For six months, Fatima Natalya has worked, eaten dinner, watched TV and slept in the same room. Like millions across the country, the 24-year-old Leeds-based PR executive is still working from home. A kitchen table in her studio flat has become her desk.
“Having to work from the same room every day took its toll in the beginning, particularly when the UK was in full lockdown,” she tells HuffPost UK. “I had to consciously make the effort to switch my laptop off at lunch, as I found myself working through, starting early, working late.”
As we reach six months of remote working – something few of us would have predicted in March – much has been written about the privilege of working from home. It’s true that people in the highest paid jobs are most likely to do it – and therefore have greater protections from the virus.
But less has been said about the very different experiences among those who’ve been thrown into remote working. A senior manager with a dedicated office, for example, is likely to offer a different review compared to the entry-level employee living in a house share. So, too, is the single parent craving quiet, compared to the solo worker longing for company.
“There’s a very outdated notion that working from home is somehow an easier way of working, for many that’s not the case,” Sian Elliott, women’s policy officer at the The Trades Union Congress (TUC) tells HuffPost UK. “They’re really putting in the hours and it’s not being seen and recognised.”
The office was the great leveller, but the move to home working has exposed and exaggerated differences in our lives. It’s created a divide between the working from home ‘winners and losers’, where some people can’t wait to get back to the office, while others are hoping to stay put.
Fatima says she is adapting to working in the flat and has found tricks – such as placing her laptop on a shoebox – that make the set-up more bearable. But she believes there would be mental health benefits in returning to work.
In contrast, Leah Walker, a 25-year-old copywriter based in Warwickshire, says six months of working from home has been beneficial for her mental health – and she’s “dreading” going back to the office.
“As an anxiety sufferer, I often found an office environment much too restrictive and stressful and since being at home my mind’s been much more at ease,” she says. “There were days in the office where I really struggled. I’m introverted, so being around a number of people day-in day-out was genuinely physically and mentally exhausting.”
Another big benefit for Leah is that she’s been able to spend more time with her dog – and has saved money she was previously spending on dog walkers. “It’s so peaceful and I feel more productive than ever as I can really focus without the jarring noises and interruptions of an office environment,” she adds.
Despite mixed reviews for the workforce, many employers are expected to extend the work from home period, even though the government is pushing to get people back into offices and revive city centres.
More than half of workers have said they never expect to return to a five-day working week in the office, according to a survey by broadband provider TalkTalk. Meanwhile a separate survey of employers by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) concluded the “benefits outweigh the challenges” of working from home. Law firm Slater and Gordon has already closed its London office, saying remote working will now be the norm for staff.
If done correctly, a move towards remote working could open up career opportunities for millions of people across the country, says TUC’s Sian Elliott.
“What we’re seeing is a very long overdue end to the very toxic culture of presenteeism, which we had with the 9-5 work from the office culture,” she says. “That culture really disadvantaged those with caring responsibilities, disabled workers and also, people who couldn’t afford to work in London and pay the extortionate rent or commute fares that we do.”
Sarah Flemming, a 21-year-old digital PR manager, is planning to move out of London after her employer gave staff the option to go fully remote.
Sarah lives in a shared house in north London with three flatmates and her partner and has been working in her bedroom since March. Luckily, she has the biggest room in the house, so has been able to fit in a desk.
The move will help her save money for the future and improve her quality of life, she says, even if she later decides to come back to London. “Ultimately it means I won’t have to spend the usual chunk of my salary on extortionate rent prices in London,” she says.
But not all workplaces have adapted well to support their employee’s needs. Research from TUC shows women, who are most likely to take on childcare responsibilities, are burning out under the new system.
“Mums told us they were regularly working more than their usual hours now that they’re working from home, without any increase in pay,” TUC’s Sian Elliott commented. “Those mums were regularly working early in the morning before 8am and late at night post 8pm.”
In contrast, when TUC spoke to mums working outside of the home, they were unlikely to say their working hours had changed due to the pandemic and those who were working more hours were paid for them.
Children may have gone back to school in the UK, but with an ever-growing list of areas in local lockdown and Covid-19 cases increasing, parents working from home may be fearing school closures again.
Shawn Coss, co-owner of the Ohio-based clothing brand Any Means Necessary, tells HuffPost UK of his experience of working from home with two young daughters – a reminder that these challenges are being faced globally.
“Being an artist, they always think Daddy is playing and not working,” he says. “There’s a lot of interrupted moments throughout the day and having to drown out the noise while trying to be productive.”
But Halima Khatun, who has been working remotely full-time since 2017, says there are a lot of perks to working from home as a parent, once you hit your stride. The mum-of-two splits her time between PR consultancy and writing – she’s currently working on her lifestyle blog, alongside her debut novel The Secret Diary of an Arranged Marriage.
“The biggest perk is being able to do the same job I did in the corporate sector for a decade, around my children,” says the 36-year-old, based in Manchester. “This means I can be there for them for their key milestones and do the school run when my daughter starts nursery.”
When she worked in the corporate sector, Halima noticed how difficult it could be for mums returning to work. “There was always grumblings about them leaving early, or working less days. That kind of attitude makes it a lot harder for women to return,” she says. “While I don’t think my system is perfect, it allows me to do the job I love, without feeling like I’m compromising on childcare.”
Of course, there are some elements of work that can’t be recreated at home. Frances Spencer-Barton, 38, based in Edinburgh, says she misses getting dressed up for work and replying to WhatsApp messages from friends on the commute.
“The commute was a transition time from mum to agency owner and vice versa at the end of the day,” she says. “It was enough time to get my head in gear and the porridge out of my hair to focus on the day ahead. I miss that, working from home is just more of the same, there are no boundaries to segment work time from mum time.”
Fatima adds: “The worst thing about working from home is not being able to have that natural chatter with colleagues. There is a fast-paced environment and creativity bouncing off the walls. That’s something I really miss, and one of the main reasons I want to get back to the office.”
So, what’s next for the nation’s reluctant and ready remote workers? With many companies extending their work from home policies until the end of the year, Calli Louis co-founder of Working Wonder, says workplaces need to acknowledge employees’ differing situations.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to redesigning your workplace, it needs to be flexible and adaptable,” she says. “It’s about listening to each other’s highs and lows, and what has worked and what hasn’t worked – then working together to create a better, more inclusive working culture.”
If you’re a company leader, “don’t wait for a big reveal about what the ‘new normal’ looks like,” says Louis. Instead, bosses should be proactive about making a ‘normal’ that works for their staff.
“Communicate, ask advice and update your teams on a regular basis,” she says. “And if you are an employee, be clear on what you want and use your voice to drive positive change.”
TUC would like to see employers doing health and safety risk assessments and providing a desk, laptop and internet access for employees who need it. Managers should also be trained in how to lead a remote workforce, Sian adds, to ensure hard work is recognised and working hours don’t spiral.
Prior to the pandemic, one in three requests for flexible working was turned down and she’s hopeful this extended period of home working will make applications easier for those who wish to pursue them.
It remains unclear when, or if, they’ll be a mass return to the office, but wherever you sit on the topic, it will have no doubt changed the way you see work forever.
“Either way,” says Fatima, “when we do finally get back to the office I can honestly say I will never take my desk for granted again.”