March 16, 2021

A year on

A year ago, I was told to vacate the office and start working from home. I expected it to last several weeks or a few months, at most. I also expected it to be fun. Working from home is fun. Conducting every meeting, every discussion, every personal interaction of any kind, for months on end, through the virtual keyhole that is Zoom is a bit less so.

I've adapted surprisingly well, in some respects. I talk to my children more frequently now than I did before the pandemic, for example, and I've slowly assembled a very comfortable working environment in one of our spare bedrooms. But I can also count quite a few costs: I've lost a year in my seven-year-old granddaughter's life. I miss being able to hug my kids, something I now realise I did far too infrequently before the pandemic. (Let that be a lesson: Hug while you can.)

And the cost has been too high for society. The number of visitors to the food bank I volunteer at has grown more than five fold in the past year, with long queues of desperate people pushed over the edge, forced to choose between eating and keeping the lights on or paying the rent.

Beyond the obvious changes, though, there has been a more subtle shift, so gradual that I've almost missed it. My days flow through my various "roles" more fluidly than before.

I wake up, go for a jog around the neighbourhood, hop on a stand-up meeting on zoom, then pop a load of laundry in. I work for a bit, then have a tea with my wife, maybe in the garden if the weather's nice. Over lunch, I pop down to the shops and catch up with the neighbour. In the afternoon, I might have to sort something for the food bank, in between bouts of work or meetings. After dinner, I might take another stab at some of the home-automation software I've been working on, or have a zoom with the family, or answer that work email.

I am almost certainly more productive at work, and put in similar (or more) hours, but my various roles are braided through my day.

I imagine this is how it's like to be a farmer. One minute, you are milking the cows, the next you're fixing the roof on the house, or helping the kids with schoolwork. Life is one big lump, with no sharp lines.

To be sure, that can be a bad thing: no boundaries between life and work can lead to burnout. But I think that's a danger only if you mix up the priorities. You can see the old assumptions in the post I made on the day (linked above). I took as given the rigid separation between my work-me and me-me, and vowing to keep the boxes separate. But, really, all my roles are important and have their place and time: husband, father, son, software engineer, neighbour, volunteer.

We just have to learn to relax into that. We are a complicated whole, made up of many personal and economic connections. Without that sharp change of location, with the commute between, that web of roles and links has become more obvious. Maybe the stress we feel is that we fail to embrace all those parts of us.

Life would be boring, if it was easy. I'm glad that it's a year on and I'm still trying to get the hang of this. I'm still learning.