS
Lack of sunlight can cause depression. Lack of physical interaction with others can cause depression. Lack of the positive stimuli a (good) workplace provides can cause depression.
At home, our office is at the dark end of the house. Ask my fiance: a cold Sarah is a grumpy Sarah.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of actual physical interaction since COVID. While I saw my team often over zoom, it was nothing like being in a space together. I’m not talking about needing a hug (most of us do, but maybe not from our boss*) (*my boss is great though, we hug all the time**) (**I’m not just saying that because my colleagues read this) – I’m talking about things like someone offering you a cuppa because they’re having one, or overhearing useful info, or being able to ask or give advice on the spot.
I found this piece really useful in explaining why this matters – BBC: Why ‘weak tie’ friendships mean more than you think.
I know that I’m lucky. I have a great team who are very supportive, there’s very few of us and they’re not ‘work friends’, they’re friend friends* (*again, I know you guys read this, and it’s true). I celebrated being able to return to the office at Level Two. I missed the atmosphere of working side-by-side.
I can’t really speak for Nik, but working for a tech company means he has access to solutions others may not, because it’s expensive or just not widely known. One of the ways he’s improved WFH is by using two JBL Linkviews – a smart speaker with a screen and video calling via Google Duo. One speaker lives on his desk here, and another in Auckland. When the line is left open, Nik can hear ambient noise and the chats his team are having, so he can join the conversation if he has a comment or is asked a question. Obviously, not an option that’s available to everyone, but simulating an office environment could be healthy for some (and it’s just futuristic enough for me to get a kick out of it).
So, speaking of money and the fact that most people don’t have heaps of it to create a comfortable home office, there’s additional costs to WFH that I haven’t seen talked about. Like: Has your boss considered that sure, they may not have to pay for an office space for you – but they should still be paying for your equipment and resources? In my self-employed work, I can claim a percentage of my rent, power, phone and internet bills, as well as equipment purchases, because I use these in my home, for my job.
And what about all the ‘small’ things your work pays for, like paper clips and post-its and coffee and toilet paper? Will you be given an allowance for these? Will you have to fill out claim forms but it’s arduous so you don’t and it all adds up over time? If your office still exists, are you allowed to raid the stationary cupboard?
I don’t mean to be negative. I realise that my particular experience of WFH is one of someone who was poor, naiive, and in chronic pain. But who’s to say those circumstances aren’t shared?
One final thing. P.R.O.C.R.A.S.T.I.N.A.T.I.O.N. It might seem like a lovely idea to be able to take a break and cuddle the cat or get some laundry done or duck to the store – but what masks itself as ‘flexible working conditions’ can lead to anxiety, working overtime to make up for the half hour you spent folding clothes or removing the cat from said clothes, and general disruption to your workflow.
What WFH really looks like – cute at first glance but very inconvenient
(also you forget to brush your hair for days)
Focus is a lot easier when your colleagues are working around you (and your boss sits 2m away) (hi mum) (no my boss isn’t actually my mum but sometimes when I stay at work late she kicks me out and tells me to go rest and eat something so basically the same thing).
I’ve tried to keep this short (and not done the best job), but I wanted to be clear about the care with which I think we should treat this ‘opportunity.’ For some, of course, it won’t be any option. COVID will have ruled out any other way. But if you are offered the choice, think about it carefully. Ask some questions – of yourself and your employer. And choose what’s healthy for you.