Just after two-thirty in the morning, I awoke to a barely audible plaintive plea.
Was it real?
Had I imagined it?
Perhaps I was dreaming?
There it was again. Quieter this time, like the murmuring of a neighbour’s television.
I rolled out of bed and checked on my kids. Younger one contentedly snoring on his back in a starfish pose. Elder one curled into a ball under his duvet.
Puzzled, I returned to bed. A couple of minutes later the voice called again: “help”.
It sounded scared. Weak. Possibly female.
I wandered around the house trying to determine where it was coming from. A computer or Xbox left on? Netflix still playing on an abandoned iPad somewhere?
The voice was slightly louder on the stairs. It sounded like it was coming through the wall. Living on the other side was a 90-something-year-old woman. She lived alone.
I pulled on some jeans and grabbed my keys before venturing outside. No lights were visible in the neighbour’s windows. Curtains drawn. Locked up for the night.
Ringing the doorbell received no answer.
Knocking on the door yielded a similar outcome.
I took a deep breath and tried the door handle. Locked.
Pushing open the mail slot in the door, I called out the neighbour’s name and asked if she was ok.
Still no answer.
She might be tucked up safe and sound in her bed, sound asleep. But then again, what if she wasn’t?
I briefly imagined my own elderly mother, who also lives alone, with a broken hip lying on the floor. Dying swiftly from internal bleeding and shock. Or worse, dying slowly over days from dehydration or exposure.
Stepping back, I took another deep breath and quickly determined a number of ways to break in.
Smash a window.
Lift some roof tiles to gain access through the roof.
Kick in the door. Locks are only as strong as the door frame they slot into.
Put a shovel underneath the edge of the double glazed sliding patio door and lift it out of its track.
We spend a small fortune on locks, latches, and alarms to keep honest burglars out. Sparing little thought for the difficulties they present for gaining access in an emergency.
A trade-off. Playing the odds.
My inner saboteur observed that I could just call the police. Make it someone else’s problem. Avoid a repair bill or criminal charges for breaking and entering if I was wrong.
I pushed open the mail slot once more. A weak voice from somewhere upstairs called out “help”.
When sufficiently motivated, all that security can be defeated with disheartening ease. Thirty seconds later I found my elderly neighbour on the floor propped against a bed. Her nightgown was covered in blood. A nasty-looking head wound had left her dazed but conscious.
Decades-old, mostly forgotten, boy scout first aid applied to stop the bleeding.
Calm projected. Reassurance provided. I held her hand while we waited for reinforcements to arrive.
The loss of confidence and newfound fear my elderly neighbour now felt hurt her far more than any fall.
Fiercely independent. Self-sufficient to a fault. Having to call for help would have been galling, an afront to her pride. Being rescued by the foreigner next door, with the noisy kids and feuding cats who are forever digging up her rose bushes, made it even more so.
After this fall, life as she chose to lead it was unlikely to return to normal, and she knew it.
A couple of days later the neighbour returned home from the hospital. A nasty yellowing bruise and some stitches providing a visual reminder of her misadventure. Some of her independent spirit returned as she argued with council social workers about care arrangements.
However, a grudging admission that some things needed to change had also taken place.
She now wore a personal alarm pendant around her neck, ensuring help was always within arms reach. Assuming she was conscious. Possessing both the ability and presence of mind to push the button. Which wouldn’t help much in the event of a stroke or a fall in the shower, but was better than nothing.
A key safe with a combination lock had been installed outside her front door, granting a more subtle means of entry to those without a set of keys. An important consideration, as she had outlived or outlasted her once strong local support network.
Carers and cleaners were interviewed. None would be able to live up to her exacting standards, but good enough is better than not at all.
A “go bag” was packed and left on the side table by the front door, containing the essentials for a hospital stay. Easy to grab on her way to an ambulance. Recognition that there would be next time.
Late in the day, my doorbell rang. The elderly neighbour, teetering on her walking stick, thanked me for helping her. She lamented about the perils of getting old.
Better than the alternative of course, but difficult to accept as these things are traded for longevity.
My neighbour’s observations about ageing struck a chord with me. After spending the last year as a man of leisure, I recently returned to the working world.
A remote start meant the potential culture shock and adjustment was somewhat reduced, but her list of tradeoffs very much applied. Traded not for longevity, but for a regular pay packet.
For the first time in a long time, I found myself time-poor. Constantly making prioritisation decisions and tradeoffs. Attend morning stand-ups or do school drop-offs. Status update meetings or help with homework. Host workshops or cook dinner. Respond to emails and instant messages or enjoy the sunshine by the river. Generate work outputs quickly, or ration concentration to leave some brainpower and motivation remaining at the end of the day for things outside of work.
None of these tradeoffs are new or unique. They are experienced by everyone who holds down a job.
Many of them automatically decided for us, once we have walked out the door to commute to work.
Remote working simply shines a spotlight on those prioritisation choices. Making the tradeoffs visible.
Much as we may hate to admit it, by our actions we consciously prioritise work over all else. Showing our families that we consider our bosses and clients and colleagues to be more important than they are, during working hours at least. Earning a salary trumping their immediate demands for attention.
Of course, that is not what we tell ourselves. Or them.
Instead, we rationalise away that inconvenient truth. Without that salary they may not have food to eat, a safe place to sleep, or money to pay for all the nice things they enjoy. Which might be true, but does not change the implications of the prioritisation choice.
Five years of seasonal semi-retirement has stripped away many of the excuses and self-justifications I used to tell myself. The truth can be uncomfortable at times.
I probably don’t have to work.
I shouldn’t need the money.
I no longer want to rule the world.
So I have found making these prioritisation decisions and tradeoffs somewhat confronting.
What do I value? What do I want to do more? How would I prefer to invest my scarce precious time?
Another thing I have learned over the years is very little of what we do day-to-day actually matters.
That work meeting or looming project deadline? In a week, or a month, nobody will remember.
The project we are working on or the tricky puzzle we are solving? In five years, chances are pretty good that our solution will have been traded in for a newer model or somebody will have come up with an even better answer using ideas, techniques, and technologies unavailable to us at the time.
This doesn’t just apply to work, it applies to most things. In the grand scheme of things, today’s visit to the park or aceing this week’s primary school spelling test doesn’t really matter.
However, big outcomes are achieved by getting a lot of little, seemingly unimportant, things right.
Our relationship with our kids is an outcome of the superset of our interactions. Both those made and those missed.
Our advancement potential and the impression our work colleagues hold of us is similarly formed via a long series of innocuous events.
Phone it in too often or skip too many, and those relationships are scarred. Irrecoverably damaged. Therein lies the tradeoff paradox.
I wish I could tell you that I had all the answers. That success is as easy as following a simple list or painting by numbers. Alas, that would be a lie.
Instead, I have chosen to approach the tradeoffs with the confidence that comes from running a business for many years, and the knowledge that I have a financial safety net to fall back on should things not play out in a workable manner.
I recognise that my employer believes they own my time during the “professional business day”. But I reject the notion of presenteeism, preferring to be measured on outcomes rather than attendance. This means adopting a flexible working pattern of mornings and evenings that leaves the afternoons outside school hours largely free. Unfortunately the meetings gods don’t always cooperate, but it works more often than it doesn’t.
My focus is on getting the important work done. Delivering high-quality outputs as and when required. Vigorously defending my calendar. Tuning out noise and busywork. Only suiting up for fights that are worth winning and can be won. Other people’s panics do not have to become my own!
During the firm’s “core” working hours I carry their work issue smartphone, with its multitude of manufactured urgencies and employee monitoring. However, I refuse to spend all day tethered to a desk, just in case an “urgent” request arrives. Nobody will die if something isn’t actioned for an hour or two.
At knock-off time, the phone goes into aeroplane mode. The computer transforms from engine of distraction to productive tool.
For the most part, this approach has been working well, at least once my colleagues got used to it.
Then Boris announced he was cancelling COVID.
Immediately the corporate messaging about “looking forward to welcoming all our colleagues back to the office” began.
This was the professional equivalent of my elderly neighbour’s fall. A sudden external shock that challenged the status quo. Demanding a reevaluation of approach and prioritisation decisions.
Sitting by the river on a sunny afternoon, enjoying an ice cream with my kids after school, is readily doable while working remotely. Much less so when working in an office surrounded by ambitious colleagues and consultants, all chasing advancement and performance bonuses.
Will we have learned anything from this 15-month long experiment of flexible working at scale? Or will the corporate signalling about work/life balance and flexibility quietly vanish, never to be mentioned again in the same vein as a failed product launch or the rapid exit of a disgraced former colleague?
It will be interesting to see things play out.
Speaking of fights I am unlikely to win, I really should talk to my elderly mother about getting and wearing one of those personal alarm pendants.