Working from home, but not alone

As I write this, my wife is in the kitchen, trying out Skype for Business for the first time. I can hear her comments to her colleague: “Oh yes, I can see that Word document. Yes, Powerpoint is good. Oh no, I can’t see the whiteboard. Download it?” I presume these kinds of exchanges are happening across the country, for those of us who thankfully still have jobs in this new challenging economy.

The biggest change for many people with non-essential jobs is that we are being asked to work from home. For lots of people, this will be a welcome shift. But for many others, this will be very challenging. If your employer is already difficult to work for, my bet is that working from home won’t make things all that much better. If you have a good employer, you might find that the things that make them good employers don’t fully transfer to when you’re working in your living room surrounded by kids who are going stir crazy without their usual play dates.

A year ago, I made the switch from working in a regular, bricks and mortar university, to a university that specializes in distance and online education. As many of my academic friends scramble to put their lecture and seminar content online, I am vaguely amused by their discovery of the tools that make the Open University so good at distance education provision. Friends who railed against Skype for Business a month ago are embracing its potential for seminar teaching, others are debating the relative merits of Zoom and Skype, and I’ve even heard whispers of Adobe Connect. But the big challenge is translating materials designed for face to face delivery into online-friendly formats. This is hard. They are being asked to do in 2 weeks what it often takes 9 months to do in the OU, with sophisticated IT support teams. I can only imagine how hard I would have found that in my underfunded bricks and mortar institution just over a year ago.

When I moved to the OU, my biggest challenge was changing my work practices in order to accommodate the distance between me and my colleagues. I have colleagues who work from home across the country, and we see each other only several times a year, at departmental or School meetings. These moments of personal interaction are prized.

I am not a designated home worker, but I routinely work about 2-3 days at home each week, going to my office at Milton Keynes on average twice a week. This routine suits me. It allowed me to move from overpriced suburban London to Birmingham, where my wife works, in April last year. With the Covid19 crisis, I am very glad that I no longer shuttle up and down the M40 on a weekly basis. The nature of the academic job market is such that couples often live apart for chunks of time during term; this is another good reason for universities shifting teaching online during this crisis, so that families can pull together in one common place.

But working from home has its challenges. I don’t have children, so I will leave it to others to give advice on how to successfully work from home if you have to juggle children into the mix. But I can share some tips I learned over the past year about working from home:

  1. Create a dedicated space for work. In our house, that means I’ve repurposed our dining room into a home office. We already planned to move house this summer (will there be any houses on the market??) so that I can have a more formal office space. But for the moment, a room with a door, a table that is bit enough to work at, and a chair that is comfortable will work. Find a way for your kiddos to understand that this is mommy or daddy’s office, and that they need to knock if they want to come in. And that sometimes they won’t be able to, because you’re in a meeting or busy. And use that dedicated space to create the psychological distinction between home and work: you’ll need that.
  2. Shower and dress properly: Ok, so I have conducted interviews while wearing sweatpants, which I would never have done in my previous job. But I absolutely can’t work in my pajamas. Dress like you’re going to work on casual Friday. Wear shoes, even if they’re trainers. I promise: you’ll feel more productive than if you’re wearing slippers.
  3. Start your day at time that is more or less normal, and end it at a more or less normal time. If you’re working around kids, you might find that you can shift your work hours around a bit to let you spend some time with them that you wouldn’t ordinarily do. But don’t expect to be able to all your work in the evening when they’re asleep. It just won’t happen.
  4. Begin your day with an easy and enjoyable job. That will kick start you in work mode and give you that sense that home has ended and work has begun.
  5. Keep the heating on. One of the big challenges is that you are now responsible for all of the utilities you use during the day, including the internet. Most people won’t be able to claim compensation for these, because your status as home worker is temporary (at least for the moment). But you won’t be able to work if you’re cold or generally uncomfortable. So, if you’re the sort of person who turns on the heating system on 1 December and turns it off again on 1 February, you might want to rethink this position. Keep your working space well heated, and as well ventilated as possible. Make sure you have enough light. If this is financially difficult, talk to your employer about mitigating electricity costs and if you need help to increase your internet data capacity. It’s in their interests to help you out.
  6. Do not look at cats on the internet. It’s all very well to get distracted in the office where there are other people around. It’s quite a different thing when you’re at home, and there is nobody to shame you into stopping the autoplay on youtube.
  7. If you are newly working from home with a spouse or partner (or several…. whatever your situation is), try to provide moral support for each other rather than distraction. Office romances are never a good idea, and that’s as true when your office is your home. No hanky-panky just because the boss isn’t looking.
  8. Keep in touch with your colleagues. One of the things I struggled with over the past year is the lack of casual interaction we take for granted in the workplace. I had to learn to use our messenger apps, skype for business, and even email as replacements for those conversations we have at the photocopier, or wherever you get coffee, or en route to the bathroom. It seems obvious: you won’t meet people by accident when you are working from home. You have to engineer those informal chats. Use whatever works: WhatsApp groups for your team, your company messenger apps, twitter. Think about how many times a day you just wander over to speak to a colleague. Halve that. Now try to engineer short informal interactions about nothing in particular that number of times per day using online tools. Working from home doesn’t have to mean working alone.
  9. Get out of the house for at least a half hour, if you can. Again, I know this can be difficult if you have kids (especially small napping ones). But it’s important. Your morning and evening commute gets you out of the house, and you need to replicate this. Also, if you usually go to the gym or play a team sport, it’s likely that you might not be able to do that as normal for a while. So, get out of the house at least once a day. Take a walk around the block. Go for a jog. Take your kids out somewhere uncrowded for half an hour. Park nearby? Go for a walk. This can be at lunchtime or in the evening. And remember if it’s raining, you can at least have a shower and change your clothes when you get back. Getting out of the house will keep you sane.
  10. Take breaks, but not too many. The temptation to watch tv is overwhelming, especially if you are in the house on your own. Resist it. Take the breaks you usually would do at work. But don’t take more. Once you sit down in your living room to watch that episode of Doctors that you wouldn’t usually see because you are at work, you’re done for. Spoiler alert: daytime tv is terrible. You’re not missing anything. The same goes if you are watching tv on your laptop. Switching on Netflix at 2pm is a Very. Bad. Idea.

Right. Back to work for me. I can hear the wife (I’ve taken to calling her my co-worker) in the kitchen on another call. She’ll be back in our home office again in 10 minutes, and I don’t want her to catch me watching cat videos on youtube…

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