“Working from home, if you’re interested in the environment then turn off the video. It demands a lot more capacity.”

Commitment

Beverley, Nickie and Emily’s Stories

Emily: ‘It’s 7.45pm on Monday 12th October. Do you all consent to being taped?’ 

And so begins my eleventh interview, with Emily, Beverley and Nickie: three neighbours (and friends) who’ve been part of the nation’s work from home (wfh) phenomena since March.

For the record (Emily) I comment that I love how it’s the first time I’ve seen them all wearing make-up since the beginning of lockdown, and am impressed that Bev is even wearing high heels – although it turns out there’s a snail attached to one of them. 

Nickie now goes into work a couple of days a week, and I begin by asking if she’s been at work today.

Emily: Just to be clear, we’ve all been at work today, Nickie’s been in her office today. She’s not the only one who’s been at work.

Nickie’s workplace

Right. I think I can tell how this is going to go… I ask them to tell me their job titles.

Nickie: I am head of Marketing for Kilver Court Designer Village and Sharpham Park British Spelt.

Emily: I am Associate General Counsel at a Swiss-headquartered financial services technology company and I specialise in privacy, security and commercial corporate law.

Bev: I am a UKCP registered Psychotherapist and Clinical Director of a Pyschotherapy, Coaching, Counselling and Supervision clinic in Mayfair, London.

After the extended pause that follows, I profess that I am honestly in awe of these three women sitting in front of me, and mention that I have recently mastered the art of making cushion covers… 

Let us begin.

How might you describe lockdown? Perhaps using words like: a nightmare, illuminating, lonely or boring?

Bev: It’s been all of the above, actually. On the one hand it’s been lovely not to have the traipse up to London: the train, the exhaustion, the rat race… all of that. But on the other hand, it’s also been translating the entire practice over onto Zoom, Skype, Face Time, whatever, and in doing so losing half of my tool box but still continuing to work. 

As a psychotherapist, you’re entirely focused on your clients for sessions of fifty minutes, and by the time you’ve dealt with all their worries, anxieties, panic about lockdown, the lack of knowledge of what’s going on and what it might mean for them, as well as the ongoing spectrum of issues they came to see me for initially; after you’ve put them nicely in your notebook, closed the diary and crawled to the end of your working day, you realise that you are also in lockdown and that you have those anxieties, the exhaustion, that sense of not knowing as well. 

But there are those nice silver linings throughout all that, like more time with my two boys, so it’s real mixed bag I think. 

Emily: I had three business trips cancelled, and in some ways that’s a blessing, because business travel’s never as glamorous as it sounds. I’ve been able to be very productive, sitting in one place, but obviously Covid’s affecting all businesses, including ours. Suddenly we’re worrying about banking systems going down because our Indian staff can’t get to the office. We’ve even had the concern that there’s not enough Cloud computing resource available from Microsoft. That didn’t get a lot of publicity, but we were warned about it because we need the resource to run our banking systems.

Initially I think we all saw the benefits of wfh. But now I think it’s wearing people down, because we still can’t go back to the office. It’s been a continuous period of not seeing our colleagues, not having face to face meetings, not resolving things, not travelling.

Nickie: I usually have an hour’s commute each way, so not having that has been a real joy. But I’ve found I’ve really missed conversations with my colleagues; and it’s much more difficult to judge temperaments over the phone than doing things face to face. Of the two businesses I work on, one closed – and everyone was furloughed – and the other ramped up incredibly.

Obviously, flour became the golden goose during lockdown. Meaning our sales increased ten-fold overnight as everyone was baking (banana bread in particular) and we could barely cope with demand. Luckily, we’d launched a new website six months previously which was completely able to cope, but it wasn’t just consumers going wild on-line; it was also the retailers. A lot of producers may have had the flour, but then didn’t have the packaging. Because, for instance, print companies didn’t have enough paper or their staff couldn’t get to work. It was the knock-on effects that became real issues.

I suggest they’ve all played an important role, looking after the money, the mind and the daily bread.

Nickie: I was working eight, nine-hour days, but don’t feel like my job was stressful per se. But I saw how stressed my colleagues were because of the demands put on them by the need for flour. And don’t forget, we’d closed the other business down – so all the activity I did there, initially putting across that message . Then, when we started re-opening Kilver Court we had to communicate how we were implementing Covid procedures, one-way systems, staff training etc. So my work’s been very disjointed because it’s been two opposites in many respects. 

A Facebook post from Kilver Court

Emily: It’s very rare, as a lawyer, that you have to deal with a proper force majeure and that’s been very interesting. We’re experiencing an event outside everybody’s control that’s impacting every industry, every type of employee, so it’s a phenomenal thing to deal with. Anybody who says they haven’t been impacted by it, that’s odd to say. When you list in a contract what can disrupt it, there’s very few things; but a global pandemic is one of them. 

Which has meant there’s also a global sense of being in it together. I work very internationally and all my colleagues have the same problems: the kids interrupting, home schooling, whether or not you need to wear a mask in the office. Although as it carries on, it’s a very stressful environment for people.

Like I have with everyone, I ask for their lockdown highlights. Again, a long pause. Boy, do these women think before answering…

Nickie: Perfecting the Negroni? As inspired by Stanley Tucci. Although that was more my daughter’s highlight. And can I say, it made working from home so much easier have Millie at home, because it meant I didn’t feel so isolated.

Millie, perfecting the Negroni (c/o Stanley Tucci)

Emily: The village was great, wasn’t it? The sense of community, John’s concerts, VE day, all that lovely weather.

Bev: Getting to know you people, and others in the village.

Emily: No particular highlight really, it’s a blur.

Bev: There’s lots of little moments. I think those capture it better than one big one. 

Lowest points?

Bev: At the beginning, exhaustion. Absolute exhaustion. The demands of working on-line and worrying about Mum and Dad. With my family, they tend to turn to me if they’re anxious, and my clients all save up a week’s worth of worry and dump on me. So, alongside having the boys at home full-time and dealing with issues of home-schooling, exhaustion is probably my word.

Emily: I had shingles just before lockdown, which turned out to be a mixed blessing. I’d been diagnosed ten days earlier, meaning I was down here when it started. So I was already in the zone of staying at home and didn’t suffer this whole thing that a lot of friends suffered from, of having to cancel trips and missing out on planned things. 

I actually feel all my low points have been subsequent to lockdown. Someone needs to investigate why being on Zoom is more tiring; although normal meetings are tiring too. Now, it’s this ongoing uncertainty and lack of resolution; not knowing when it’s ending – and the disparity of measures. All this means it’s much harder now.

Nickie: I don’t think I had any particularly low points. Thinking back to the highs, one of the things I enjoyed most was, because I work for an entrepreneur who wasn’t getting the support he needed from the banks, he was doing one of the things he does best; which is talking to the media. Meaning I was dealing with Channel 4, the Mail, The Telegraph. Which was exciting and challenging professionally – in an enjoyable way. 

Like Em, I think it’s more worrying now as we’re aware of what’s coming. We know that we’re going into the winter and that figures are going up.

I ask if, just like we all felt fearful, their businesses did too.

Emily: I think that businesses were very uncertain about what the outcomes were going to be. If you’ve got a fundamentally good business that can recover, that’s great, but some of the outcomes have been so unpredictable.

Businesses are entrepreneurs and people running big companies can be opportunistic, so some have taken an opportunity to cut costs and re-structure; hence some of the pay cuts and redundancies. Sometimes some of it might not strictly have been necessary, but it was an opportunity. I think people have used it to their advantage but that’s also because they can’t predict when business is going to be back to normal. 

Bev: You would think my sector has flourished, but I’m getting more insurance-funded referrals, which is rare. People are being very, very cagey about engaging with a longer-term process. The demand is for short-term therapy; a quick, ‘Please just fix me so I can get on with this, that and the other.’ I’m not getting so much private work, because people are also worried about furlough, or being made redundant, and again it’s this constant sense of not knowing.

A photo from Bev’s website

Emily: It’s very draining, not knowing.

Bev: I’m now seeing an awful lot more destructive and regressive behaviours. There’s more addiction, more messing about with eating. While Nickie is seeing people trying to eat more healthily with her spelt, I’m seeing the other end of the spectrum, whereby people are going through a tub of Ben & Jerry’s a night, not to mention the alcohol, the drugs, the over-exercising…. 

There are lots of unhealthy coping strategies coming out at the moment as a result of this long term, low-grade anxiety and the not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s a very uncertain time for everybody, including me.

Nickie: In those intense months of lockdown, I think the hardest thing was dealing with colleagues’ temperaments. I’ve never been shouted at or hung up on – but I experienced it all. You just had to mark it down to the fact that they were uber-stressed and leave them to it – while trying to be supportive. After all, we were all working incredibly hard for the same goals.

Emily: I work in quite a forthright corporate culture where we often get into heated conversations, so that’s normal. But people’s tempers were frayed. Also, I think that working from home exacerbates people’s natural tendencies. So if you’re naturally very conscientious, paying attention and working very hard, you carry on doing that. But if you need the discipline of being in the office, then it can be harder.

What about their businesses’ approach to the environment? Is climate change something they personally worry about?

Bev: I think the environment is something we take for granted, but ultimately the environment in which we live is the environment in which we exist. Part of the campaign for veganism is about the farming of animals, but lockdown showed us how much we individually rely on our cars. It’s easy to blame others for the state of things, but look what happened to the air and sea when we stopped travelling so much – the air quality rocketed and the seas were noticeably clearer while farming carried on as normal. So taking responsibility for the environment definitely starts at home.

Emily: We’ve got targets in the business, sustainability policies, but it’s interesting. We say a simple life and veganism, but I don’t think people are saying, ‘I don’t need or want powerful IT systems’. How do you get them? Well you need to be mining minerals to create the chip sets and you need to be producing an awful lot of electricity – the compute power is enormous – so I think people have to be realistic.

Nickie: I think lockdown has shown we can lead a simpler life, but do we want to? Define simpler? Regarding the environment, our business is all about sustainability – organic farming and second-chance fashion, which is housed in an old mill that’s been converted into a shopping centre.

Do they think they’re more productive, working from home?

Emily: I do think I’m more productive now that I’ve set up a dedicated space – with a monitor, printer and documents – that’s more or less like an office. What I can’t do is be productive from the kitchen table or the sofa – that’s not how I work.

The Piddlehinton view from Emily’s desk

But I think that generally people are not as productive when everything’s done on Zoom and it’s more difficult to establish outcomes and complete goals. I’m finding some business stuff is therefore taking a lot longer. Also, you can’t look people in the eye and say, when are you going to do that?  So it can be really hard to get things out of people.

Nickie: I’m definitely more productive. It’s just been myself and a colleague doing all the marketing for two businesses. 

Emily: I’m not saying I’m not productive! By the end of March I’d done £*&% of contracts. Look at all the paperwork!

Nickie: And we did £*%£@ of on-line sales.  

NB: For reasons of privacy I’m afraid I’m not allowed to say the figures they quoted. Let’s just say, there were a hell of a lot of noughts…

Emily: So absolutely you can be more productive.

Bev: My home office is sitting cross-legged on the sofa, with my laptop balanced on a stack of cushions. There isn’t any other way to do it because there’s nowhere else to be!

Bev’s Piddlehinton ‘office’

In terms of productivity, it’s an interesting question. For clients who require CBT and coaching, then yes. In terms of those who require longer-term work – which is more about human interaction and the relationship I can build with them – then, no that’s harder for me. I do feel that they’re still getting what they need, but there’s that lack of human contact.

One thing I have been doing, in terms of a little extra marketing, is quotes for publications like Metro or Stylist Magazine. Because the fact that I’m still working from home means I now have a little bit more time and energy – I’m even looking at writing a long-overdue book. So yes, I am more productive, but in lots of different ways. And still, where therapy’s concerned, it’s swings and roundabouts. It’s a funny one. 

Emily: I’m always aware that, across the world, people are working under huge constraints. A colleague and her boyfriend were in a tiny city flat, him in the bedroom, her in the sitting room – not much space. There’s husbands and wives dividing the day up so that they can take calls in the hours when they don’t have the baby. There’s a lot of people with considerable constraints on their lives, meaning that I sometimes say, just leave that piece of work with me.  

Bev: I have to say my kids were fantastic throughout lockdown. They just knew that ok, during these hours Mummy’s working so we’ll just leave her to it, and they just got on with their school work. 

Emily: There’s also been a lot of senior women, I’ve observed, who haven’t been furloughed because they’re very competent. But other people have been, and so for those still working, their jobs have expanded as they’ve had to cover other people’s work as well.

Bev: I think it’s probably country-wide, that there’s been this split of extremes: those who’ve been furloughed and those who really haven’t been able to stop. And there’s not been much in the middle.

Emily: Then again, we might have been working really hard throughout lockdown – while seeing people on furlough going for their daily run at three pm – but we’ve felt incredibly lucky to have a job that’s going to continue to pay. 

B & N: Definitely. So grateful.

Bev: And a lot of lockdown was in the sunshine which was lovely, and we had the weekends.

Nickie: And the mornings and evenings.

I ask about the much-discussed tyranny of video conferencing and having to dress for work at home.

Emily: It is really important, if you’re on video calls, what you wear, how you light yourself, your background; particularly in environments when you’re trying to sell yourself or your product. We got some company guidelines, and I saw there were lots of lawyers on Linked-In doing their three top tips to improve how you look.

However, because I know a lot of my work colleagues I didn’t turn the camera on, and when I did it was just angled at a blank wall behind me. For me it isn’t obligatory – and uses too much bandwith. If you’re interested in the environment then turn off the video, it demands a lot more capacity. 

My tyranny is the on-line diary. If everyone’s at home, they know that they can just put calls in it. So you can wake up in the morning, having planned to spend an hour drafting – some actual legal work – and, Oh no! Oh my god, three meetings have gone in my diary like that and people expect me to be there. This is the sort of thing that happens – people just filling up your time with conference calls on Zoom, Teams, Skype or on your mobile. All these different communication modes coming in on your laptop – it’s quite stressful, actually.

Nickie: I didn’t have to turn anything on, which was great. We found we were pretty bad at Zoom as a business – we had some practice runs before we went into lockdown and it took forty minutes to work out if everyone had got on or not. So we’ve ended up doing Whatsapp video most of the time, or calling. 

Listening to Em, I’m glad I’m master of my own destiny – I never have people put things in my diary that I don’t know about.

Did you always get changed out of your pyjamas?

Nickie: I had a routine that carried on pretty much the same. I’d get up, shower, walk the dog, breakfast. I didn’t get dressed for work in the same way, but I’d definitely get dressed.

Emily: I was in my yoga kit. Loads of corporate people have their zoom shirts, but who knows what else. In the office I wear lots of smart shoes – pointy patent pumps – but now I’m finding my feet have spread from wearing flipflops and clogs during lockdown – and I can’t get my corporate shoes on any more. I don’t think I ever will.

Bev: I’ve lost the mascara – in fact I had to put it under the tap before I put it on tonight – but the eye liner had to stay.

I ask what Covid19 has made them most grateful for.

Emily: Space. I really feel grateful for being in the country and having a garden. 

Bev: Having the community. Actual real human beings to whom you can say hello.

Nickie: Popping out to see my neighbour and chatting. Swapping jam and apples and all those nice things that are part of being a village.

I say that they’ve clearly all had a radically different working experience since March, and ask if they’re glad to have had the experience of working from home?

Nickie: I have loved it, and I think we’ve all demonstrated how successful it can be. During lockdown we did a whole new flour packaging that’s now on the shelves in the supermarkets. I was working with the designer, the printers etc, and none of us saw each other face to face, or even mock-up packs. And yet it went through and is looking great.

The new wfh packaging

Emily: I think it’s been a really good experience and has taught us a lot; including, I have to say, the value of good internet. It’s really made you see how important the infrastructure and 4G are to rural communities.

Bev: Definitely agree; particularly in the evenings, when BT just say, ‘Well people are streaming lots of movies.’ I’ve got sessions that get cut off or I lose the volume or they lose me – and it’s intensely frustrating at the end of the day when you’re knackered anyway to have the internet decide to pack up. For me this is the difference between successfully running the business and not. So, come on BT, up your game. If we can all do it, why can’t you? 

But, internet problems aside it’s certainly broadened my horizons, and it’s nice to know that I can do it all from the comfort of my sofa. 

Emily: It also gives you a lot more flexibility, and means your job opportunities could be different. If you can work from home, you can work anywhere. 

Bev: Very true. I have a client in Scotland who’s just started and when I asked why she picked me she said a couple of nice things, then added, ‘I knew I needed to work on line so why not just pick a person I wanted to work with and not be constrained by place.’ So that’s a real positive.

What are you looking forward to when, one day, we hopefully all come out of this?

Emily: Sashimi

Nickie: Going to a gorgeous, warm tropical beach.

E, N, B: Travel and going to the theatre

I ask if they’re looking forward to hugging again.

Emily: Well, that’s a thing. Maybe I won’t now have my Swiss colleagues diving in for four kisses. Maybe business etiquette will have changed permanently and we can all just carry on with the ‘Hello’. I don’t like all the kissing in the office, it was quite a thing; you have no idea. 

You’re just sitting in your office, minding your own business, and before you know it these French or Swiss – it’s more the Swiss – before you know it you’re like, hold on, this is work, I shouldn’t have to and you know, you’ve got to get the left, right, left, right and they put their hands on your shoulder because they know you might be trying to get away. 

So, all that international etiquette, I think it will be a good thing if we can all not kiss, not handshake, none of it, we can all just nod hello.

When we’ve all stopped laughing…

Bev: I think touch is important but it’s also very important for people to respect other’s boundaries. And since those boundaries have been put very firmly in place now, it will be interesting to see whether we bend them again.

Nickie: Personally, I love hugging.

And community, has all this changed your feelings about it?

Emily: Well it’s made you really appreciate friendship, human contact and your colleagues. All that sort of thing.

When we could still Piddlehinton party…

Nickie: And your neighbours. I think we must have all cared about community already, otherwise we wouldn’t have chosen to live in a village. If it’s not so important to you, perhaps you go for a more anonymous town. 

I think it would be lovely to get back to the village breakfast and of course the fete. Everyone’s been so supportive of each other, but obviously we haven’t been able to all get together as a village.

Bev: And when we do, there will be such a community and togetherness feeling, because people know more about other people now.

I suggest that we should have a massive picnic on the Millenium Green, which doesn’t involve a lot of organisation because everyone just turns up with their own picnic stuff.

Nickie: That’s a great idea, you could be chair.

No, I say firmly, no committee. It’s a nominated day and everyone just rocks up.

Emily: You’re right, things without committees might be nice.

Finally, I ask, has lockdown made you view about life in a different way? “And this is where, ladies, I’m hoping you’re going to talk about love…”

And it is at this point, dear readers, that I can only wish you had been there; for the tumbleweed silence, followed by guffaws of laughter. But I’m afraid that as this is a blog about wfh, and there was a lawyer, a psychotherapist and a PR present, I am not allowed to reveal any of the conversation that followed (involving more about Negronis, fish and chips and on-line dating). 

But I will say that it pretty much summed up the joy of being in the company of these three wonderful women. Who were all, I’m delighted to report, extremely complementary about my cushions. 

Some of the other fancy footwork on show – along with a material dog

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