Extreme loneliness or the perfect balance?

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When Sean Blanda started working remotely in 2017, the allure of a “digital nomad” lifestyle – working at your laptop on the beach, say – wasn’t lost on him. The ability to work flexibly, be that at home or wherever else life may take you, is the dream for every disgruntled employee who has to fit in school pickups, dentist appointments and long commutes around office hours.

But after two years of working from home, Blanda, an editorial director for a tech company based in Philadelphia, knows only too well the many pitfalls of this way of life, with the greatest being isolation.

“You’ll need a lot of quiet self-confidence,” he recently wrote on Twitter. “You won’t get the positive reinforcement you’d normally rely on from body language and the ‘vibe’ from being in an office.”

Beyond the lack of interaction with colleagues – there are no ideas by osmosis, no overhearing others talking – there is also the lack of interaction with the wider world. “The main way most of us are connected to our local, geographical communities is through work,” Blanda says. “When you remove that – when you’re not commuting, you don’t bump shoulders, you don’t meet the guy who happens to have a cousin on your block and now you’re friends – you have to work harder to feel connected.”

More and more people are working where they live and living where they work, attracted by the promise of greater flexibility. In the UK there are 4.8 million freelancers, mostly home-based workers, making up a significant 15% of the workforce, and companies are increasingly allowing employees to work remotely.

But there are problems with blurring the line between work and home, as London-based academic Frances Holliss, who teaches at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, found during her systematic analysis of “the work-home” for her doctoral thesis. After interviewing everyone from a professional juggler to a building surveyor who worked out of a garden shed, Holliss found some common disadvantages and negative impacts: mental health suffered (anxiety, stress, depression), isolation was rife (not being in a team), and it was hard to have self-discipline (proximity of the fridge and biscuit tin; not enough exercise; difficulty in setting boundaries between work and life).

Working alone may mean greater flexibility and fewer interruptions, but it is in those small interactions with colleagues – where people become multifaceted, as opposed to the flattened, disembodied personas of online avatars – that connections are made. The entire workforce at InVision, the tech company that Blanda works for, operates remotely, so he makes sure to start online meetings by asking his colleagues about their weekend plans or their families. “It’s about depth,” he says. When you’re hardly ever in the same room, it’s the only way to really get to know each other – and to build trust.

The loneliness that comes with the territory is one of the reasons that freelance editor Louise Goss, based in Northamptonshire, recently launched the Homeworker, a new magazine catering for those in what she calls “a hidden economy” – all the people plugging away in their domiciles. Beyond the obvious interest in curating relevant resources, from support with self-assessment tax returns to desk-based pilates, Goss also wanted to foster a sense of community: “Just that feeling that, even though you’re on your own, you’re not alone.”

Of course, the biggest hurdle when you are alone is that there is no one to help you regain perspective when things are not going to plan. Not knowing when to say no to work – or how to switch off for the day – can quickly lead to being overwhelmed. Figuring out how to balance life and work in the same space is difficult for everyone, although research published last month by the Hans Böckler Foundation in Germany suggests women have it harder.

Contrary to the received wisdom that working from home equals more flexibility for parents, this study found that, for mothers, it basically means more childcare: three whole extra hours a week, to be exact. The home-based fathers the study polled, meanwhile, just got extra work done – but scarcely more time with the kids. If juggling sickness, school plays, inset days and the never-ending summer holidays with a full-time office job is difficult enough for a parent to manage, trying to do anything that requires brain power from your kitchen table in the midst of tiny people is – well, to call it “challenging” seems disingenuous. It’s impossible.

Dana Denis-Smith founded her legal services company, Obelisk Support, in 2010 to address this conundrum. The journalist and lawyer turned entrepreneur was struck by how antiquated the nine-to-five office-based model seemed in the contemporary service economy, noting how many women were excluded as a result. Professions such as hers in particular struggled to accommodate the flexibility that the first 15 or so years of having children generally require. “No one wants me,” seasoned lawyers would tell her, or “I’m just a mum.” Denis-Smith’s solution was to come up with a system to keep them in the game. Obelisk is a legal agency of sorts, connecting a pool of home-based lawyers – who decide exactly how much work they want to take on – with any company needing ad-hoc legal support.

Denis-Smith set up her company at the same time as she had her first child: “It was very hard,” she says. In the beginning she had to work nights, from 11pm through to when her daughter woke up at 4am. Her husband would bring her a coffee in bed; she would catch an hour’s sleep.

The baby and her business grew in tandem – more business each year meant she could get more childcare – until five years ago, she finally went full-time and took an office. The whole undertaking has been a constant balancing act between giving her all and giving herself a break, as well as not being shy to ask for help. “It’s about staying confident,” says Denis-Smith, “and not letting it feel like you’re failing in any way.”

Self-confidence is key to successful home-based working of any stripe, as is knowing how to communicate clearly (so your distant bosses and colleagues know what you are up to), learning to work consistently (in the absence of feedback you might otherwise receive in an office environment) and, crucially, recognising when you need to go for a walk, work out or otherwise just take a break.

For Germany-based architect and interior designer Judith Simone Wahle, who has worked from home for six years, mastering this has brought its own rewards: realising your own system is working is empowering, she says. “It makes you strong, seeing you can manage it all.”

That often means getting the small things right, such as having a clearly defined workspace and a routine. Wahle starts work only once she has showered, got dressed and put her shoes on (curiously, she’s not the only remote worker who mentions the need for shoes). As she puts it: “How can you do planning applications, and still be in your pyjamas? It just doesn’t feel right.”

Engineer Isabelle Santaella, 50, learned this the hard way. She had spent the 25 years she worked at a digital security company in La Ciotat, southern France, wishing she were at home. About two years ago, she finally took the plunge and quit her job to set up a permaculture homestead in her backyard. The psychological landing was brutal: the anxiety she felt about not knowing how to manage her time and her crippling fear of failure sent her straight to the doctor in tears.

About 18 months into her new working life, her former colleagues can testify to how happy she now is, she says. She has learned to temper her expectations of herself and to let work go, and the impact on her wellbeing has been obvious. “I haven’t been ill once, I’ve lost weight, I feel great,” she says. Plus she gets to feed her chickens in her PJs every morning.

Santaella talks about the psychologist’s notion of congruence: your daily life being in sync with what is going on inside. “It’s about not doing a job I hate: I’m no longer in conflict with myself.” It’s also about being at home, literally: she says she would not have made this change if farming involved commuting to fields elsewhere. “We worked so hard to make our house a home,” she says. “It’s where I feel best.”

Blanda goes for a similarly domestic comparison, likening working from home to cooking from scratch: it might take a while to figure out what you are doing in the kitchen, but once you have nailed it, your meal will almost always taste better.

In spite of the obvious challenges and tough learning curve of bringing your work home, it seems it is worth it: the vast majority of remote workers report enjoying the way they live and work. Of the 100-odd remote workers Holliss interviewed for her studies, only about six said that they would return to the office given the chance. Everyone else loved it. And that may be about as good as working life can get.

 

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