I work from home. When I say I work from home, I mean I “work” from “home”. I have been “working” from “home” for five years, which in terms of actual work done translates to around two weeks and three days, if you include bank holiday time off in lieu that I have awarded myself, as allowed by law.
Fascinatingly, the number of people working from home is increasing. In the United States of America, also known as the USA, the number of unwitting drones fulfilling their roles as witless cogs in the cruel machinery of the capitalist system remotely from their place of residence has risen by 39 per cent in two years. Yes, that much. In that time.
But here’s the thing, as Americans are fond of saying, as if they’ve just found something they can’t remember the name of that they have been looking for.
Working from home is not easy. Proof of this is the fact that top-level quantum theorists and leading particle physicists don’t work from home. Nor do policemen, nurses, professional snooker players, traffic wardens and tugboat pilots. If that rum selection doesn’t illustrate how hard it is to work from home, nothing will.
Working from home is like a skill. It can’t be learned overnight, any more than playing the glockenspiel to a certain standard. It’s something that should be eased into gently, like a hot bath or light football hooliganism.
Here are my top tips for those about to embark on the exciting adventure that is “working” from “home”.
1. Avoid the postman. Unless you are a piece of furniture or a similarly inert object, you will receive mail on a fairly regular basis, and this will be delivered to you by way of a postman.
Postmen (and women)
are by definition lonely oddballs. They spend all their working life going through
people’s gardens and no-one really knows what they do between the hours of
around 1pm and 5pm each day.
If a postman or woman regularly appears at your door, or you regularly let them into your building, the postman or woman will soon deduce that you work from home. He or she will then – in his or her bizarre way – start to think of arriving at your door and engineering a face-to-face encounter as something to look forward to; a high point of the day, if you will.
Before you, the worker from home, know it, the postman or woman will for no apparent reason knock on your door rather than just slide mail into your home via the letterbox – even when your post comprises, say, a single slim envelope from a building society offering you a new savings deal that could in theory net you an extra £3 over 18 months as long as you deposit at least £7,000 into the account each month.
The situation will develop to the point where this scenario will occur:
KNOCKING AT DOOR
YOU open door
YOU: Oh, hi.
POSTMAN OR WOMAN: Hi.
YOU: So. Got any mail for me then?
POSTMAN OR WOMAN: Do you ever get lonely?
YOU: Define 'lonely'. Actually, just tell me if I have any mail please, I'm very busy working and not standing in front of the fridge.
YOU: Define 'lonely'. Actually, just tell me if I have any mail please, I'm very busy working and not standing in front of the fridge.
POSTMAN OR WOMAN looks through handful of mail
POSTMAN OR WOMAN: Um, no. Sorry. How are you today?
YOU: No mail for me?
POSTMAN OR WOMAN: No.
YOU: Why did you knock at the door?
POSTMAN OR WOMAN: How’s it going? Busy? Been at the fridge today? Those fridges, eh!
YOU: This interaction is over. Please leave.
POSTMAN OR WOMAN turns away, a TEAR just visible on their cheek.
That’s how it will end up. In fact this scenario has already happened to me a couple of times and I’ve had to move house. How do you get around it?
From time to time
just pretend you’re not in when the postman or woman knocks or rings the bell.
Hide. This may seem cruel – and to be frank, unusual – but don't worry about the postman or woman: he or she in all likelihood has a wide circle of friends. It could be the case that postal employees socialise with such friends during the mysterious afternoon hours of 1pm to 5pm.
2. Treat the fridge with caution. Bit of a weird one this. The eagle-eyed among you will note that I alluded to it in the last section. If you can count yourself among this select band of observant readers, then this will be something of a triumphant moment for you.
Once you start
working from home, (I’m not going to bother putting the words “work” and “home”
in inverted commas any more as I feel the joke isn’t really gelling and it’s a
bit fiddly, although I acknowledge that I put them in inverted commas just back
there; that will be the last time) your fridge, or fridge freezer if you own
such an item, will very quickly transform itself from a functional piece of
kitchen apparatus into a sort of magnetic enigma.
If you can imagine the Easter Island statues filled with a few tubs of Muller Rice and a Pyrex dish of leftover lasagne, then you have the general idea.
Mmm ... it's lasagne
More often than not when you are meant to be working from home you will find yourself standing rigid, in a sort of hypnotic trance, staring into the deep space of the fridge, its interior light casting a beatific glow on your awestruck features. Why? I don't know. Perhaps, simply, because it is there.
When you work in an office, it’s not as if the fridge plays the same kind of role.
BOSS: Um, Dave, could you nip along to my office with those figures we were talking about?
DAVE: Ah, actually I’m just staring at some hummus. Can I swing by later?
Solution: Get rid of your
fridge if you intend to work from home, or close off access with scaffolding. If your home food arrangements involve an ice house and/or pantry take similar action and amend to suit your circumstances.
3. Try to avoid owning a guitar. True story. A few weeks ago I was just about to sit down at my desk and read an important work-related document. I didn’t realise that during the night my building had settled slightly, meaning that my guitar had moved a fraction of an inch to the right, placing the edge of its body just within the range of my (admittedly very, very good) peripheral vision.
Before I realised what had occurred, it was too late. The door had been opened, so to speak. Two days later I hadn’t slept, eaten or done the reading I was going to do, emails were left unanswered and my mobile phone battery had drained away to nothing. However, I had almost mastered “Classical Gas” and around one-third of Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock set. So not all was lost, with the exception of my livelihood.
4. Leave nothing to chance. From time to time when you are working from home, friends, family and professional acquaintances will try to catch you unawares. They will phone or email you with a seemingly innocuous question along the lines of “How are you doing?” or the more sinister “What are you up to?”
To the novice
worker from home, these questions seem like pleasantries designed to kickstart
a friendly conversation. In fact, what you must remember is that the psyches of all people who
work in offices are blighted by a destructive, seething envy of home workers.
They want you to fail because they despise the fact that you can pick up a guitar and play it at the drop of a hat. They dwell on the reality that you can enjoy a drink of Appletise, or Appletiser as it is now known, annoyingly,* straight from the bottle while standing in front of the fridge, while they are bound by the rules, regulations and conventions of the workplace and will never be able to enjoy such freedom.
So for this reason
you need to have to hand a selection of quickfire replies to their probing faux-pleasantries. I find
it helpful to write out these replies on blank postcards, which are usually available
from post offices and stationers, and keep a pile of them near telephones and
my computer, where I access my email.
Here are some sample replies, designed to avoid being caught out. They work for most queries.
"I’m fine thank you, I’m just in the middle of working on a tender document that needs to be expedited by the end of today.”
“I know it took me a while to pick up, but I’ve been working so hard that I temporarily forgot what a telephone was and I didn’t know what to do with it when it started to ring.”
“I have saved this important Word document I’m working on so many times that if I used new Control and ‘S’ keys each time I saved, and you then lined all the buttons involved in the process up, they would stretch from here to Runcorn.”
“Hi. I haven’t been near the fridge once today.”
Of course email is
a different kettle of fish. Afforded the luxury of having extra time in which to compose a lockdown reply to a faux-pleasantry from an office-working envy machine, the pressure slackens a mite.
In fact I will leave it to you to decide on appropriate replies to emails. Think of this like a test. Just keep your replies convincing and make sure to spell check it (although there is a school of thought that believes not spell checking implies a very heavy schedule).
One other aspect of email is the speed or otherwise of the response. Too fast a response suggests you don’t have enough work to do. However, too slow a response implies you are having a nap or have been standing at the fridge again. The key to getting your response time right is absolutely crucial and in many ways could prove to be the defining factor in your overall career success. Sadly only you can be the judge of your email response times. I can’t hold your hand all the way.
5. Expect the unexpected as well as the expected. Almost the worst thing that can happen to the homeworker, with the exception of a ceiling collapse or being taken prisoner by the postman or woman, is the unexpected visit to your home by someone from the organisation for which you work. Avoidance of this appalling scenario requires that you dress in formal office attire at all times, in order to avoid being caught wearing pyjamas. This takes on a greater urgency if you favour nightwear that is embellished with a pattern, logo or design that is part of a TV or film tie-in merchandising deal. It is recommended that men wear a gray three-piece suit of wool, while women can opt for a similar garment but with a skirt instead of trousers. Although trousers are obviously acceptable these days (but they're not really, and you know it).
6. Deal with a work crisis like a man (or woman). We’ve all been there. You’re pottering along, attempting some work, breaking off to check on the fridge, spending a bit of time getting to grips with Bert Jansch's finger-picking style, when suddenly from nowhere comes a demand that you attempt and preferably complete some work really quickly. This is the crisis you have been expecting all your homeworking life. To not be prepared for it would represent failure at every level.
How do you deal with it? It’s very simple. You have to very quickly remove all external stimuli in order that you can get down to (or crack on with if you prefer) a short but intense period of work. Here’s what to do.
everything from your home office except your desk, chair and computer. Pot
plants can be left on desk if removing them to a safe place eats into your emergency planning time.
(b) If you have interesting floorboards or a nice carpet, cover the surface with dark gray, heavy duty floor tiles of the man-made polymer variety. You should have these ready for such an eventuality. If they are scuffed from years of heavy wear, so much the better.
(c) Construct temporary head-height partitions around your desk.
(d) Make yourself a cup of coffee. Then put 10 sugars in it, water it down and put it in the microwave on full power for three minutes, thus defying the laws of physics to raise the boiling point of the liquid beyond 147 degrees Kelvin. Pour it into a thin, small plastic cup. Dribble some of it on your chair.
(e) Put on a
blindfold and yank your ethernet cable out of the wall, thus simulating the
effect of losing your internet access suddenly and for no apparent reason. If you feel it is appropriate, dial a random phone number, tell whoever answers that you've lost your internet connection and ask them how long it will take to be restored. They will have no idea. If you don't want to run the risk of damaging your computer, keep the cable in, visit some pornographic websites, then tell yourself off and bar yourself from accessing the internet.
Congratulations. You are simulating an office! You are sitting in a near-featureless space around the size of an Ikea sofa, drinking a disgusting hot liquid, unable to surf the internet for funny jokes and the kind of videos that move viewers to use the phrase "Man alive!" for the first time. These are scientifically proven to be the best conditions in which to achieve work. This is an emergency measure, so it won’t be for ever. Panic over. You’re welcome.
So that’s it. Those are my invaluable tips. At this point I should finish with a crazy pay-off, the typed equivalent of the joke at the end of each episode of Starsky & Hutch.
Something along the lines of: "But the most important rule of all is Don’t Surf the Internet and read blogs!!!!"
However, I feel
that if I were to finish in this manner I would be obliged to set about myself
with a flensing knife.
So I won’t.
* My mum called it Appletiser when it first came out – ie when it was actually called Appletise. For reasons best known to themselves the manufacturers have now amended the name to Appletiser, meaning that I am sort of retrospectively wrong. This is annoying because I used to argue quite vehemently that the name was Appletise, which it was. But now it isn't.