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Lessons from the home office

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When I shared my 40 lessons on life in 40-odd years in the last few columns, I touched upon work but didn’t want to delve too much as I believe, as a colleague said the other day, “We work to live; we don’t live to work.” Partly, I wanted to keep life and work separate, and partly, after the crazy twelve months we’ve had, I felt work deserved a full column all to itself. While 2020 has meant work-life balance became work-life blend for some, and work-life blend for others, it has also taught us a lot about the world of work.

From bringing our authentic selves to virtual offices over Zoom calls, to sharing our lives, kids, pets and all, sometimes for the first time with colleagues, from not having to commute to work to being able to do a yoga session at lunchtime as opposed to lunch al desko, it’s been an interesting year “out of office”. As many of us brace for early morning wake up calls, long commutes in traffic, high heels and blazers, what have we learned from a year of (mostly) working from home.

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Bring your full self to the office
From lawyers who end up with cat filters on virtual hearings, to toddlers barging into view in the middle of virtual board meetings, we’ve collectively got to know each other a little more genuinely and learned to laugh off the mishaps along the way. If anything, this has shown us it is okay to bring our full selves to work – we are not just one-dimensional workers after all. The badge we wear around our necks are just a part of our multiple identities – wife, mum, dog mum… Let’s not go back to our suits and forget that we spent a year proudly wearing all of our other hats on and off the camera.

Bums on seats don’t mean productivity
Sadly, although it is the 21st century, it is still rare to find a workplace that doesn’t rely on presentism as a measure of productivity. Before the pandemic, if you had a boss who’s not hung up at the time you come into the office or how long you’ve spent hunched over your computer, you’d be considered lucky. During the pandemic, many bosses came to realise they could actually trust their workforce to be the adults they actually are. Many actually now admit their workforce is more productive than ever.

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One size doesn’t fit all
The traditional 9-5 may have been okay in the days of the Industrial Revolution when factory workers had to get their cards stamped in at the same time every morning going in and every evening coming out. Office hours meant work getting done. We have long left those days behind in most sectors. Most of the modern-days jobs we do don’t have to be done between 9-5, and governed by different biological clocks, we don’t all have the same daily patterns, so one size no longer fits all. Over the period we’ve worked from home, some of us have concentrated better in the evenings once the kids go to bed; others have preferred a nap after lunch at the time of the day they’re most likely to slow down. Others have enjoyed starting the working day earlier – without having to battle the morning commute – so they can finish early. Perhaps moving forward, we can all agree on core hours, and let each person decide how they would like to design their working day outside of these hours.

Boundaries are important
This may go against everything I’ve just said about bringing your authentic full self to work but boundaries are important in keeping ourselves sane when the office blurs into our kitchens and living rooms. Early on in the first wave, when we felt we would be back in the office in a few weeks’ time we all made the mistake of precariously balancing laptops on kitchen work tops or lounging out on the sofa. As weeks went on to months not only did we create designated office space in the nooks and crannies of our homes, but we also learned to practise rituals that put a break in between work and play in the absence of the commute home. Amid the work-life blur, we discovered that boundaries are good for our sanity!

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Emotional intelligence is essential
In a virtual environment where we can’t read body language or facial cues as we would have in the office, it is important to practise emotional intelligence. This is why teams with higher emotional intelligence and virtual ways to connect socially have thrived in such a challenging time. Let’s hope going back to the office, we can continue showing the same amount of empathy to each other that we did through digital screens.

Good leadership is key
Coping with the collective trauma of a global pandemic is tough, no matter your job or your work-from-home environment. At some point, we all lose motivation and the will to wake up and face another Groundhog Day. This is why good leaders are key to keep us moving forward but also motivated through what’s been a global trauma.

 

Doubtless, as we make the shift from homes back into offices, we will need good leadership more than ever to learn and implement the lessons of the last twelve months.

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