The day I went back to the rat race

Home-working soon becomes hell
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The Independent Culture
Teleworking, we're told, is the way of the future. By the year 2010, no one will work in offices any more.

Instead, we'll all be based at home, linked by satellite or God knows what to our virtual colleagues. We won't have to commute, get involved in office politics or be part of those gung-ho, aren't-we-all-wonderful sessions down the pub every Friday. We'll all be having relaxed breakfasts and long, luxurious baths in the extra hour teleworking gives us in the mornings, and prune our roses in a leisurely fashion in the extra time when we used to be battling through the sweaty crowds to get home. And we'll be able to stroke the cat or water the garden between jobs to calm our already de-stressed selves right down to zero.

Sounds good? It did to me, once. But let me tell you, as someone who's just come back out into the wide world after five years of home-working: it'll never catch on. Or if it does, the labour market will be made up of lonely, isolated, under-stimulated social retards who never get out of their track suits and have forgotten what it means to be part of that favourite Nineties office buzz-word: a team.

The adage, you don't know what you miss until it's gone, couldn't ring truer than for me when I was working at home. I got severe cabin fever working out of the back bedroom, and it didn't take long for the rosy ideal of home-working to fade into the harsh reality of isolation, which brings with it stress of an altogether different kind.

It was great at first, after 14 solid years of commuting. Oh, the joy of being untroubled by the daily interrogations of nosy receptionists, menopausal gropy males and insecure colleagues who get in at 7am, leave at 7pm and try to take over your job when you're on holiday. The sheer pleasure of total silence when trying to write a complicated paragraph, without rogue phones ringing all day left unanswered. The freedom to go for a sauna any time I felt like it, in place of the daily sweat on the Tube.

But after a few months the novelty began to wear off. I realised this when, having not had a live conversation with a real person for three days, I started hijacking the woman in the grocer's for longer chats than I would ever normally have instigated, mainly because my knowledge of colonic spasms is pretty limited. A conversation with my 82-year-old neighbour, Maud, who's always out in the front garden ("Scrub me steps of a Monday, trim me hedges of a Tuesday") suddenly took on the appeal in entertainment terms of lunch with Ruby Wax. I went off her when she pointed out that I'd put on weight, no surprise considering I was taking four steps to work in the morning and four home at 6pm - alongside being starved of human contact, I was missing my morning/evening workout.

I'd turned into the teleworking slut from hell, but, hey, at least I wasn't a slave to the morning make-up ritual. What was the point, when the only people I'd see were the window cleaner and the occasional courier? Then I stopped bathing, at least until I had to go out, and my wardrobe diminished considerably because I didn't need one, except for socialising. Still, I told myself, I was liberated from office life and I should damned well appreciate it, as all my envious, office-bound friends confirmed. But then I started to miss everything I'd complained about: meetings, conferences with the name 2000 in the title, even the colleagues I used to hate. And the post mortems on Brookside, and the secretary reading everyone's star signs. Also, I had no one to share all my little victories and disasters with, except by phone. My mum became my best friend.

I began to notice that people had stopped taking me seriously as a hard- working career woman. Friends with children would start popping in throughout the day, imagining they'd find me there cutting my toenails, po-faced and desperate for a conversation.

Most of the time I was certainly desperate, though I still had work to do. But if you don't go out to work, somehow you're not a proper, serious person. Neighbours who'd forgotten to put petrol in their car would knock on the door to ask me to run them to hospital. Friends visiting from abroad imagined I'd easily be able to take the week off in their honour. I got frustrated.

Everyone imagines the downside of working at home to be getting motivated and staying put at the computer all day, and being able to switch off at night without a front door to mark the boundaries between home and work. I didn't have a problem in any of those areas, but I was chronically under-stimulated. I missed bouncing ideas off colleagues, chatting with people, and I was getting cut off from the world. When a friend pointed out that I was "looking a bit Eighties", I was mortified, but if you're not "out there", how can you keep up? The highlight of my day was a lunch- time trip to Safeway or, on a good day, the library. I was beginning to feel like a sad cow.

I somehow stuck at home-working for five years - with a brief interlude in an office that didn't work out, owing to one of my colleagues being a total nutter. And the longer it went on, the worse it got. Desperate to talk, I began phoning busy friends at work and getting stroppy if they couldn't chat. I missed the ready-made daily social life that comes with working with people; friends take more effort. The next step might have been wandering around Clissold Park, muttering to myself. Luckily, through a friend of a friend who had some desk space to rent, I was saved.

I've just moved into the office share of my dreams, in W1, amid hundreds of restaurants, bars and shops, so I'm sure I'll be dead broke within a few weeks. But I do feel alive again. I'm up early, getting the 73 bus to work every morning, putting make-up on, buying coffee from the local sandwich bar, sunning myself outside the pub at lunch time, and generally having a nice time and working harder. I'm even back to having daily baths, and going home to relax is a real pleasure now that it no longer feels like a prison cell. Needless to say, my housework and other domestic arrangements have gone right down the drain now that hoovering isn't the welcome diversion from writing a difficult intro that it once was. The dust gets thicker by the day, and my cushions haven't been plumped for weeks. Hoorah.

Working alone, I've realised, isn't good for the soul. As my neighbour Maud would say, "it's not right, a young girl like you being alone all day." Bless her. But a young girl certainly isn't what I feel like right now, in glitzy central London, in the middle of luvvie land and surrounded by skinny babes in platforms, sparkly nail varnish and short skirts. An Italian waiter called me signora the other day. That's one restaurant on my black list. I'll have to get my wardrobe adviser to take me shopping, though I know I'll never learn to walk in those shoes. But at least now I know people are wearing them.

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