Coral Hill is Associate Professor at The University of Law and a non-practising solicitor. She shares excellent tips for our unprecedented times.
This extraordinary time will test us all, and should finally put to bed the notion that working from home is really shirking from home. Let’s look at the issues for employees and managers and consider the significant challenge of feeling isolated.
Although we have become used to communicating through social media, emails and video conferencing, working digitally for weeks on end needs clear engagement rules and a disciplined approach.
Managing your space
Many of us live in small places, so if like me, you have just lugged home virtually your entire office, you’ll need to think carefully about where to put it. We have three of us working from home in my household, so we had to have an open conversation about which rooms to rearrange and how to give each other space. We made a massive effort to clear our cupboards, which felt great.
If you are in a studio or one-bedroom flat, creating a space in a cupboard or under a table with a cloth over it is important, so the files are not staring at you all the time.
Take some time to think about your new ‘workspace’. Is your chair appropriate? Are you able to get an adjustable chair, so that you can ensure you are following best practice on body position for typing etc? As all of us will be doing so much more online, it’s important not to get unnecessary aches and strains. Move whenever you can. If you get a phone call, stand up to speak and look out of the window.
Managing your time
Don’t be over-ambitious. Saving time on our commutes is time we will undoubtedly need for other practical realities at home. I love lists and priorities; once it’s on a list, I know it won’t be forgotten, even if I can’t complete it as early as I would like.
There’s no need to check emails the moment you wake up, as you have no commuting to do. Get up and dressed for work before turning to your emails, or even use the commute time to build in some home exercises. There’s then no danger of getting distracted and typing furiously in your pyjamas until a client skypes you and you realise you can’t turn the camera on.
We need to be disciplined to not to look at files or check work emails past a time we’ve set ourselves. It’s even more important to do this when we’re at home, so there is a dividing line between working and relaxing. Make sure you have at least one day at the weekend when you don’t look at all. This sharpens the mind and helps us cope with pressure during the week.
Wake up the mind (and body)
Start the day by moving around. If your usual walk to public transport is 10 minutes long, try and find a replacement for that activity, be it walking up and down stairs, using an online exercise class or, if you’re lucky enough to have a garden, deadheading the plants.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the volume of emails and tasks to complete at the best of times. The best advice a manager ever gave me was: if the pressure is too great, you must put everything in the non-urgent box. Sometimes, you need a break from prioritising. It’s easier said than done, but if it is impossible to complete everything in the time you have, it is pointless to stress.
By this I mean that once you stop your working day, you’re fully logged off and, if possible, all your work screens are out of sight. There’s a huge difference between ‘screen leisure activities’ and leaving your social media or email on. The latter means that someone can ‘jump into your space’ when you’re tired and rile or worry you, even if you don’t respond until the morning. Digital sundown reduces information overload and helps your brain adjust so that you feel sleepy.
Management of assets
Make sure your digital folders and filing are in order. Most of us will be working without the usual backup and heavily dependent on finding our electronic files easily, so organisation is vital to save time on searching for things unnecessarily.
There are a number of theories on emails; I am always in awe of those following an empty inbox policy and rigorously storing in folders or deleting. Many of us do not have a specific system, so now is a good time to consider the best approach for you, organise files and be realistic that this is, in itself, a job and takes time.
Managing family commitments
Although many of us have worked from home for restricted amounts of time, very few have experienced it over extended periods, and with other family members present. Some open, calm discussions about your needs are essential. Everyone will probably want some time on their own, so try not to do everything at the same time (in our house, we prefer to stagger access to the kitchen for lunch, so it does not feel like the weekend. This might not suit everyone, though). Keeping a distance as far as possible during daytime will allow the family to meet in the evening as usual, without already knowing every detail of what each other has done during that day.
If you have young children, there are many online sites to help with schooling and entertainment. A key factor in not becoming stressed is not trying to multi-task. If you have a partner or family member who is able to take childcare duties in turn with you, then you can concentrate properly on work or your children. Doing both at the same time is impossible, and you need to discuss this frankly with your manager, possibly rearranging working hours or getting other adjustments. In the long run, if you can’t cope, everyone, including your firm, will suffer.
Whether we are on our own at home or with others, we are all apprehensive and will not be able to let off steam by meeting with friends and colleagues. Managers have a key role here in motivating their line reports. If you’re a manager, you should first make it clear that higher levels of stress are likely, due to the uncertainty over the virus and generally carrying on daily life, buying food etc. Managers should recognise that for those with young children, it is an enormous strain to continue work in the same way while trying to keep young children amused.
On the other hand, for someone living on their own, the feeling of isolation could affect your mood as much as feeling overwhelmed by all your family in the same space. For many managers, dealing with such personal issues rather than work priorities may be quite new. Some firms will have established well-being teams which can assist but, failing that, it is often just a sympathetic ear that is appreciated.
The longer this situation continues, the more we will all need to find something absorbing and creative outside our work to ensure we do not feel frustrated and uninspired. This could be taking up hobbies, joining online groups for talks and conversations, or spending increasing time doing exercise indoors or in the garden.
Take very regular breaks and set up some ‘water-cooler chats’, so that you switch off with a friend or think through a work issue with a colleague. If possible, speak to these people through a visual application, such as Skype, so you feel more connected. Seeing each other’s body language is also an important part of how we communicate and helps us feel more connected.
In the long run, being asked “what did you do during the coronavirus epidemic?”, may become a defining question of recruiters. Any interviewer will recognise the qualities of independent motivation, management of space and time, as well as the emotional intelligence required to survive home alone or with others. All of these are significant strengths, albeit ones we would prefer not to have had them tested in such an unsettling way for all of us.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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