August 18, 2020

Working from home: pandemic edition

Filed under: adventures in the world of today,articles,bloggery,living in the future — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 1:55 pm

My workspace

My workspace

On 18 March, at the start of the pandemic, before the UK lockdown, I shared some advice about working from home. Let’s review how well I’ve kept to my own top tips! The original post is in blockquotes and the reflections in plain text afterwards.

Set up a dedicated workspace

This could be tricky if you don’t have a lot of space in your home. The ideal situation is a home office but not everyone has that luxury. Have a look at the spaces you do have. Can a corner of your kitchen or living room be repurposed to become your new home office? Even if you have to pack it away at the end of the working day to make room for other activities, consider what space you could use during usual working hours. A kitchen table is a good height for a desk – although consider other advice in this post about avoiding uncomfortable positions and repetitive strain.

I am fortunate enough to have a home study/office but I also found after long sessions at my desk I tired of the same environment. Because I have more than one source of work I ended up dividing my work into different spaces. Most of my marketing and comms work and professional admin happened at my desk but my writing moved on to my laptop and in the living room.

Writing in a different location on a different device had the side effect of making me invest more in cloud storage and engage with various issues (here by ‘engage’ I mean ‘get annoyed by’) related to keeping my work in the cloud.

I also set up a Zumba studio in my house by dismantling my living room in the same way before every online class and reassembling it after. My sofa is not enjoying the experience and I now have a new deep desire for wood floors over carpet.

I did succeed in keeping all work files on my computer rather than spilling everywhere because so much was digital. However, I found it useful to keep a paper notebook next to my desk to make a few running notes about things I was asked to do. It was sometimes faster than opening a new electronic note or building a task in the project management system.

Get dressed

This may seem counter intuitive. Isn’t part of the fun of working from home that you can do it in your dressing gown? Yes and no. For me, wearing a dressing gown never makes me feel as though I’m at work. It’s okay for a quick email or jotting down an idea. But as you begin your new working from home life, get washed and dressed. Comfy clothes are fine and if you feel liberated from dressing up in business attire feel free to embrace your athleisure wear. Alternatively if you don’t feel like yourself without putting on makeup and wearing your suit, that’s okay too. But get out of your nightwear, you will need clear divisions between work and home life, boundaries are your friend.

I largely stand by this. Sometimes I do find myself writing in my dressing gown when I wake up and I feel inspired. But for most of my professional work I prefer something other than nightwear.

I did change the way I dressed during the pandemic. Business on the top, fitness party on the bottom was my rule. I wanted to be ready to exercise and I tried to take regular exercise breaks (initially anyway) which meant I wore more active wear. Also, I tried to look as business professional on Zoom as I would in person – from the waist up.

By June I was always appropriately dressed for business calls but I think more casual and with less creative flair. I only ever wear makeup occasionally and that remained the case but I’d been actively experimenting with cosmetics (a new year’s resolution) before the pandemic and I stopped after lockdown. My web cam’s better than most people’s anyway – I don’t need extra enhancements! (Ten years old, shout out to Logitech. And I was lucky enough I already had one because they went out of stock fast.)

Plan your week

If you’re an organised person you’re probably doing this anyway and now looking at a calendar full of cancelled meetings and endless seas of “working from home” perhaps punctuated with “conference call”. I start my week with “thinking and planning time” as I consider what’s coming up, where I need to go to offsite meetings, when I’m on calls and when I’m doing design or serious work that requires a lot of concentration like stats or some kinds of strategy. Start filling your diary with plans for carving up your work into different chunks. It keeps your brain active and engaged to move from one type of work to another. Keep a record of your colleagues’ hours and use their calendars to plan 1:1s or team standups to catch up with them. Plan in breaks – I’ll discuss these in more detail next.

What I’m talking about here is diary management, But I was wrong to think a calendar of cancelled meetings would be the norm. Everyone I’ve spoken to who works professionally found that the amount of meetings rapidly increased. Everyone now had to plan for something they’d not been prepared for and that requires a lot of extra discussion. And instead of grabbing a colleague for a quick chat a lot of things now have to be scheduled.

My team instituted a new standup meeting every morning which has evolved and shifted focus in various ways during the pandemic but the new instituted tradition has defined our pandemic experience.

When I wrote “keep a record of your colleagues’ hours” I think I meant “be aware of their work pattern”. Catching up with colleagues 1:1 is good and our team proposed that each new starter had an informal online coffee meeting with an existing member of the team which I think would be good practice for every team (physical or virtual).

Ability to plan your week including breaks is obviously subjective. But my option is that when you sacrifice strategic planning time for operations you become reactive, you are no longer in charge of your workload, it is running you.

Take breaks from your desk

A sedentary lifestyle was not, as it turned out, very good for my health. Desk work can make you unfit and it’s bad for your posture too. Plan some breaks in your schedule. Tea breaks are good, just for a change of scenery and a chance to adjust your posture. Try to get some extra steps in while you’re about it. If you have a garden or access to outside space; go outside and get fresh air. Get steps by going up and down stairs or walking back and forth through your home. Resist the urge to start doing a lot of domestic jobs but it’s okay to put a load of laundry on or hang one out – it takes five minutes. Do some stretches, touch your toes. Don’t go directly from your computer screen to your phone, disconnect if only for five or ten minutes. Any longer than ten minutes starts to become a distraction; read more about avoiding those further down.

Keeping active was much harder than I expected. I did quite well at scheduling in exercise (mornings and after work) and one break (lunch – occasionally used for exercise) but the real challenge was moving away from my desk for the requisite amount of time for Fitbit’s 250 steps an hour target.

Back to back meetings running every hour on the hour seem to be the norm among many of my professional colleagues. Please don’t do this. New piece of advice – no meeting should be allowed to go on for an hour. Take ten minutes between meeting to walk, breathe and recompose yourself.

The part about not going from computer to your phone is true but I broke that rule a lot. I even used my phone during Pilates sometimes.

Zoom fatigue is real. When everything is done over a screen you don’t get a visual break. My desk work (writing, marketing, management, communications) was already primarily screens. Then meetings became screens, so did family and friends, fitness and about 80% of my life. My eyes got tired.

One thing you can do is make a Zoom or other video chat background saying “excuse me I have to step out” etc and I’ve chosen to list some possible reasons why I might have had to move away from my desk (refill water, call of nature, phone call, parcel person etc).

Recently I’ve started keeping more informal notes, thoughts and ideas in a paper notebook for a visual break. Also reading paper books, playing with cats and taking walks outside to look at the horizon.

Ergonomically assess your workspace

Working at a desk can be bad for your posture. Even if you have a good desk chair, have you adjusted it correctly? Is your keyboard at a good angle for your hands, is your monitor the right distance away? Search online for how to create a healthy desk set up and do your best to emulate it. If it’s not working, keep adjusting. Take those breaks I mentioned and use them to stretch and correct your posture.

All true. But it is genuinely hard to remember to take breaks. And any workspace, however ergonomic, will wear over time. I worked in different locations for a change of scene, see above.

Take lunch breaks

It’s very tempting to work through lunch but whether you’re in the office or working from home this isn’t a great way to be. You will work better if you do take those breaks. Take a half hour or an hour’s lunch break to step away mentally and physically from your work. Personally I’d also advise against the easy sandwich option. It doesn’t take long to cook a stir fry or assemble a buddha bowl. I got very bored of sandwiches in my days of grabbing a quick lunch and they weren’t good for me either. This is all easier if you have time to meal prep. One relatively easy way of doing this is make an extra portion of every meal you make for dinner and save it to be heated up for lunch later in the week. (Not necessarily the next day, freeze it and wait until you’re excited to eat that meal again.) If your work permits it, try to get a bit of exercise in during that break as well – at least on some days.

Lunch breaks depend on your team culture. I managed to block out a large slot (1 hour 30 minutes) in the middle of a day for a lunch break. I did on occasion use it for work but mostly for food, exercise, dealing with eyestrain and Zoom fatigue and providing outside time.

The privilege of having a garden became swiftly evident. Outside space made a tremendous difference to my mental health. You can see why it’s such a factor in prison narratives.

Manage distractions

It can be nice to have the radio or the TV on in the background while you work. It is a sort of company. But if you end up paying more attention to what you’re seeing or hearing than to your work, then you’re not really working. That’s especially true right now when the news is frightening. I personally like Radio 1. I like chart music and you get regular news updates as part of Newsbeat which is one of the better news programmes and works hard to offer mental health advice along with distressing news.

One big distraction that’s not easy to manage is kids or pets. Dogs need to be walked, kids need entertainment, even my cats are demanding when I work from home. The best advice I can give here is to figure out a plan. How much will you have to step away from work? What is an emergency, what is important, what is urgent, what can wait? Enlist your family in figuring this out. I was trained at age five at how to call an ambulance and by seven I knew how to take a proper telephone message (you need name and number even if you get nothing else). Your family, pets and other responsibilities are not the enemy taking you away from work. Especially right now, they are your loved ones and a source of strength. Think about how you can benefit from them (in those breaks you’re supposed to take) and not find them a burden.

I don’t think anyone anticipated back when I wrote this how challenging the lockdown would be for parents. I did expect challenges here and I had my own with giving my pets sufficient attention.

On reflection though this idea should have explored the experience of the single person and the mental health implications of going without any human contact. This piece of advice didn’t get as far as talking about what you do when your home isn’t full of family, friends and pets. Things people should really not do is tell single people “I wish I had some peace and quiet” or people with kids “this is a great opportunity to really engage with them”. Have empathy for people who are having *different problems* to yours even if their problem would be your dreamlife.

Drink water

I really wonder if anyone is well enough hydrated. Water is good for you. It’s good for your health, it’s good for your skin, it’s a way to stop and think and be mindful of yourself. Keep a bottle of water on your desk and drink from it. As soon as it is empty, go and fill it up. Drinking regular water has been transformative for me.

Three months on I have rarely seen anyone on video chat drinking water and I seem to be perpetually chugging the stuff. I even have a “gone to get water etc” Zoom screen. Why does no one else drink water? Maybe they’re not on as many calls as me and take breaks – good for them!

Stop at the same time every day

When working from home you can get on a roll and keep going and going and going. If you don’t have kids or a partner or pets is there anything to stop you working through the evening and working into the night? even if you have all those things maybe they don’t feel able to stop you. So you need a cut off time. At 5pm or 6pm or whatever time works for you, stop working. Dismantle your home office, shut down or send your computer to sleep, walk away from the keyboard and that tantalising project. It will be there waiting for you tomorrow and you can return to it refreshed.

I was pretty good at this. But I didn’t discuss what you do if the rest of your team is working unsustainable hours. It’s hard to be the maverick. I believe that people going home on time is as important as arriving on time (or more so) but do you, does your boss? What is the purpose of a boundary or a break?

I once wrote “you are not a dragon hoarding leave like gold; you are a plant and annual leave is like water”. This is still true. Breaks will allow you to return to work replenished. Please try to model a culture that sees breaks as essential to a healthy workplace, not just for yourself, but for your colleagues.

This concludes my post pandemic working from home reflections. If you have reflections of your own, please share them in the comments.

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