Recently, I moved my desk to somewhere in my house with more air and natural light. I’d been happily working away for most of the last few years in my bedroom. I didn’t believe those who said you shouldn’t work where you sleep. It worked perfectly for me. Until one day it didn’t.
That day I woke up and realised I could do better than this. Better than squeezing past the clunky, black ergonomically-advantageous office chair to get to the drawers and the hair dryer. Better than going to sleep with the laptop flickering because I’d sometimes forget to shut it down. Books were piled up on all surfaces including the windowsill, while the miscellaneous clutter of work life was strewn about everywhere.
I had grown intensely fond of my Bedoffice over the past few years and then I was suddenly sick of the sight of it. It was easily sorted, of course. It only took about five minutes to locate my inner Marie Kondo and then an hour to declutter all the debris, shelve the books, move the desk to a corner in the sittingroom at the front of the house. Now I sit and work where the late September light shines in from a window. Dust mites dancing, clouds passing. I can see neighbours taking dogs for walks or kids heading to school and watch, as I work, the urbane unfolding of north inner-city Dublin life. A man across the road is cutting wood with an electric saw as I type this. I thought the noise would be distracting but it’s an oddly comforting buzz.
It took being out of the office for an extended period, because of the pandemic, to understand how for me that work environment had always felt unnatural, punitive and oppressive
Just as I had finished my relocation, there was a knock on the door. A delivery man stood there with a bunch of flowers of cheering colours, lilacs and mauves and pinks. They were thank you flowers, and I took them as a sign that my relocation was wise. I got the Good Vase from the cupboard, filled it with water and put the flowers on my desk. “There, now,” I said out loud to nobody in particular. “Thank you,” I said out loud to the kind sender of flowers.
I think it was all the talk in the ether about The Big Return to the Office that prompted the desk relocation. It made me jittery. Forced me to take stock of my surroundings and take action to make them better. I’m not an office person, I know that now. But it took being out of the office for an extended period, because of the pandemic, to understand how for me that work environment had always felt unnatural, punitive and oppressive.
With a bit of distance, I can see that I associated it with a stressful existence. When I think back on that life in all the offices I’ve worked in, I remember the slightly crumpled faces of people who had rushed to the office in the morning, sometimes from hours away, on packed trains and buses. I’d meet them in the lift at the end of the day, in harried panic, in a race to beat traffic or commuting crowds to collect children from childcare only to go home to prepare quick dinners, eaten in a rush. I remember the workaholics who stayed in the office too long making other people worry that they should be staying longer too. I remember knowing I did better work at home, at night, when I was free to fully concentrate without the distractions of office life. My daily commute – a few minutes on my bike – was laughably free from stress but if you are the creative sort, an office can sometimes feel like a prison. Each to their own, I suppose. If you really love admin and meetings and the office furniture aesthetic, it probably feels like heaven.
Early on in the pandemic, jubilant about being out of the office for an indefinite period, I remember googling, “who invented the office?”. It brought me to a 10-year-old article by Lucy Kellaway about her BBC Radio 4 series on the history of office life.
I sit here, smelling the roses, looking at the world through my window. Working happy. Feeling lucky
“The office itself seems to have no history,” she wrote. “We all just seem to accept the way we work now. There’s the charade of the annual appraisal. All those grim PowerPoint presentations in interminable meetings. The open-plan offices where we overhear colleagues phoning their plumbers. But why? How did we get here?”
How did we get here, is always a good question. And hearing recently about some friends and some strangers being forced back into offices for no good reason, I find myself asking: why are some organisations so keen to go back?
During the pandemic, Scottish-based Chris Herd emerged as a remote working guru. His Twitter threads about why more and more companies are choosing remote-first working policies make fascinating reading. One of the many reasons, apart from profitability and productivity, is quality of life. “Companies are realising that they don’t need to expect workers to waste two hours a day commuting to sit in an office chair for eight hours. Almost every company we talk to believes that their workers will be happier as a result of remote work.”
Happier workers. Imagine. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t run a company, being both allergic to admin and not good with money, but if I ran a company, that’s what I would prioritise. I would ask workers: what makes you happy? I would understand that making them happy would make them even better at doing their jobs. I sit here, smelling the roses, looking at the world through my window. Working happy. Feeling lucky.