Get used to it: working from home may be for life, not just for Christmas

In 2018, a man in Germany slipped on his way to work. The fall broke one of his vertebrae, and as such his workplace insurance was obliged to pay out for the accident. This wasn’t your average commute, though: the man was walking between his bedroom and his home office when he fell on the spiral staircase between the two rooms. Against the protestations of his company’s insurer, Germany’s federal social court ruled last week that the journey, less than a minute and inside the man’s own home, counted as a workplace accident.

Although the accident took place before the pandemic, the verdict comes at just the right moment: it feels like the latest brick removed from the wall that separates the home from the workplace. Last week Boris Johnson announced yet another return to home working in England, where possible. Just as many businesses had finally got their heads around hybrid working, or indeed had mandated a full return for workers, a large proportion of the country has now had to turn around again.

Perhaps you have fallen back into the smothering embrace of your dressing gown; flopped the grubby mouse mat back on the kitchen table; resisted the temptation to work from a fully horizontal position in bed rather than pay for extra daytime heating; gone back to having to stand in front of the bathroom mirror breathing deeply for several minutes at a time and reminding yourself it is not a moral failure that your partner keeps putting her teaspoons in the sink instead of in the dishwasher, and you can absolutely get past this enraging and thoughtless thing and that it doesn’t matter that she uses all seven of them every day, which means you have to wash one individually each time you want to make a hot drink, and that you love her and this is your life that you chose and you like it, you like it, you like it.

The very earliest, sort-of-exciting days of working from home seem unimaginably long ago now. “I’m always at home!” quickly became something more like “I’m always at work!” or even, “I’m not really anywhere, I increasingly consider myself a mere flesh vessel for a consciousness that exists on Slack!” And now here we are yet again, back at home working, back at what feels uncomfortably like square one or, more and more, like an interminable game of Whac-A-Mole in which, as soon as we are allowed to poke our heads above ground, we get unceremoniously thumped back inside.

After almost two years, nobody has the energy for more discussion about whether working from home is good or bad. Everyone except Tory MPs whose friends own office buildings and power-drunk bosses would now accept that working from home is both good and bad. But what is noticeable, and different, is the feeling in the air that has accompanied the recommendations this time around.

Whereas previous WFH mandates, socialising restrictions and even full lockdowns have felt like temporary measures in our effort to work towards something closer to pre-Covid normality, this time, since most people have had the all-important vaccines, the prevailing mood is one of a dull realisation that this may just be how we live now. Covid briefings are back, as are the war and natural disaster metaphors, the scrabbling for tests and booster appointments, the dark talk of a January lockdown. When I hugged my friends goodbye after lunch on Sunday we hugged a little longer, unsure when we may see each other again. And this unease feels like just one stage of a cycle we are dismayingly familiar with, the part where restrictions are creeping back and every day feels slightly worse than the one before.

When I asked people I know how they felt about leaving the office and going back to working from home, some of them were glad. They enjoy the short commute, more time with their partners, a later alarm in the morning. And some of them were not glad, annoyed by their lack of a home office, lack of routine, lack of connection-making opportunities with colleagues. The old satisfactions, the old complaints. But almost everyone this time around also expressed resignation to the grinding, repetitive inevitability of it.

I once read that when explorers trek over the Ross ice shelf in Antarctica, the vast emptiness of the landscape means the next range of mountains looks so close it seems that the travellers could reach it any moment, whereas in fact they are several hundred miles away. I have often thought about this over the past two years, in the moments when everything seemed ready to get better and then didn’t and the temptation was simply to lie down and die on the tundra rather than face another five months of your housemate’s rancid little experiments in lunch.

And then I have tried not to think about it. Trying not to think about it too much is probably the only sanity-preserving way to deal with the merry-go-round of Covid restrictions at the moment. That and investing in a better laptop stand.

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