Unexpected challenges in the new world of work

TL:DR – this is a personal post about something that happened this week, and how it made me think about new ways of working. It includes cat pictures. If you’re just here for Dynamics stuff, this post isn’t for you.

As someone who’s been on a home based contract since the beginning of 2016, one of the (few) positives of ‘the whole coronavirus thing’ has been how much less sensitive everyone has become about the times when real life overlaps with work. Four or five years ago, if your doorbell rang while you were on a conference call (thanks Mum), you’d have been mortified. In all likelihood, the person you were talking to was office based. The fact that you were sitting in your spare bedroom, eating food from your own fridge and wearing slippers, would have been something to not mention unless absolutely necessary, for fear of eliciting either envy, an assumption of amateurism, or worse, questions about how much you’d bothered to get dressed today (for the record, I’m one of those slightly annoying people who can’t function in pyjamas. My morning routine is the same as it was when I used to drive to an office every day).

In those early days, I missed water cooler conversations terribly. I yearned for the little glimpses colleagues would give of what their real lives were like, as we settled in to the office day or paused for a cup of tea and a custard cream. As a remote worker those casual conversations were much harder to cultivate. I quickly learned that building meaningful relationships over Skype (this was 2016 after all) was something that needed to be done deliberately and with intention. I began unofficially adding to the agenda of every meeting an opportunity to check in on progress with Vicky’s extension, Steve’s new puppy, or Louise’s wedding plans. It wasn’t quite the same, but it was the next best thing.

For much of this year though, everyone’s been in the same boat. Working out of the back bedroom/kitchen/shed in the garden is expected, to the extent that I don’t even bother with blurring my background much any more. As a result, we’ve all got used to meetings being punctuated by washing machines beeping, dogs barking or snoring, and the occasional child wandering in and asking for a snack. The level of insight I now get into my colleagues daily lives is something I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve marvelled at the multi-tasking capabilities of customers and co-workers alike as they masterfully support children’s crafting activities, while not missing a beat discussing the intricacies of their leave and absence policies.

One particular source of joy has been the prevalence of pets sharing these new office spaces. In recent months, my almost constant office companion has been our 9 year old black and white rescue cat, Lulu. She’s made multiple appearances on camera, although to be fair it’s not always the more attractive parts of her anatomy that she chooses to present. While I used to try and mask the sound of her gently snoring in her favourite space on my desk, since March I’ve felt able to introduce her at the start of every call, explain that she likes to make her presence felt at the most inopportune moments, and apologise in advance for any impromptu breaks caused by her bringing in some kind of gift – usually alive – from the field next door. One such incident generated one of my most viewed posts on LinkedIn.

The Dowager Mrs Lulu Flufferton

This new office dynamic has brought many new experiences to all of us. And for me this week – how to navigate the death of a pet, when that pet was familiar to colleagues and customers, to the extent that they would ask after her and expect to see her on video before we could get on with the normal order of business.

On Friday, the last day of my two week ‘summer holiday’, Lulu let it be known that the reason she’d not been quite herself recently was the presence of some fairly significant kidney issues. Not wanting to prolong her discomfort for our benefit, my partner and I made the decision that’s part and parcel of having pets. We stroked her little white nose and sobbed our hearts out while the vet did the necessary, and then came home to a house full of memories and tried to remember how to talk to each other without our favourite fluffy little conversation starter.

So now, Monday morning has rolled around, and my home office is quieter and emptier than it’s been for a long time, apart from a pile of cat paraphernalia that’s waiting to go in the loft just in case we need it again at some point. And I’m trying to work out how to tell the people who have got into the habit of asking, where Lulu is.

Maybe this will help.

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