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My flexible working story: why I am based at home

Caz Brett

Senior Product Manager, Design + Engineering

I think if you’d told me five years ago that I would be working completely remotely, I definitely wouldn’t have believed you.

I was the person who dragged their feet into the office between 10.30 and 11am and didn’t leave until about 8 or 9pm. I was the person who treasured being able to work from home on Thursdays but worried endlessly what people were thinking about me being at home, and worked through lunch hastily responding to any small alert on my phone just in case it was something work-related, paranoid that not replying would be the undoing of me. In the office I felt rushed, stressed, and anxious.

I had years of people telling me that I was “lucky” to be able to work from home one day a week. Lots of this apparent jealously seemed to stem from an admission from these same people that they “wouldn’t be able to do it”, and would go so far as to suggest that people who worked from home were actually bunking off.

I feel it’s quite important to make that point. Bunking off. As if, by being in the office you are suddenly incapable of taking a two-hour lunch break or three 45-minute coffee breaks with colleagues that definitely aren’t friends that you will chat to about anything but work. As if being physically seen gives you something that not being physically seen doesn’t.

I think it’s fear. People are scared of what happens when they have to control their environment and don’t applaud themselves for ‘turning up’ and considering the job done. And this fear perpetuates a myth that remote workers are all lazy do-for-nothings. I can tell you, fast forward to now — nearly two years since I started working remotely — I have NEVER been more busy at work. I start at 9.30, sometimes earlier, and I finish at about half 5. I’m not anxious, I’m not stressed, and I am taking the time to enjoy what I do.

So why did I apply for flexible working? What prompted this complete overhaul that leads me to my current “lucky” remote working status? Is it all it’s cracked up to be, cocktails on the beach and unlimited Netflix? Well, on the last bit, short answer — no. Long answer — hahahahahaha. No. I mean, for starters, I don’t have a Netflix account (and I could enter here some rubbish about it being because I work for the BBC and iPlayer is fabulous which, whilst it might be true, isn’t the reason — I simply don’t get a lot of pleasure from watching TV. There. I said it. Why do I work at the BBC, I hear you ask? Sure. Well, the BBC is actually more than just TV. It’s ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’. It’s the BBC Weather app. It’s satellites and hardware and awesome branding. Anyway, I digress). Let’s get to it. Why did I apply for flexible working? Plenty of reasons, and here are a few.

Reason #1: because I can

On June 30th 2014, flexible working in the UK was forever changed with the introduction of a few legal changes. It meant that anyone who had worked at a company for over 6 months could apply for flexible working, and employers have to use one of 8 justifications to deny the request. If it’s reasonable, there is no way they can refuse just because they don’t like it. Which is great news if you want to explore options to work from home more, or shift your hours around, or work part-time to fit in caring duties, or a hobby, or anything else.

Before this, the only people who were eligible to apply for flexible working options were parents with children under the age of 17 and carers. What’s interesting about this is that there is often a perception that these people working part-time around carer or parental duties are women. And if that’s what you assumed, you’ll be surprised to hear that more men have flexible working arrangements than women. Interesting, huh?

Anyway. So, the law changed, and I could apply for flexible working. I should probably exaggerate here that the law changed so I was ABLE TO APPLY for flexible working — nothing in the law grants me the right to have it though. Luckily, I have a supportive team and a supportive manager at work who were open to trying it out. In fact, it was my manager who first suggested that a flexible working arrangement might help me.

Reason #2: the dreaded commute

The Central Line from Mile End is absolute mayhem from about 7.45am until about 10.15am. Remember when I said that a few years ago I rolled in at about 10.30 or 11am? That wasn’t because I particularly wanted to, but it was more because otherwise I ended up getting to work completely stressed out and on the verge of an anxious breakdown. And I wouldn’t leave the office until late, so I’d be hungry and sad.

On a work day at home, I jump out of bed between 8 and 8.30 and start between 9 and 9.30am. I finish at 5.30pm. And then I can kick back and read a book or cook something tasty for dinner immediately, because I haven’t got an hour of a hellish commute to look forward to. I can finally work similar hours to everyone else, less stressed, less anxious, and without wrestling with some tourists’ backpack as someone else spills coffee down my leg and there isn’t anything I can do about it. And one thing I’ve noticed — I’ve been far less ill since I stopped commuting every day. Apparently stress can make you more susceptible to illness. Apparently so can standing in a train with 200 strangers every day. Take from that what you will.

Reason #3: orthostatic hypotension

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a habit of fainting. I once had to take the day off school because I fell back onto the concrete floor at home and luckily didn’t break my skull open. As I’ve gotten older, I recognise the signs I’m about to pass out a lot better and I can tell when a fainting episode is coming. I went to see the doctor when I was in my teens, but he dismissed it as nothing but ‘little girl syndrome’. I’m still wondering what on earth he meant by that.

In 2016 I fainted in the hallway at home and as I passed out, I felt my body jerk uncontrollably. Terrified I was having a fit, I called my GP (thankfully not the doctor from my teens) and had all sorts of checks carried out. I had an MRI, which was just a lot of loud banging, and I had my heart examined. Thankfully a heart condition was ruled out, as was epilepsy. I was then referred to the hospital in Paddington to take what’s called a tilt table test. You’re strapped onto a bed with a metal plate at the bottom, so they can raise you to standing and you rest your feet on the metal plate. The test is simple. You lie down for 5 minutes in a slightly darkened room, and then you are raised to standing whilst tied to the bed. Your heart rate and blood pressure are monitored throughout and someone sits there for the whole time tapping away at a computer. You stand there in the room for 20 minutes, and then you leave. That’s it. You just stand there. How is this even a test? I thought to myself. I stand all the time. I am a champion at standing. Someone probably applauded the first time I managed it, but since then it’s just part of my daily life.

So I lie there, happy as larry. And then the bed is raised. And it’s all fine, the woman tapping away at her keyboard, tap-tap-tap. Then suddenly — it is NOT okay anymore. I’m feeling a bit weird, a bit warm. Then I’m feeling a weird headache. And nauseous — oh wow, so, so nauseous. “I feel sick,” I tell the woman, “I feel really sick. Can I lay back down?” Nothing, not even a glance. Tap-tap-tap. “No really I feel weird,” I say, beginning to sweat profusely. Still no response. It’s like this for about two minutes, when suddenly my vision begins to darken and my hearing gets muffled and — just like that, the bed suddenly goes back to flat, my vision starts to return, and I feel SO much better.

“You passed out after two minutes and thirty four seconds,” she says, smiling at me. SMILING at me, after she heartlessly ignored my pleas for help.

I walk out of the room with a few things: finally, a diagnosis, and a much better understanding of what’s going on with my body. It turns out the blood is pooling at the bottom of my body when I stand, and my blood pressure isn’t strong enough to push it back up so my body just cuts out; my heart stops and my blood pressure drops. “It’s the body’s way of restarting,” she says to me, “it’s cool.” And she’s right, it is kind of cool. And it suddenly starts to explain the anxiety attacks I have on the commute into work — suddenly feeling hot and sick and needing to get off the train. Turns out, whilst there may have been an anxiety there, it actually stemmed from a medical condition which I hadn’t known about. It means I need to sit down if I’m doing a longer journey on the tube, and if it’s rush hour, I won’t be able to stand still without being able to move for longer than a couple of minutes. So in part, the diagnosis of this condition allowed me to explore flexible working; a way for me to avoid commuting altogether. I can imagine that there are plenty of happy people on the Central Line who are pleased I no longer hold up their journey by being one of those ‘passengers taken ill on a train’ that makes everyone in London so angry.

Reason #4: desk space is like gold dust

Most of my stakeholders are in other offices across the BBC, and even if they’re in the same office, the majority of my work is done over the phone or over Skype. It’s rare for me to go to a meeting in person. So what’s the point in me taking up space that should be going to people who need a specific set up? If I can take my calls from anywhere, then I can vacate a space for someone who needs it. In the office we don’t have enough desk space for everyone to have their own. We run out of meeting spaces and quiet booths to make calls — because everyone wants to find somewhere private to have a chat. Not only can I free up rooms I’d otherwise take for my private chats, I can have as much space as I need and I don’t need to clear my desk at the end of the day. Any space I’d occupy in the office goes to the people that need their equipment at a fixed desk, and my private calls can be taken whilst sitting at home. I no longer need to run around the office panicking as I try and find a quiet spot. At mine, everywhere is a quiet spot.

Reason #5: I am a catering nightmare

“Do you have any dietary requirements?” is a question that I hate. Mostly because it’s quite a challenge to cater for me, and I feel very guilty about it. I’m a gluten-free vegetarian. Where can I eat for lunch that is safe? Er…well, not many places. Remembering to bring in a packed lunch is a faff, and takes up space that’s already filled with all the things I’m already carting around with me. At home all I need to do is go to the kitchen, open the fridge, and voila — a safe haven of uncontaminated food where I don’t have to politely wait for 15 minutes to check if something has gluten in it, only to get a blank stare and then 5 minutes of quiet whispering in the kitchen before I get the standard “we can’t guarantee our food is allergen free” and sigh before playing russian roulette with the salad options. It’s much safer for me, and much less stressful for the people who might be going for lunch with me, to just eat at home where I know I’m going to be a-okay. Plus, it’s so much cheaper!

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It’s worth saying that even now, two years in, many people I speak to on the phone don’t even realise that I’m working remotely. Things haven’t changed drastically, and I’m perfectly able to manage my team and my workload without feeling the need to go into an office.

I think it’s quite important to share my story because flexible working isn’t just about childcare and being a carer. It’s about a whole new approach to working. It’s not flexible working at all, really — it’s alternative working. There’s actually nothing flexible about it, it’s just a different kind of arrangement that works better for me. For other people, those water cooler moments might help motivate them, or maybe being in a fancy location surrounded by bustling crowds or office ‘banter’. Maybe they prefer to only be there part-time and maybe that’s how to get the best out of them. It just happens that what’s best for me isn’t being in the office 9–5.

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Caz works at the BBC as a Senior Product Manager and has been working remotely since 2017. You can find out more about the BBC’s approach to flexible working by having a look here: https://www.bbc.com/backstage/design-engineering/flexible-working

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