700 Guests, No Canapes – on Working From Home

10 Nov 700 Guests, No Canapes – on Working From Home

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 9 November 2020


Last week at my place, I hosted an event for 700 women. You’re probably thinking, crikey, that’s a lot of canapés, but – and I think we are all relieved about this – the snack situation was down to individual responsibility. I’m not sure what other people grabbed during breaks – I can only confirm that a couple of times I sent a text to my husband to bring me a cup of green tea if it wasn’t too much trouble. Unspoken was an instruction to leave it near the door so no one would end up in the background of my Zoom screen in their Disney-themed pyjama pants.

This was one of the many gatherings that, in other years, I have MC’d in person but has, in Covid Times, moved online. I do and also don’t miss the planes and hotels. I genuinely do miss looking out at a sea of faces and having random chats in the bathroom with kind and interesting people. But I am also finding the upside to communicating in a virtual world. There was a moment at the start of this day when women started logging on – 45 participants, then 186, then suddenly 600 and climbing – and they were throwing cheerful good mornings! and kia oras! into the live Chat on the side of my screen, and I felt genuinely emotional about making this connection, even if it was by fibre optic cable.

In my less busy moments, I’d scroll through the little squares of faces (microphones on mute but cameras on so we could see each other) and get an idea of how people had arranged themselves. Mostly solo – some at desks, others on sofas or at kitchen tables – but occasionally you’d see a whole conference room of ladies with pens and pads and mugs of hot beverages. It was like walking down a street at night, peering through living room windows with curtains not yet drawn, catching a glimpse of how other people live.

Some upsides, too, when it comes to sharing ideas. It’s a big ask for women to walk up onto a stage, or talk to a room full of strangers with a microphone thrust in their face, but easier to volunteer to unmute your mic and – from the security of your own space – read out the thoughts you’ve just jotted down on your bit of paper. Voices less often heard might be getting more of a turn in this virtual world.

We’re getting used to this new way of working. A survey last month of Australian and Kiwi employees across a broad cross section of industries found nearly two-thirds of us want a range of flexible work options. We stayed home during Lockdown, and we’re not convinced we want to go back to the office.

I was lucky when the world was sent home. No need to improvise – I’ve been working this way for the last 25 years. Aside from the bit where I stand on stage or sit in a TV or radio studio, everything I do happens where I’m sitting now, in my delightfully chaotic home office. My mother, bless her, would refer to it as “the study”, but it is less leather armchair and smoking jacket than this would suggest. Pyjamas mostly, with a good ergonomic chair and all the other necessities – four massive bookcases, a filing cabinet, laptop and other devices in easy reach. And just enough distractions – the cat’s igloo, photos on the walls of places I’ve been, and a cabbage tree on the other side of the window with a bird feeder and plenty of takers.

I don’t have a boss, I just have deadlines, so there is no one to mind if I get stuck on a job and scoot upstairs to put the washing out while I get unstuck. Bosses and workers will have to find new ways to measure what “working” is if you’re not just relying on seeing bums on office seats.

I spare many thoughts for women adjusting to working from home when that home also includes kids too young to read the “Mummy’s Working” sign on the door – if there is a door. Even as a teenager, that sign didn’t stop my daughter texting me from her room to bring her a juice. Which is where, of course, I got the idea for my order of green tea.

In place of watercooler chat, I have social media – mostly for one-on-one conversations but a few group chats that feel like a staff tearoom. I don’t have to sit next to a guy eating egg sandwiches, or a chatty young thing doused in Impulse Body Spray. And if, on a video call, anyone suggests I should “smile more”, I can turn off my camera and make the kind of finger shapes that would otherwise have me marched off to HR for a chat.