Working from home: Where to put the inverted commas

I have been lucky enough that my previous jobs have prepared me in lots of ways for the role I have now taken on. For example, both in the media industry and in the charity sector, I have learned how common (and frustrating) it can be to see a possessive apostrophe after an initialism* such as DVD or NGO when the writer means to write the plural[1].

I also learned that the phrase ‘working from home’ is always used with inverted commas.

I was also lucky enough to have the flexibility to work from home in my last role, although, partially because of these inverted commas, I rarely took it up. It was not only the desire to avoid being accused of taking it easy, but also because a lot of my previous role was reactive. As such, it was necessary to ‘be available’ and that meant in person.

There is a lot to be said for physical presence, and the casual conversations which go alongside the professional. We have all experienced that feeling of talking to a phantom on the other end of an email, a phone call, even a self-service machine, where although we have an automatic response, it’s impossible to know if there is ever anyone behind the curtain. With colleagues there’s that concern that you are calling into a void, telling a blank screen the details and frustrations of your day.

This need to be present meant I regularly felt ‘working from home’ could be more labour-intensive than working in the office. If you can’t wander over to someone and talk to them at their desk, then not only are you missing out on the important relationship-building moments, but what could be a 20 second query instead has to start a chain of emails. Your email is another task on someone’s to do list, and requires from them that little extra effort and energy to create an email-appropriate response (being brief without being curt, you might as well be florid), and it also allows them to make a decision on how to prioritize that task. Try as I might, I could never seem to find a ‘flag for later’ button on the person standing by my desk.

Of course you can politely explain to them you’re unable to help just now, you can indicate with look and gesture that the sky is falling, and they, in turn, can make a case for their query being urgent, not urgent, or so quick it might as well be done now and then I will leave you alone and it will make my life a whole lot easier right now this minute, and I will do the same for you one day, maybe tomorrow, go on please pay attention to me. This can all take a matter of seconds, when in an email, well – you take a look at that last sentence and tell me it would be easier to make it understood in words.

Despite all this, I would say that working from home was almost always more productive, and I felt as though I had been able to achieve more. Perhaps this was to compensate for the assumption of others that I would be working less or would be less available, but in fact I expect that not having people approach me at my desk and so being able to control my task list with that lovely ‘flag for later’ button, is one of the many ways in which ‘working from home’ can enable you optimize your working practice.

I say many ways, because once you begin to examine a typical office routine and compare it with working from home, there are so many ways in which it empowers you to take control of your experience. As well as deciding what, and when, you eat, a big one for me is cutting out the commute. This not only saves me two hours and twenty minutes (including prepping before leaving the house, and, on getting back, de-cocooning and assimilating into your domestic world) but also allows me to use that time in a way entirely dictated by myself. I can step right into the workplace from wakefulness. I happen to work best in the morning, and my brain is not necessarily more awake, but it is certainly untrodden – bright eyed. Because these are my best hours, I can use them to sprint through the first part of the day without losing any of that freshness in train, plane or automobile.

The resulting productivity probably contributes to the myth that ‘working from home’ is another way to say ‘slacking off and checking emails every now and then’, because when time has been used efficiently, you can, and should, stop. It is important for employers of all kinds to remember, that if you can do six hours of work in three, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you can do twelve hours of work in six. If your employer (and particularly if that employer is you) is demanding the same level of productivity consistently throughout a 7-12hour working day, they (you) have misunderstood the idea of efficiency and human capability entirely.

I’m actually writing this one as a bit of a pep-talk for myself, because over the last four weeks I have been coming around to the idea that ‘working’ is certainly many things, and so, right now, is ‘home’. There is no desk at which I have to be seen at in order to get paid, there is no stricture or contract which necessitates my presence at a particular time or on a particular day. There isn’t even anyone to hold me to my task list. There is just my own, deeply ingrained and probably quite unhealthy, sense of duty.

In thinking this over, I see that, for now, trying out new timetables, asking questions about what makes me most effective, and how I can be most efficient, is a productive use of time. Two moments this week have confirmed this for me: one in which I was told in no uncertain terms ‘trust your instincts – you’re a smart person – if you think it’s the best thing to sort out your desk - it probably is’ (they were right); and one in which I was asked how the ‘working for myself’ thing was going, and I found myself saying: ‘sometimes I’m just so overjoyed by the situation that I can’t get any work done’.

*as distinct from an acronym, which is like NATO or UNICEF – apparently the same until you realize that the letters make a word, rather than being pronounced as individual letters, as in NGO. Neither should have an apostrophe in the plural, though.

[1] This may sound like an example of unnecessary pedantry, and I have heard the argument before that if enough people do it, can’t we just say it’s correct? However, in a complex international organization, dealing with more than one CEO, if there is no certain distinction between CEOs (as the plural of CEO) and CEO’s (as belonging to one CEO), ambiguity can be genuinely problematic. If the minutes show that it has been decided that something is the CEO’s decision, then is it unilaterally the decision of one CEO, or is it for discussion among many? By the strict rules of grammar, it might be clear, but there is no certainty that the person taking the minutes or writing the email wasn’t part of the 60-odd percent of people who add the apostrophe to the plural, just in case.