Office or home? The pleasure and pain of lockdown working

By Lucy Hooker
Business reporter, BBC News

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For over a year anyone who has been able to, has been asked to do their job from home. And for many that has meant a whole catalogue of challenges from fitting work around home schooling to shooing the cat off your keyboard.

While there was money to be saved on bus fares, the heating bill has gone up.

And while the pressure was off to wash your hair, it's been lonely at times too.

So with many offices now gradually inviting staff back, we wanted to know how people are feeling about the return.

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'It's been great to wear trousers again'

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Ashley Wright has just had his first proper day back in the office for over a year.

"The biggest buzz was getting up knowing you were going to leave the house," he says.

He works on the sales team at a firm making alarm systems at Crowborough, East Sussex. While the production team has been in, he's worked from home for a year and has had enough.

"I kept pestering and pestering," he says. Eventually, even though the rest of his team is still working from home, they let him back,

He spent so much time in his pyjamas over the last year, once he accidentally went to Tesco's wearing them. Now he's happy just to be putting on proper trousers and shoes again.

Getting on the (still empty) train and walking back into a building full of colleagues was "uplifting" he says. Better still, he now gets to leave his laptop at the office, so work doesn't take over every waking hour.

"For the last year and a bit I have basically done everything from my house so no, I won't miss working from home."

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'I feel empowered working from home'

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"I found the home environment gave me a real possibility to reflect on things in peace," says Ingrid Temmerman.

She has a job she enjoys in the higher education sector but she doesn't want to go back to nine-to-five, five days a week in the office with an hour-and-a-half commute each way on a crowded train that costs over £2,000 a year.

But the main thing is her mental health.

"I feel [this last year] has given me a new lease of life. I'm thinking now I understand fragility of life and of mental health."

Working from home has given her a new sense of empowerment which she doesn't want to lose.

"I can make the separation between work and home life. I know other people struggle with that, but it was easier for me. I was just happier and my work level went up: the quality and productivity."

Nor does she miss the "he said, she said" of office politics.

"When you're on a Zoom call it's more streamlined."

But her manager wants her back in the office. So she's trying to negotiate a hybrid arrangement with the majority of time at home.

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'You start work before breakfast'

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Omar, 35, is delighted to be back in the office. He works for one of the big American banks based in London's Canary Wharf financial district.

"Personally I prefer going to the office," he says. "I like a nice cup of coffee, going to a café, getting a good lunch."

The floor he works on is still pretty empty. But around Canary Wharf people are starting to trickle back, queuing for bars and restaurants, going to the gym.

Omar says no-one he knows believes they can be as productive working from home as they can in the office where they have access to big screens, technology and interacting with colleagues.

And at home he found work takes over your life.

"You're on your laptop before breakfast," he says. "When you're in the office there's the journey in, buying a coffee, chatting to a colleague and sitting down at your desk at 8.30 or 9am."

"When you're at you're at home, you're stuck in your home environment, you're too comfortable."

"After work, when you're finished, you feel more energetic. It's easier to go out and have social life, a drink."

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'I just can't resist the biscuit barrel'

For Alexander Holland, one of the worst things about working from home was when new people moved in next door and began renovating. They seemed to be drilling from 7am to 9pm.

He was also taken aback to find providing his five-year-old with a desk and a tablet wasn't enough to guarantee he'd sit quietly and do four hours of school work.

"After five minutes he popped out saying 'I don't want to do it'," says Alex, laughing at his own naivety.

And like many of us, the computer chip designer from Oxford has gone a bit stir-crazy with no adults to talk to.

But probably the toughest challenge was the proximity of the biscuit tin.

"Working from home for over a year, at a desk only a few metres away from the TV and the kitchen, with very little natural self-control hasn't been good for my waistline or my time management," he says.

Now he's glumly facing up to the weight he's put on.

While others seem to have flourished working from home, he feels he lacks the self-discipline required. It's not just food, he can get distracted by cleaning the dirty kitchen, putting on a load of washing, or the telly.

"Other times it's half past midnight and I'm still on the computer."

As soon as he's allowed, he's heading back to the office.

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'For people like me with a disability, working from home is a huge benefit'

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For Nazneen Tahira, the switch to working from home has been a godsend. She has a disability that means she doesn't see well when the light is dim.

"In my house I know where everything is. In the outside environment it's hard for me to navigate. I tend to not go out or I fall down," she says.

In winter she used to have to leave work early or ask her husband to pick her up from her office in the centre of Birmingham.

In the past her employers haven't been willing to consider working from home but the pandemic has shifted attitudes.

"I hope it would be different now," she says. "I've been working for the last year perfectly fine - as everyone else has - from home".

"For people in a situation like myself with a disability, it's going to be helpful - we can still carry on working. I think it will be a huge benefit."

There are plenty of other advantages she points out, you save money on the commute and on lunches.

"I suppose there's the people I worked with, the banter, I think I'd miss that face-to-face interaction with supervisors and superiors, but you can get that over Zoom and Teams," she says.

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