Working From Home With… Birdsong’s Susanna Wen

In the latest of our ‘Working From Home With…’ series, designer and co-founder of Birdsong Susanna Wen tells us how jogging and cheesy tunes are keeping her motivated – and that she’s now getting her glam on at home!

Note: Interview conducted prior to Susanna beginning furlough.

As many of us adjust to working from home, Birdsong’s designer and production manager Susanna Wen highlights the importance of simply checking in with those around you right now, and implores you to remember to be kind to yourself too. She also reveals that her new approach to getting dressed involves bypassing jeans for anything with an elasticated waistband, and how she’s having more fun than ever with fashion.

How does your typical day start now that you’re working from home?

I’ve been trying to do the ‘Couch to 5K’ for about a year but hadn’t managed to get past the third week out of nine as I got demotivated and had to start from scratch. Since working from home, I’m at week six, (condensing two weeks into one) and honestly I’ve never been prouder of my commitment to fitness! Being sincere, jogging very slowly over the canals and around Hackney Downs has made me feel like Rocky and like I can tackle anything the day throws at me. I tend to feel less anxious, stressed or frustrated when I’ve started the day with a bit of exercise. 

After a quick jog (or sometimes just a few snoozes of the alarm,) I’ll make myself a coffee and jump in the shower, then put some make-up on and get dressed to a backdrop of some really silly pop music. My best friend works for BBC Radio 1 and I’ve been listening to the Breakfast Show every morning. I never really feel hungry first thing but by mid-morning I’m ravenous, so I’ll make some toast and eggs with lots of butter.

What do you choose to wear?

Nine times out of 10 I’ve been getting fully ready: full face of make-up, fresh hair and out of my PJs. Everyone works differently, but I feel really comforted and more confident if I maintain some kind of routine, and I really enjoy the process of getting ready. Outfit wise, I’ve swapped jeans for bright, comfy dresses and skirts. Loose, breezy silhouettes and elasticated waistbands are my new best friends because all the trips to the fridge are getting the better of me! I’m often picking out things that I’ve saved for best as those pieces tend to make me feel a bit better about myself and they do boost my mood. 

To be honest, I’m probably dressing a bit more outlandish and glam than I normally do. Without having to worry about whether my look is work or public transport-appropriate,  I’m having way more fun with my outfits. This is something that I think I’ll try to take on past WFH, as I’ve realised what other people think of me really does affect what I wear. I hope to be more carefree and dress for myself more when we get through this – life is too short.

How do you structure your day?

I’ll start the work day by checking personal emails quickly and the Birdsong Support account, then I’ll have a Zoom meeting with my business partner Sophie to plan what the priorities are for the day. This usually lasts about 20 minutes and is just as much of a check-in to see that we’re both handling the situation okay, and that our mental/physical health is alright, as much as it is about work. 

With the help of another coffee, (I try to limit it to two cups a day) I’ll get to work on around one to three main priorities for the day. Sometimes this is tedious but necessary things like bookkeeping or answering emails, but right now it’s the time in the season when I can start designing the next collection. This has been super fun for me, I’ve been rummaging through books and magazines for research and getting my art materials out to start sketching. I work on paper before scanning my designs for clothes or prints in, then work on Photoshop or Illustrator to manipulate my ideas and develop them.

We may have a few calls dotted throughout the day to speak to our maker groups, mentors and greater network, which has helped us feel engaged and connected. I’ve really valued those calls and I think communicating with people you work with, even just to check-in is really important. 

At home, my partner works in another room because otherwise we would drive each other up the wall, but it is nice to have him around to pop in every now and again, and we do try to make each other laugh – if only to keep us sane after staying in the same house for so long. At around 6pm we’ll both log off and make dinner before watching a film, or more often than not, tidy around the flat. Has anyone else found themselves constantly tidying? We make so much mess while working from home and seem to create lots of washing up!

What helps you to stay positive and motivated?

I’ve found that I’ve needed to be kinder and more gentle with myself while working from home. Life is abnormal at the moment, so it does require some extra compassion for yourself and others. 

Music has been a real saviour for me – typically some quiet, chilled tracks without many words when I need to concentrate or write. If I’m sketching or researching then I put cheesy dance tunes on and keep the tempo up! I’m at my happiest when I’m really in the zone with a task and having some great music makes the time flash by. This doesn’t happen too often, as being one out of the two people running our business we often have to juggle many different things during the day and we’re often rushing through to-do lists. I hope to try and multitask less and take time to breathe and consciously enjoy each moment more. 

How are you remaining connected with your team?

There are only two of us in the Birdsong team and we’re in contact throughout the day, sending each other funny memes or sharing fashion industry news alongside our work. But we’ve also been reaching out to our makers by video or WhatsApp, sometimes just to have a bit of social interaction!

What’s been challenging so far?

The most challenging thing about working from home is that everyone we work with is also working from home. This means our production and shipping has paused, so we are a bit anxious about work and sales running out when we physically cannot make anything or send anything out. But it’s definitely for the best as we would never want anyone to be put at risk. At the end of the day, it is just clothes and the safety of the people we work with comes first. 

We feel pretty confident that we can ride the wave, but it is the same as it is for a lot of small and big businesses – we don’t know what the future holds. We can prepare slightly for two months of WFH, but as the time goes it on may prove difficult. We’ve had to be pretty resourceful and quick thinking, considering all possible scenarios with an eye to the future and an eye on the present. I do feel so lucky to have the option to stay home and stay safe.

Any recommendations of things to do when work stops and downtime begins?

I’ve been doing essentially ‘Ready Steady Cook’ every evening with what is at the back of my cupboard and what’s in my Oddbox. Oddbox is a delivery box with fruit and veg that has been rejected from supermarkets – it’s in perfect condition, colourful and fab. I think that being creative and experimental with your food is a great way to wind down and I’d recommend the ‘Couch to 5K’ app to anyone who’s not a fitness fanatic but is wanting to move. It’s not new, but it is free.

Also, if you have any disposable income (I know I’m saving a bit not eating out and going to the pub with friends,) then do think about buying something from Birdsong. We pay London Living wages to women facing barriers to employment and people with learning disabilities. Although we’re not making or sending out orders at the moment, it will mean the world for those we work with to know they have jobs to get back to once it is safe to do so. 

I’d also encourage making any donations large or small to our friends Dare to Care, if possible. They are sending essential care packages of food and hygiene products to elderly and immunocompromised people forced into isolation by COVID-19, as well as PPE to medical staff on the frontline. With each donation amount you can see what good you will be doing for the local community. Stay home and take care.


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