Fiona Tribe has been working from home for many years. The pandemic has revealed that this was still a very social working life, as she bounced between home, clients, the university campus and a nearby cafe. The lockdown has meant finding others ways to connect.

What is your work-from-home space like?

My work-from-home space looks remarkably like my dining room. Probably because it is. I live in a tiny Californian bungalow in Melbourne’s West. I live alone so the entire house is mine. My dining room is anchored with a long timber table. Two bench seats sit either side. Ergonomically unsound, it would get a frown from any self-respecting OH&S inspector. The room is full of natural light. As the days slowly get darker the leaves are kindly falling off the ornamental pear outside my window. Above me is a high, ornate ceiling with inappropriate lighting in the form of a chandelier. The gaping mouth of my rarely used open fireplace stares at me. I should note that I float between this ‘workspace’ and my sofa, the backyard and my bed.

What work do you do here?

I am a freelance organisational designer who has buried herself in the study of cultural anthropology for the past two years. While I work towards becoming an organisational anthropologist, I am combining consulting and coaching work with my studies. I spend over 30 hours a week with my nose buried in words; my own and others.

Did you work from home pre-COVID-19? How has the experience of remote changed for you in the last few weeks?

For many, the shift to working from home has been a violent one. Sudden. Unplanned. Chaotic. For me, it was markedly different. I have been working from home since 2009. Freelancing saw me bounce between home, client sites, the university campus and a nearby café. This is how my usual ‘working from home’ looked – but I am no longer visiting client sites. I am no longer sitting in café windows. I am no longer going for beach walks with my friend at midday. The wandering and exploring that informs much of my work has dissolved into a 14 square space.

Have there been benefits to working from home?

There are the obvious cost benefits. The cost of a commute, the cost of food in the CBD and the amount of money I would spend on ‘office attire’. I no longer grab an expensive bite to eat at a city restaurant after work – but the opportunity cost of this far outweighs any cost benefit afforded! Not commuting is also an obvious time benefit, although I miss the transition space that a commute affords in all its horribleness. Oh, and two words: fresh air. But arguably this has less to do with working-from-home and more to do with the design of workplaces more generally.

What have been the main challenges so far?

For me, the challenges relating to working-from-home arose many years ago and related mostly to social engagement. I like to work amongst others, physically. I am also very haphazard in my thought processes and need to share my thinking out loud, in a very sporadic and unplanned way. None of this lends itself to timetabled Zoom meetings.

What has been surprising?

I am not the ‘shackled to the screen at home’ island I thought I was. Despite working from home for many years, I clearly spent more time than I realised changing up locations and socialising face-to-face. It may be what drew me to anthropology in the first place, the need to wander and be in physical places in order to make sense of culture at any depth.

Have you discovered any tools (technological or otherwise) that have been particularly useful for remote working?

I have been using videoconferencing for meet ups, but I find it saps me of energy and rarely delivers the best of me. Twitter has been invaluable. Not just as a useful resource for ‘work’, but for my need to explore and share my own creativity, and the creativity of others. It is important to familiarise yourself with all the communication tools you possibly can, but never feel compelled to use them in the way others do. Make your own choices while also understanding that you sometimes need to park your own preferences in the interests of others.

Do you have any tips for creating successful working relationships remotely? With colleagues, clients and others?

Listen. Empathise. Trust. Laugh. Cut yourself, and others, some slack.

How are you managing the work/life juggle, and all the competing demands?

It was difficult in the first few weeks of the lockdown as I was not only adjusting my own life but caring for vulnerable extended family members. With the narrative predominantly being about the nuclear family and home-schooling challenges, as someone with neither, I felt like I had no right to whinge. But I’ve ditched that feeling now as I share my own experience more openly. For me, much of the angst of the initial transition to lockdown has eased.

How are you staying connected with work, friends and family?

By various means, but mostly messaging and infrequent video calls. I have family and friends that I speak to daily, and the children in my life send me a constant stream of jokes, games and videos. As a predominantly online student, I have experienced less change than most. What is interesting is that it still feels very different. I have a serious case of ‘cottonball mind’ that has significantly hampered my ability to write. I can also feel my lecturers’ chaotic lives seeping through my screen as they so generously open their homes to students. They have been amazing over the past few weeks.

What strategies are you using to switch off from work?

Not many. I’m crap at this. I used to beat myself up about it as I tried to ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’ to keep ‘life’ entirely separate from ‘work’, physically and mentally. But the stress of trying to keep them separate outweighed the stress of simply letting them blend.

What strategies are you using to lift your spirits and maintain mental wellbeing?

Not watching too much news. Choosing who I engage with – quality over quantity. But mostly I disappear into my imagination. It’s one of the best tools I have to hand right now.

Fiona Tribe is an organisational designer and capability builder with over 20 years’ experience working with professional services firms of varying size, shape and complexity. Her work focuses on the integration of marketing, communications, human resources, branding and change. She has a slight obsession with the ‘spaces in between’ born of a love of people who feel comfortable in odd places, and odd in comfortable places. Her love of culture sees her currently marrying her MBA with cultural anthropology. Fieldwork is her norm.