Here’s the scene: I am half way through a three-hour Zoom meeting, my five-year-old daughter is cutting her Barbie doll’s hair for the fourth time even though I have warned her the doll’s hair will not grow back. My 11-year-old son is sitting opposite me, moving my four cups of half-finished tea to the side while trying to get my attention by mouthing, “How do you say I like to build Lego in Afrikaans”.
My camera is on so I look ever the consummate professional, but my head is spinning and I am ready to tell the colleague on the other side to mute his mic for the sixth time because I can’t deal with that WhatsApp notification tone.
While all this is going on, I remember that I need to cook supper and hand signal to my son that it is viennas and rolls tonight, which is met with an eye roll from Edward Scissorhands on the floor.
While it might seem like I don’t have my ‘shyt’ together, I actually do. This is just a normal day in my new normal life. Now I am not a big drinker, but right now I could do with a bottle of home-brewed pineapple beer to get me through the day. My home is no longer my safe haven.
While I have worked from home for a number of years, this version of working from home is something out of a bad sci-fi movie. I am reliving the same day over and over, just with good wi-fi to surf for memes to cheer me up.
Before Covid-19, I enjoyed working from home. I had my days perfectly planned out. Get up at 5am, check urgent emails, do a morning workout, make school lunches, get kids up at 6:30am, get them off to school by 8am, and get back home in time for my 8:30am team check-in via Skype.
My meetings and work time were perfectly balanced. I would break at 12:45pm, race to get kids from school and be back by 1:45pm. Kids would settle in, do their homework, run wild outside and allow me to carry on with my work day. By 5pm I would do my final team check in, close the computer and continue my duties as a mother and wife.
Now all my neighbours are here. Some with far too much money because home renovations are never ending; some have rediscovered their love for rock music and want the entire neighbourhood to listen. Others have decided home-schooling consists of 80% outside time for their rather vocal kids and 20% being indoors learning. I have a ‘Karen’ in my street WhatsApp group who constantly updates us on the load shedding schedule and sells Avon products.
But it’s not just that. I am now a cleaner, nanny, wife, teacher, friend…and yes, a senior manager with a strategic portfolio that I need to excel at.
Many of us have realised (as nicely put in this tweet) that we are not working from home; we are in fact, living at work.
The day isn’t divided into parts anymore. It isn’t getting ready, going to work, coming back home. It’s getting up, working, doing other home stuff, working some more, doing more home stuff, going to sleep, and dreaming about working.
Doing right by employees
My organisation has tried to do right by the employees by making allowances for the new situation. It was has been swift in its response to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown regulations.
We have been equipped with internet access via 3G dongles or compensated financially if we use our own internet. For those needing equipment such as laptops, etc to work from home, this has happened. We have also been allowed to shift our working times to accommodate this sudden change. But when you have four meetings lined up a day lasting an hour to two hours each, you soon run out of hours to just live.
We also know we’re lucky to be able to work while fighting to #flattenthecurve, but it comes at a cost even to us.
Our homes have turned into offices. Where some of us had a desk in a room which served as the office space, now the entire home has become a combination of extension cords and chargers, sheets of papers and scattered pencils and in between, you will find a place to sit that might or might not be a couch…I can’t tell anymore with all the juice stains.
For many, we are being forced to provide our own workspaces, and companies have taken over personal spaces, taking the use of employee’s homes for granted, ignoring the gendered aspects of closing schools and keeping children at home.
Over the past few months, as the economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying surge in domestic violence so there’s also the concern of domestic violence and homes not being a safe zone to live in, nor work in.
Struggle to find space
Many of my colleagues struggle to find space. Some only have one table or desk-like surface in the house, and some have none.
If I compare myself to a colleague, she sits on a chair and places her laptop on a drawer that is like a desk, while her kids and the nanny move freely in the flat. Another colleague essentially works from the kitchen. His desk is sandwiched between the kitchen and lounge, which is the only available spot for it. Sometimes when we have meetings, I can hear the washing machine in the background. Another colleague uses her dining room table as her office space, which she has to share with her husband as he is also working from home.
When we’re all going into the office, these lifestyle circumstances are mostly irrelevant. Now that we have no choice about working from home, some of them mean a severe degradation in the employee’s working conditions.
There’s nothing flexible about these arrangements when you have nowhere else to go. Instead of making work more comfortable, today’s circumstances risk making home much less so.
There is the illusion that because someone is working from home, the breaks can be done away with. That’s not fair. While everyone who has the option of staying inside, is beyond grateful for the opportunity, it does get a bit overwhelming to be at it, constantly. If you work from home and don’t set boundaries, you will be consumed by it.
Sometimes I retreat to my car to listen to Judy Boucher’s Can’t Be With You Tonight on repeat while scoffing down a packet of Flings just to have some ‘me time’.
In my line of work, we pride ourselves on flexibility and adaptability. Right now, that means overcoming emotionally difficult circumstances and getting the job done.
Safe spaces no more
We used to think of our homes as safe spaces, refuges from the difficulties of long days and demanding bosses and clients, and now we’ve lost that. In an office, you have corners where you can go and concentrate. But at home, children and spouses will find you no matter where you go.
Even though I aspire to be a good boss, the fact is that my team and I are all paying a high price for safety in these abnormal times.
I’ve heard many people say working from home should be the norm when this crisis ends, but it’s different when you have no choice. Who will benefit if working from home becomes the post-pandemic norm? Permanent remote work cannot take place at the corner of a kitchen table peering into a laptop while perched on a stool.
Regardless of whether people are familiar or not with WFH, it seems that most of us are finding the current situation difficult.
I know that my colleagues and I are lucky to be able to carry out our core business and keep our jobs and our salaries. Even as we acknowledge our privilege, we mustn’t ignore that we’ve still sacrificed our homes as safe havens.
Working from home? Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others.
Charis Apelgren-Coleman is the market engagement manager at Kagiso Media Radio. She has worked with small and large local organisations as well as large multinational organisations, while managing specialist content teams.
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