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Home is where the work is



Overnight, my workplace has doubled in size. This once quiet space, filled with just the click-clacking of a keyboard and the occasional waft of classical music, now rumbles with the sound of my husband’s voice. He goes from one call to the next, discussing spreadsheets and renewals, holding conference calls and informal chats and performance reviews.

Couple in a home office (Getty images)

‘I’m not sure I like this new open plan office,’ I complain to him in semi-jest, surveying the home office of which I’m usually the only occupant.

He laughs. Then, ‘Hang on,’ he says, excusing himself from the brief conversation. ‘I’ve got another call coming in.’

My husband isn’t the loud or extroverted type. But the closure of his office due to the COVID-19 pandemic and his decamping into our modest home office with mirrored desks — mine facing this wall, his facing that — has revealed to me another side of him, the one he’s forced to expose in his workplace, in the cut and thrust of corporate duties and office politics.

It’s a reminder to me of what I’m not missing. With a few office-based diversions along the way, I’ve worked from home for more than 25 years. Where my reserved husband has been forced to operate in a large office, putting voice to thoughts and opinions he’d often prefer to keep private, I’ve had to temper my gregarious, ever-opinionated nature in my office for one. I’ve spent hours and days and years working alone, tapping out stories on my keyboard, editing publications, processing photographs, writing speeches and tackling the tedious administrative tasks of a sole trader.

It hasn’t been pure exile, of course: as a freelance journalist and travel writer my work has been punctuated with engagement with the people and places I write about. And even in the office, where the real work is done, there is contact with humans, with the people I interview over the telephone and the conference calls I hook into and the long chats I have with editors and colleagues — exchanges that have reinforced for me the truism that physical togetherness isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for collaboration and solid output.


'But the work itself must be done; there can be no lounging in bed until midday or sneaking off to the movies — as much of the world’s workforce (at least those lucky enough to still have their jobs) will soon discover.'


In the early years of working alone, I’d in fact be accompanied by a baby, breastfeeding as I typed one handed, or toddlers playing on the floor beside my desk. Later, those same toddlers grew into teenagers and would arrive home from school and pop their heads into my office to tell me about their day and offer me a cup of tea. I’ve had cats lie across my keyboard and retype my story in gobbledegook, and snoring dogs draped across my knees. I’ve had the doorbell ring endlessly with delivery men and Jehovah’s Witnesses, neighbours looking for lost rabbits and real estate agents asking if I’d like to know the value of my house. Such are the distractions for those of us who quarantine ourselves within the confines of our home offices.

But the work itself must be done; there can be no lounging in bed until midday or sneaking off to the movies — as much of the world’s workforce (at least those lucky enough to still have their jobs) will soon discover. These enforced office closures and work-from-home regimes prompted by the pandemic are sure to delight and terrify people in equal measure.

‘Living alone in a one-bedroomed flat is un-fun in corona times,’ my sister Whatsapps me from London.

Though offices and streets and shops and bars and restaurants are drained of all human activity, her workload has increased exponentially with the catastrophe of coronavirus. There will be no binge-watching Netflix in her pyjamas or catching up on her long reading list; as an employee of a multinational tech company she’s busily supplying self-isolating students with digital resources.

‘I ACTUALLY have to work from home!’ she complains, only slightly tongue-in-cheek.

But for my husband, this enforced confinement is the answer to a long-held dream: to work from home, like I do. He deplores the futility of donning cumbersome jacket and tie, queuing for the long bus ride into the city, being needlessly distracted by colleagues, lumbering home again after dark and rising in the morning to do it all over again. He could get so much more done at his own desk, he believes.

And his instinct is correct. Multiple studies over the years have shown that far from shirking responsibilities when allowed to work from home, self-motivated employees in fact increase their productivity and gain more satisfaction from their work. Their sense of autonomy grows and they tend to reward the flexibility they’ve been gifted with quality output.

Not all of those forced into home-based work by the pandemic will feel confident about this arrangement. They’ll miss the structure and routine and the ready availability of human company. But my husband is thriving under the new regime. He shows up at his desk on time and powers through work with barely a break. He’s energised and optimistic. He has only one complaint: his office mate types too loudly.

‘Could you tone it down a bit?’ he pleads.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. 

Main image: Couple in a home office (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, working from home, COVID-19, social distancing



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Existing comments

Hi Catherine, As I sit here typing my response (in my home office) I have my wife (a teacher) sharing my Office .In the Dining Room next to my Office, my daughter is also working from home. So I can't put on a classical music concert while I work . I hear voices all around me. My other two children are also working from home at their places. On Monday the wife will return to school but even they are planning for a likely shut down, then she will teach from home! How weird, but this is the new reality.

Gavin O'Brien | 20 March 2020  

Oh dear. I once read of a US writer who worked from a shed in the garden. Just a suggestion.

Malthus Anderson | 20 March 2020  

Catherine good to read your article about your working at home now with your husband because of the Coronavirus. I remember you doing some articles for JRS. I was the Volunteer Coordinator for the Arrupe Project until last December.I still try and support JRS’ work with asylum seekers. Am also praying especially for Fr Aloysious that he will recover completely. Blessings, Margaret Guy RSC

Margaret Guy | 21 March 2020  

I've never been so politely inspired to work from home! Perhaps my dining table will give my usual spot at the local cafe a run for its money. One can only hope.

Najma Sambul | 25 March 2020  

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