The ‘home’ side of home-working is more challenging than the ‘work’ part, finds Haworth Tompkins’ Joanna Sutherland


In anticipation, we decided to leave London the weekend before lockdown. I am not a stranger to working from home, and have often chosen this over a busy office when needing quiet focused time. I’m OK as long as I have drawings to scale, tracing paper and a printer/scanner. So packing for a good few months was interesting. Included with the many ‘essential’ items was the printer (along with replacement ink cartridges) and a suitcase full of paper, drawings, reports, cost plans, and various documents that may or may not prove useful for remote working.

As to be expected, the first few days were about getting into the swing of things and learning the ropes. The shift to Zoom and Microsoft Teams was rather fun and novel for many of us. We had the technology and systems in place to serve both internal and external remote working for our two London-based offices and international projects, so these just needed to be extended to facilitate home working for all – a job undertaken by our amazing admin team who have worked tirelessly over the past weeks putting everything in place.

So week one and the transition to home-working was relatively smooth, but that pack of documents and paper didn’t have a look in: so far, so communication! It felt like I’d spent more time conversing than ever before.

Communicating with members of the office, teams and clients face to face, albeit remotely, is significantly different to just a voice over the phone. Wifi permitting, it works surprisingly well. There are brilliant benefits, such as ‘mute’ and ‘camera off’, which enables parallel activity (hugely beneficial on the child-care front). In particular, it’s very useful to have the ability to simultaneously work on something else while listening in on a meeting and only pitching in as and when. Project team meetings are successful once a clear communication strategy is agreed to ensure people don’t talk over one another, and there is a meeting chair.

I’d be punching the air if it wasn’t for the ‘remote home schooling’ aspect of this current predicament”

So technology appears to be successfully facilitating the ‘work’ side of home-working, which is far less challenging than the ‘home’ side of home-working. In my case, I’d be punching the air (and not just in a Joe Wicks early morning workout) if it wasn’t for the ‘remote home schooling’ aspect of this current predicament. I’m not even going to touch upon the anxiety induced by this, let alone anticipate the likely length of time it will last.

My usual week, with a nine-year-old son, consists of juggling work and home life. It is generally challenging to get a full day’s work done, factoring in the early morning school run, commuting to work, dinner and bedtime. Evening work is a given. Now, although the to and fro time has been saved, interpreting the school’s work plan and helping structure the ‘learning’ day is time-consuming, especially as it’s unfamiliar territory. At least my son is old enough to be occupied. Colleagues with younger children face far more time-consuming demands.

The biggest challenge is the Wifi. With both professional and school work happening on devices that demand the internet, usage has to be managed. Throughout the week it appeared to get worse. I needed to negotiate an all-device switch-off from Wifi to ensure that an external Zoom meeting went smoothly. One conference call was abruptly ended after an hour when a friend was Facetimed after school had ended.

So far, home working appears to engender an increase in trust, an acceptance of the need for flexibility and a recognition of the commitment of everyone involved”

However it is a great leveller when everyone is in the same situation. The work must go on, and interacting with people in a home setting doesn’t appear to make a great deal of difference. So far it appears to engender an increase in trust, an acceptance of the need for flexibility and a recognition of the commitment of everyone involved. For those of us with children, core hours are out of the window, but certainly on my part, this doesn’t lead to concern that the work won’t get done. It’s hard to judge whether this situation will lead to embracing home-working in such a positive way under normal circumstances.

On Thursday we had a virtual ‘office lunch’. Usually cooked by Mel, this provides us with the opportunity to see each other and connect, in particular with those we don’t work with day to day. At 1pm our virtual manifestation of this took place with everyone connected via Zoom. It was the Brady Bunch effect I’d been hoping for, although it didn’t appear that a great deal of eating was going on. Rather, it operated like an office meeting, but it was hugely comforting to see everyone together, and an added bonus to also see those on maternity leave. One drawback was that there was no chance for the normal one-on-one informal catch-ups, unless one mastered simultaneous private typed chats…

During the week the novelty of our new predicament led to some lovely moments: a homemade marbling ink print giving inspiration for a project organigram; a giant birthday card created collectively. But most critically, the traditional lunchtime quick crossword continued via ‘Crossword Champions’ on Microsoft Teams.

And I’ve been learning new (not so difficult) technology skills, teaching myself to use my iPad and pen to mark up drawings on screen. As I am now forced down this route, it will certainly transform my way of working in the long run. However, no amount of technology replaces a drawing on paper to scale!

I still don’t know how to superimpose my face onto a potato, and have a long way to go in exploring the fun side of remote meetings. I have not, as yet, mastered the ability to change the background and play with the endless possibilities, exploring the power of ominous moody sky backdrop.

I’m also wondering whether my being slightly late for a team catch-up will always be consistent in both a real and virtual setting? And if this lockdown extends, could I consider expelling my son from home school?

What is lost though, in my view, is the incidental. The element of the creative process that isn’t captured in an organised meeting. Time will tell how this impacts upon projects. What I have learnt in the last week is that if we are to embrace more home-working in the future, we need a much more powerful Wifi signal!