Home-working, Jane Austen-style
4 September 2020
As schools open fully for the first time since March, I hope I’m not oversharing if I say that, at times, the last few months have felt like a bit of a slog. I’ve spent long days cloistered in my home office/laundry room/pet-feeding zone, blocking my ears with innocuous Spotify ‘Focus’ playlists and making the occasional foray into the living room with requests to my family. These vary from “Please turn the TV down, Naomi and I are practically lip-synching Friends.” to “For the love of God, it’s hours till feeding time, so can someone please remove these animals?”.
So, it was with a sense of huge relief that the House family left for a short break in Hampshire a couple of weeks ago. One of the highlights was a trip to the Jane Austen museum in Chawton, where I took this picture. Being a fan, I knew that she wrote several of her greatest works, including Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, whilst living in this cottage with her sister Cassandra and their friend, Martha Lloyd.
What I didn’t realise until we explored the house was that a) the room she chose to write in was the main reception room and right next to the front door; b) the corner she crammed herself into is extremely tiny, and c) her desk was… not really worthy of the moniker. “Is it a side table?” my eleven-year old whispered. “It’s practically a stool”, I replied. In our house it would be knocked down, tripped over and broken in a heartbeat.
At first, I felt sorry for the writer, forced to cram her genius into such a tiny and public space with barely room to swing a fan, let alone a cat. She must have had constant interruptions to her work, especially given that she and Cassandra were very involved with the lives of their many nephews and nieces, and active participants in local village life.
Surely, I thought, there must have been a more suitable room? As we explored further, I discovered that the house, which is large by modern standards, contained many small rooms, any of which could have been repurposed as a discreet writing room.
So, it seems that Jane deliberately chose this specific spot in which to create the worlds that have captured so many readers across the centuries. It made me wonder whether she had achieved this because of, not despite, her environment. Could it be that by deliberately placing herself in the epicentre of the household’s busy lives, she took energy from everything that was going on around her and channelled it into her intelligent and ground-breaking work, rather than being distracted and drained by it, as we might be.
Through this lens, I began to see her tiny 12-sided worktable as the point of intersection where the connecting threads of her life, of home and work; public and private; truth and fiction, met and made magic.
Looking over our shoulders at Jane’s life, limited as it was by the rigid expectations of her gender and class, we recognise that much has changed. But I believe she had a trick or two that we can learn from today. For a long time, we’ve seen work and our personal lives as binary. We’ve compartmentalised our experiences, divided people into work colleagues and home friends and sometimes presented starkly different facets of ourselves, inside and outside of work. This wasn’t always a conscious choice, but was driven by centuries-old workplace conventions, to dress differently, adopt more formal behaviour, and locate ourselves outside our homes to work.
But as we all know, we don’t turn into another person when we step through the door of our workplace, and our home and work life are inextricably intertwined. Maintaining separate work and home personas can be difficult and stressful, and impact performance.
Business leaders realise a better-connected workforce is not only desirable, but a must-have in today’s new environment. Many are grappling with how to effectively enable their teams to continue to work together to make that magic happen – to collaborate, to create and to meet those business goals – especially in this new world, where a quick brainstorm with your team over the coffee machine now rarely happens.
So, maybe the experience of homeworking we’re sharing is an opportunity that we can all build on. Could it be that this is our chance to find our own equivalent of Jane’s twelve-sided table to draw together our best selves? Right now, I’m free to pause from writing this blog and play a quick game of fetch with my dog, listen to my son’s guitar practice or have a cup of tea with a neighbour. And it’s in these moments that I’m finding my magic – new energy, inspiration and creativity – making my work richer and more personally meaningful.
So, I’m setting this intention; the next time I’m frustrated by ringing doorbells, social media notifications, a dog that won’t stop barking and cats that insist on sitting on my keyboard, I’m going to take a deep breath, imagine myself in an empire-line dress and bonnet and Be More Jane. Only with a bigger desk.
Laura House is co-founder of the-thread
To discuss how to better connect your people in today’s new working environment, get in touch with the team at firstname.lastname@example.org
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