I’ve been working from home for 20 years, so long that I can no longer sit comfortably at my desk. I write on the sofa with the dog as an armrest – that’s his job – or lie in bed with my chin on my laptop. If I’m never really at work, I’m never really at play. I am a victim of Mission Creep. I work on weekends and on public holidays. I worked on my wedding day and on my honeymoon. I read the headlines every day at 12:01 p.m.
Working at home is a friend of the eccentric: and if you do it long enough, you will anyway. What else would you do if no one was watching you but the dog or your more eccentric husband? When you live beyond the gaze of society, you become your strangest self. My only real advice when working from home is: You don’t have to get dressed to speak to important people. But you should get up.
It suits me now. I have a big, shabby house, live 300 miles from all of my employers, and when I rarely go to their offices, I talk too much. Maybe it’s all those days working at home and talking to a laptop.
But now, happily working from home, I’ve loved working in offices. And so I agree with Rishi Sunak, who warned that continuing to work from home could harm your career. If you are young and healthy and not an arborist or a lobster fisherman, I would advise you to go back to the office.
Beware of those who suggest otherwise. Among other things, you will be charged operating costs. This is not freedom – although it is spun as such – but exploitation. The situation is of course somewhat different for parents of small children, who have the highest care costs in Europe. Still, I read gruesome testimonials from couples who work from home: they zoom in on a closet, he on the fridge.
It’s even more atomization. Have we forgotten that people need each other to survive? I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if, at 25, instead of working in the office of a famous newspaper, I was thrown into a studio with a phone and told to write about the world. What would I have written about? The walls? The window? Loneliness turns into madness? All of my happiest memories of my 20s and early 30s are at work. (The workaholic dies hard.) All of my stories happened there, and all I learned I didn’t learn from books I learned there. I started on a gossip column with 10 other young journalists. We were an informal association, often at odds and sometimes in love. We shared things; we measured ourselves against each other. We went to party conferences and literary festivals together in Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham (or ‘Nam for gossip columnists). I met famous older journalists. Don’t go to Gaza on the Hezbollah boat, one said, even if they pay you. Read Martha Gellhorn, said another.
I was promoted to another gossip column where I worked with a wonderful man. He would read all morning, go to the conference, then have lunch, and tap his keyboard again with tiny, haunted fingertips. My job was to take messages, buy muffins, and laugh at his jokes. If I had good stories, he would let me write the column. I loved him. He told me what to read and gave me romantic advice while expecting me to make mistakes because I was young. Get out, he would say, get out from behind your computer. Find love! Find news! Sometimes the editor would come in to hear the gossip. He pretended to be a pantomime villain because it amused him and suited him, but he wasn’t, not really. He was shy. I found him once hidden in his kitchen (he had three secretaries making him tea, but he was lurking by his incredibly large and shiny kettle anyway). He is considered by some to be the worst man in Britain, but he was worried about me. Don’t smoke, he said, you are ruining your health. (I still smoked and he withdrew. He had to because he was a famous libertarian).
The office was a dream land for me. It was full of gossip, feuds and love. At the end of the work day it felt like electricity. It pulsed with news, with malice, with life.
Journalism was my dream, not yours, but I’d bet it’s the same in offices everywhere. This increasing atomization – Deliveroo, Netflix, Amazon, Tinder – feels less like liberation than illness, more than renouncing the most exciting thing about modernity: the ability to travel fast. Why do we want to part with all the joy – and if not joy, then experience – that we can give to one another? A life without people – without danger, and there is little danger at home – is not life but slumber.