Articles - 24th September 2020

Freelancing’s future in the office

Words by Tahmina Begum
Illustration by Will Francis

Since the start of the pandemic, two questions have crossed most people’s minds; ‘When will we be able to go back to normal?’ and ‘What will happen with work?’. The first one is expected. We’re a culture who not only lives in the anxieties of the future but currently exist in the most trepid of recent times.

The latter, however, has revealed not only the class gap (who can work from home and all the privileges that allow that) but what’s necessary unnecessary about office culture. This applies to even those who are used to transforming their living rooms into places where you can take a quick Google Hangout call (remember those?).

“The pandemic has not only revealed our bad habits but it’s also made us question our lifestyles,” says Nafisa Bakkar, Co-founder of Amaliah. “Whether that’s our daily commute, how long we spend at work and if offices are necessary to work in anymore.”

Traditionally, ‘WFH’ was seen as a luxury or even a benefit, although millennials have been recognised time and time again as the generation who over-works, simply because we’re able to take our work home. Even if our salaries don’t reflect that and even if we have more working-mothers than ever.

Yet, you don’t have to work in an office to replicate office culture. To feel as though those are the hours that you should be working in or the practices you should be emulating, even during a pandemic. The panic on how life will continue on in the same way (spoiler: it won’t ever be precisely the same again), reflects how much we’ve come to resist change and also, “how much we’ve internalised that 9-5 office culture,” says Bakkar.

So many of us who work as freelancers or as a self-employed person technically had ‘flexible hours’ before the lockdown but didn’t necessarily use it due to the 9-5 guilt. Now unlearning what is actually productive versus what looks productive has been a breakthrough for many during these past six months.

Going by that mantra also means learning when not to work. For Emily Ames and Kate Hamilton, Co-Founders of Sonder & Tell, it was reducing their hours during the lockdown that helped reshape what working looked like. “A lot of work we do is straight thinking for five hours. Or straight writing. Which is exhausting. With fewer distractions, it made more sense for us to get in flow for reduced hours.”

Similarly, Bakkar shares her new work habits, such as letting her team know when she won’t be able to be contactable for a couple of hours. This could be when meeting a friend for lunch or going on an impromptu walk to beat her mid-afternoon slump. “Something I wouldn’t have done before but lockdown has taught me that life can be a lot more holistic and a lot more balanced.

“That investing in myself in all those different ways such as exercising or even taking time to cook a nice meal doesn’t have to be reserved for the bookends of my day or weekends.”

Unlike more traditional companies, many who work in the start-up scene or are self-employed are re-evaluating how and where they are spending their time. Amaliah, like Sonder & Tell, will not be returning to their offices this year.

When asked what the future of office culture will look like for author of bestselling title The Greater Freedom: Life As a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes Alya Mooro, it’s thinking about what needs to be done for the day instead of blindly heading outside to work. “I definitely have missed co-working spaces, especially living alone, but what this has taught me is what is really working for me.

“If I have to write, can I do it from home, or will I get distracted when at a co-working space? Whereas when I produce a podcast with my friend, there’s a lot of in-person conversation that happens, ideas that come to you from a random little comment that you can’t get at home. In the future, instead of working outside every day, I plan to head to a space two days out of the week by dividing up the tasks that need to be done in certain places.” Balance seems to be the driving factor when it concerns the future of office culture.

“There are still some things that need to be done in person, if possible,” says Bakkar. “This could be strategising or bouncing creative ideas off each other that doesn’t work so well over a Zoom call.” For Sonder & Tell, the next step is to attempt to grow a team without a fixed space.

“We want that person to feel like part of Sonder & Tell and that’s much easier in an office – with our books all around, words we’re inspired by tacked up on the wall, the packaging we love on our bookshelf.” A pandemic has inflicted many tragedies, but it’s also given the opportunity for many to review what we’ve inherited as ways of working and being.

Before the pandemic, even for those who love their careers, work felt like the centre of our lives and now there’s a chance that there can be room for more. “This may sound cliche, but I’m listening to my body and the state of my body more,” says Bakkar. “Being able to have a full hour to make your lunch or have time to do your housework in the middle of the day, wash my hair less in the week or even defrost meat for dinner, are little things that are really underrated.

“I think for many people, even being away from microaggressions within the office and being able to exist freely in their own home contributes to our overall well-being. When you stack them up, they become a significant lifestyle.”

On the other hand, Ames has recognised that, “The space and time we got back actually gave us a lot more room to think and be creative.

“Everyone on our team started writing creatively again. Writing short stories, or poems or starting a newsletter. I think also getting away from constant stimulation and all the words in London – things like tube adverts, packaging at supermarkets – actually enabled us to think a bit more originally.”

It appears that the future of office culture for freelancers and founders seems to be one that now allows more give. For too long, overworking and centering your work life was viewed as imperative for success. Now with clear sight we have all seemed to have woken up to the fact that perhaps, there’s more to life than work. And if we will be putting our time in, especially when remembering how precious that is, it can’t simply follow a rigid, archaic structure because that’s all we know. Because what else would we find out, if we’re just going along with it?

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