I’ll take the office, darling
We wanted to explore working from home, but in a way that didn’t just explore the ‘nuts and bolts’ of working from home, but instead anchored working from home in the present time (Covid lockdown No. 3) and in the context of the lives of our respondents. As a pre-task, we asked respondents to find three to four images which expressed a different thought or feeling about working from home. We conducted hour interviews over Zoom based on what those images represented.
Big events shake our identities in unimaginable ways. It makes us question who we are, where we are headed and what we want out of life. For the office based worker,Covid has been the bringer of chaos, throwing him or her into unexpected and repeated isolation from colleagues and forcing them to adapt into managing their work lives exclusively from within the confines of their homes. Some of the benefits and drawbacks of this are obvious; less time and expense in commuting, but also less social contact. Other outcomes are less obvious, deeper and more psychological and highly gendered.
Before Covid struck, the ability to separate different aspects of their identity (keep things in their boxes, or ‘compartmentalising ’ was how they described it), had been fundamental to the ability of married women with children with an office based or executive role to maintain control over the different areas of their lives and avoid the panic-inducing ‘juggling’ between roles, which, they said, had the power to make them feel overwhelmed simultaneously across multiple dimensions.
One lady showed us a picture of a stormy sea to show how she felt in late March 2020:
"I don't feel I was prepared mentally or physically for that scenario that we were thrown into, because I feel like we were thrown into that scenario. The way I'd run my life before was by having that separation from the rest of my family. Separation with them going out the house, when I worked at home on my own. When I went out to the office, I didn't feel we had separation anymore. So we were all together in it, being bashed around."
Commuting, whether full time or part time, and other regular trips ferrying children to and from school or nursery, whilst not always pleasant or stress free, had previously acted as enablers for other journeys of the more emotional and psychological variety between roles.
Another young mother found herself trying to recreate the commute with her husband.
"Actually the commute really broke up the day it meant that there was this very clear distinction between your home life and your work life. And actually, I started trying to go for a walk in the morning before I would sit down at my desk to almost kind of recreate a commute and then at 6pm, Chris and I would, at 6:30 at night or whenever we finished, we would try and go for a walk then as well to sort of mark the end of the day. Because it felt important to clear your head and, and just yet separate the two worlds."
In our research, it was striking that all the married women with school age children, and all of those present as characters in the stories from our married men, found themselves displaced not only from their desk in the office, but also from any temporary or occasional home office they had previously available.
"I got unseated from the computer room. And I used to move around the house and work from different rooms. And I found that very uncomfortable."
"But every morning, I have to reset everything up. Because we take everything off this table during the evening. So we can actually eat at the table. So that's a real faff. So during the day just kind of becomes my area where I work. And [husband] has kind of the the other room the bedroom, which is a bedroom come office."
Whilst the womenfolk were battling to negotiate the different roles in their lives (mother, teacher, worker, etc.) whilst having to work permanently from home, the men in their lives made it a lot more clear cut. They found a space; the most ‘office like’ space in the house. They then equipped that space (monitors, office chairs, headphones), they shut the door (one told us he had a lock fitted to avoid being disturbed) and put an invisible sign on the door: ‘do not disturb, genius at work!’.
One showed us an image of the noise cancelling headphones he had invested in:
"There were times I think, where we were kind of that the sounds of us working home, we're kind of bleeding into each other's working lives from time to time. So I invested in this pair of headphones just to help me achieve that…. just to, to cut out that kind of exterior. noise and distraction."
At least initially, and for the majority of the first lockdown, the women made do with the kitchen worktop or dining room table; having to swiftly convert these areas back and forth between a workable office during the day and a family space during the evenings, whilst simultaneously coping with the needs of children of various shapes and sizes.
Therefore, in not even having a clear separation of spaces in the home, these women were doubly denied the opportunity to clearly define and separate the different areas of their lives, and this was unsettling.
"When the storm happened, I didn't feel that I was either being a good mum or being a good worker. I couldn't focus on any one thing. And my employer wasn't helping me put any structure back into my life because they were expecting me to still work for them eight plus hours. And the kids really needed me to be with them for half of that day. I was really struggling with that; finding a way to make a structure work for me."
And separation of spaces is important. Behavioural research has shown that even crossing through a doorway from one room in the house to another can have a significant impact on one's state of mind. One of the reasons we can’t recall where we left the car keys is because once we’ve left that room (where they are) we ‘switch off’ the mental map for that room and move on to the next one.
One of our respondents talked about having ‘nowhere to go’, and this was as much mentally or psychologically as physically related to where she was living.
"It's more physically, probably more mentally slightly but if you kind of want that timeout in space in the evening, there is just nowhere to go. We have one communal room. So, it's just wanting to have that space where you can be with your own thoughts."
What was striking about our conversations, was that there was:
There was no argument, even a discussion around who should have ‘the office’ / prime working space - it wasn’t even questioned
Both partners just accepted that this was the best solution in the circumstances
Even during our interviews, there was no reflection that this was anything but normal
And it wasn’t that the men were necessarily earning more than their wives or had more senior roles. Our female respondents included a senior civil engineer, a Director of an international online trading platform and a Senior Manager for a large bank. None of the women appeared to be submissive or feeble. One described herself as a feminist activist.
It was as if, overnight, these families had reverted back to the times of their parents or grandparents with each parent taking on traditional gender roles in the home, It was as if, the stress; the chaos from the Pandemic felt like being in a war which forced people to pull together and therefore everyone does what they need to do. It was an automatic response none of our respondents realised or questioned whether this switch was appropriate in 2020.
It may well be that the women felt that they were better able than their husbands to cope with the uncertainty and the multi-tasking. Certainly for the younger, 22 year old unmarried woman in our sample, when her mother was taken briefly into hospital with Coronavirus symptoms, she felt it was her role to take over as ‘mum’. She became the ‘whale’ in one of her images, coming to the rescue of the derailed train:
"Dad was also working full time for [university] . [my brother] was not dealing well with the fact the mum was in hospital. He was really upset about it. I was at full time college, obviously online, but also having to be Mum, like, do the food and do the washing and stuff."
None of the married women we spoke with want to go back to working full time in an office. None of them particularly miss travelling to and from work, even whilst acknowledging that this used to break up the day for them. But for all of them, work is a huge part of who they are.
You know, I can't imagine myself…. one of the things that I was and still am extremely grateful for in terms of having a job is the fact that it gives me a structure to my day. It gives me a reason to get up in the morningand to get washed and get dressed and to be productive and useful and valued.
Equally, none of these married women are discontent either with their partners or their families. They all said that the pandemic had made family relationships closer; particularly between fathers and children.
But one senses there is an internal struggle going on to separate and define different roles:
“So it's obviously work, and childcare. Being a parent or whatever you want to call it, I think my sister told me off the other day for saying that I babysat my own child. Parenting might be a better word.”
So, what does this all mean?
The discussions around the gender pay gap and the need for women to be represented at the highest level within organisations are ongoing.
Professor Higgins, at the end of My Fair Lady (for which one is almost surprised that there isn’t a trigger warning these days) asks, ‘Why can’t a woman, be more like a man?’
If some of the glass ceilings remain, the doors to the office have been open to women for decades now, but office life has typically been, at best, accommodating to the particular needs of married women with children, rather than best adapted to them.
As part of growing a healthier and sustainable society as we all plan to build back better, now seems the time for businesses to provide more flexible working options for everyone.
Findings taken from a study on Working From Home conducted by Cappuccino Research using the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) method