Sometimes in the UK when bad weather threatens, and you know that if there is a really cold snap with train cancellations and road closures, then it will be mentioned in the media that many large employers have graciously allowed their people to work from home for a couple of days. I forecast that this will shortly be followed by a cascade of lazy mass-media content about “home working”, full of tips and suggestions and stereotypes, which are all just about as predictable as the British weather.
And those of us who have been working flexibly, remotely, office-optionally for any length of time will simply roll our eyes and get back on with it, smiling wryly to learn once again that we’ve been doing it wrong all these years
Health and safety PSA — this is not an ergonomically sustainable workstation
Because, according to lots of columnists who presumably commute to elegant media offices every day, ‘working from home’ means that you’re watching TV in your pyjamas, online shopping, having sex, eating badly, sorting laundry and walking the dog — all on the company time. We’ll be relieved to learn that much of this bad practice can apparently be mitigated by putting on formal office-wear, however. Even if you do have to take in parcels for the whole street. (Ok, this last one does have some ring of truth to it, but it’s really no big deal is it? At least you’re in when your own stuff arrives. Stuff that you couldn’t possibly have ordered from a colocated workplace).
Or what if you’re a parent — well, usually this means a mother, because you don’t hear the phrase ‘Dadpreneur’ very often, do you? A quick image library search for ‘home working mum’ reveals I also did that wrong too, all those years when my daughters were little. Apparently I should have had them sitting on the desk at all times, or been simultaneously whipping up casseroles and cleaning toilets whilst breastfeeding them. I should also have been wearing full make-up and dangly earrings and talking very intently on the phone to someone for much of the workday.
You are supposed to be continually “juggling” something, which doesn’t sound very safe with small people and expensive office equipment around… My reality was more about making the most of paid childcare, and claiming suspiciously-large quantities of stationery consumable costs as they got older — though their school projects always did look fantastic. And too little gets said about the benefits of children of all ages seeing their parents actually working: Being committed, productive and focussed, observing the direct connection between the benefits of an income, with the activity that generates it. Never mind the fact that the benefits of flexible working should be applied equally to any team member on their merits, with nothing to do with discrimination over parent status.
And don’t even get me started on the ‘digital nomad’, location-independence cliches. We’ve written before about some of the challenges and complexities of working whilst travelling, but a great many people manage lots of moving around, with or without a family in tow.
Yet again the realities are very different from the popular imagery however.
Being able to choose to live somewhere the sun shines for most of the time is a great privilege, however I do tend to do most of my work indoors. And wherever I am, I seek out something resembling a desk, ideally. Whatever the stock photos indicate, palm trees simply don’t provide adequate shade for use with the highest definition of screen, which you can’t see very well at all through trendy shades. And the stupidest images of the lot are those showing people working on the beach… I surely don’t even need to unpick this one, just remember that sand in a laptop probably invalidates any manufacturer’s warranty, suncream makes your keyboard all smeary, and the best thing about beaches is to unplug completely and relax…
Even who flexibility is for seems to be subject to stereotyping. If it’s not those harassed “working mums” (and have you ever met a mum who doesn’t work?), it’s precious self-absorbed millennials — unable to handle the commitment of a proper job, and snowflaking their way from one unstable gig to the next, munching overpriced avocado toast in the newest trendy co-working whilst they wail about how the boomers with proper jobs trashed everything from the climate to their career prospects… Or at least according to the Gen-X journos.
Please, it’s 2019 now. Can we start to be a bit more grown up about what flexible working really means?
Because it is about that responsible choice after all — whether you choose to work from home, or from a co-working space, a coffee shop, or a rented meeting space, perhaps somewhere different every day, as opposed to a central office location. Work is what you do, not where you do it — (yes we do keep saying that, and I hope it’s going to become a cliché in its own right sometime soon).
There is still a measurable perception amongst remote workers in hybrid organisations that they are taken less seriously than colleagues who are located in the office, that they are more likely to be passed over for professional development and career progression opportunities, and also that they are seen as enjoying some kind of soft or easy option.
These things need to be discussed and addressed, because the reality is, it can be more difficult to be effective as a remote worker than working within the structured setting of a central office. The people I know in a wide variety of professional roles who are happy and successful working flexibly and remotely are proactive about their own development needs, highly motivated in their work, and expert networkers both personally and professionally — but they have often had to take greater personal responsibility for these matters than colleagues who stayed in the office.
In return they enjoy the greater autonomy, flexibility, time and money saved on travel/workwear/subsistence, and greater quality of life, which remote working can bring. And after nearly 2 decades working this way, I don’t argue when people tell me how lucky I am. I try to avoid clichés as an occupational hazard, so I won’t ever mention that the harder you work the luckier you get… And we all know it’s not as simple as that, simply working harder often doesn’t change anything.
But as more and more people continue to exercise their right to request flexible working of some kind, perhaps it’s time to think about what your work could look like. Beyond the stereotypes and stock photos, what if you could do your work in the time and place of your choosing?
The REAL possibilities are far more exciting than any dreary clichés.