Posted by Ross Birkbeck, and founder and inventor of Legal Futures Associate Casedo, and a barrister at Old Square Tax Chambers
Is this the end of working from home?
The kids are back in school, and this week I went into chambers for the first time since mid-March. So much space and time to myself!
But no, it’s not.
For a number of reasons, my improvised home office, perched on a side-table 12 inches deep, is here to stay for at least the rest of the year, and probably longer.
Firstly, there are the logistical issues. Until things get properly back to normal, I am going to need to be much more flexible with my schedule, and to be around at home much more to deal with everyday childcare issues (schools are back on, but it is not full service yet).
Secondly, with all that time in the day taken up with the family, I will need to work late more often, and going back to the office to do that would be both a waste of time and too depressing to contemplate.
Thirdly, working from home is now more acceptable. There is little risk that I will be judged negatively because I am working partly from home, and since everyone is doing it the cost of missing out on social time with colleagues is lessened.
Lastly, I quite like it. I think a more balanced arrangement between the office and home working will be a general improvement to my lifestyle– one I probably would have embraced earlier had I known I had the space.
But how to make it work? WFH v1 was basically just a process of dragging my office kit home, setting it up in the living room, and making do. Building a second fully functional contemporaneous workspace is a whole new game.
The problems are two-fold: facilities and syncing.
I’m going to have to buy more screens. I have long been an advocate of the three-screen set-up (which the courts have just caught on to – Lord Saville being the latest to join in with his guidance to expert witnesses). This means two new 20+ inch ultra-high-def screens to plug into my laptop, as 1920×1080 resolution is not enough for document work. Plus a new mouse, USB ports etc.
It feels a little indulgent having all this both at home and the office, but the aim is to have an equivalent set-up to work in, so that I am not disadvantaged by being in one place versus the other. Not necessarily identical, but I do want the same basic experience: lots of screen space, a proper keyboard and mouse, etc. I figure the amount I will save on lunches and after-work drinks will soon more than make up the cost.
There is also the cost of a decent chair, I am not getting any younger and a kitchen chair really isn’t a viable solution going forward. One of our team swears by a desk that can change work from sitting to a standing position at the touch of a button. Excellent for those with creaky backs or other conditions.
More tricky is the accessibility of resources. The one thing I found myself missing in lockdown, other than the peace and quiet, was the library, and there is no way of replicating that. But online access to Lexis/Westlaw gets me 80% there, so it can be managed (and is in fact one of the best reasons to go back).
Many of my colleagues are also reliant on a physical marked-up copy of their core law books (in our case, the Yellow and Orange Books of tax legislation). Fortunately, I am completely paperless, and get even the legislation I need all the time from the web, so this is not a problem for me.
Were it not for that, I would either have to do a lot of carrying heavy books back and forth (which would kind of defeat the point of the two workspace concept) or keep two copies, which inevitably means notes in one are not in the other – very annoying. So I’ll say it again – go fully paperless!
This is in many ways the important bit – and something I was already onto even when my WFH kit was just a laptop. The aim is to be able to get up from your desk at seconds notice, travel across town to the other desk, and carry on working as if nothing had happened.
This requires a completely cloud-based storage system, for one. OneDrive and Dropbox have your back there (also check out Tesorit, which is basically the same but more security focused), allowing all your files to move across the moment you save them.
But you will need to commit totally, so that your entire file system is replicated automatically. And remember to save when you leave your desk!
More subtle, but just as important, is a way to organise your files so that the work you do bringing them all together does not need to be repeated every time you switch location. Otherwise, when you are, say, drafting advice based on a bunch of different resources and documents, you will have to find and open up all those files again when you switch offices – a big waste of time and mental space.
This is one of the best things about Casedo (and a reason I created it) – it means that whatever project I am working on I only ever need to open up at most two files: the Word file I am writing and the Casedo file with the case papers in (the file itself will contain multiple documents all previously annotated and ready to go). I am then straight back in to where I left off. There are other options, but none so simple.
Will it work?
Yes, this will be a net gain. There may be no complete substitute for being in chambers, with the benefits of that proximity to all aspects of the law.
But when properly synced, working from home is complementary to office life, and adds some great things that lockdown reminded us about: commute-free days (so much more time); having lunch with the family; working in pyjamas. In sum: a proper work/life balance.
I call that progress.