Queen's Policy Engagement

Work in the Time of COVID

Dr John Moriarty looks at the challenges as well as the opportunities of working from home through this unprecedented and historic period.

Work in the Time of COVID

Working from home sounds ideal if you love both. But let’s be real. Only a very lucky few out there find no fault with either their home or their job.

Even though a lot of employers have tolerated or even encouraged remote working in recent years, only a small minority of people take that up. As a workforce, the act of going somewhere specific to do the particular things our jobs require of us is still our apparent preference.

But suddenly the COVID-19 pandemic brings us to somewhere new and unfamiliar as a society and, as individuals, leaves us somewhere utterly familiar, namely at home. For those whose home has always been a sanctuary safely distant from work, the advice to now distance from our work colleagues tears down that boundary. Of course we want to keep pursuing our goals as professionals and organisations, but nobody can pretend this is business as usual.

Any time we experience a dramatic change like this, there are risks to our mental health. Allied to this, each individual and family is challenged by COVID in a unique way, be that through childcare or other caring demands, or through the stress of isolation from others. So we need to look after ourselves and our colleagues during this period and ensure our systems and approaches for this phase are empathetic and supportive.

To that end, here are some thoughts I’ve assembled from articles, conversations and reflection over the past week.

 

Starting the day

Routine is important for most of us, so maintaining your usual alarm time and, yes, actually getting dressed, all keep us connected to normality. Okay, you can leave the tie on the rack and maybe save on some of the Maybelline, but I think aiming for at least weekend wear will help move you mentally into a state of preparedness. Plus a lot of companies are meeting remotely and at short notice as they navigate the challenges to business, so better to be ready to take that video call as it comes in than be scrambling around for a shirt.


Configuring home for work and fashioning a new routine

It’s good to create a space which can at least temporarily pass as an office space. Ideally this would be somewhere that’s well lit and quiet, but headphones and a decent lamp will do for most of us. Ideally work somewhere you need to ‘go to’, so not the place you’d usually be. We’ll talk about news consumption in the current climate, but proximity to the TV probably isn’t optimal, even if it’s just one of the sports channels playing Happy Gilmore on repeat. Just as important as having a space which is for work, is stopping work sprawling into every corner of your home and maintaining spaces which are for the rest of life outside of work.

The same boundary idea can be applied to time as well as to space. I’m an advocate and sometime practitioner of the Pomodoro Technique, where each hour is divided into two 25-minute blocks of task-oriented work with five-minute breaks. I’ve had this approach recommended unprompted by both work coaches and physiotherapists, who find it a good way to combat and prevent issues with posture back pain. If you’re aware of bad work habits which you have, like staying too long at your screen without stretch breaks, maybe COVID is an opportunity to create some good new habits (along with the extra running you may be doing for lack of alternative diversions).

On the flipside of this though, don’t let perfect become the enemy. You could lose a lot of time trying to get your spare room just like your office space in work, but it’s important to be flexible at times of upheaval. Normally I prefer not to do email first thing when starting work and to get one focused task done first, but this week I had to acknowledge that these aren’t normal times.

Queen’s University, like other institutions, is rapidly trying to adapt so students can continue to progress and research is still delivered to the usual standards. So getting an early look at email helped me get a sense of what to expect during the day. Similarly, I’ve found myself checking email on my phone at odd times when I usually wouldn’t, but this is because I’m balancing work with childcare for a lot of the day, so my daughter’s bedtime presents a window to get organised for the next day. We need to be ready to navigate changes as they arise. There’s a fine balance to be found between flexibility and having no boundaries around work: we’ll all develop an initial set of boundaries but it’s best not to become wedded to those and keep adapting.

 

The big bad world out there

I’m neither a social media sceptic nor an avid user, but wherever you fall on the spectrum I think now is a good moment to examine the time spent online and what we want to achieve by it. Coronavirus seems like a fast-moving story, but a lot of the developments are incremental updates of the same central story and by and large government advice isn’t changing more than once per day. But with a lot of people who would usually be otherwise occupied now at home, it can feel like there’s an online discussion going on about COVID, and one which feels viscerally important if anyone in our lives is at risk.

Again, this is all about balance. We don’t want to miss important information, but we also can’t spend our days on screens deciphering whose analysis and information to believe and share, which of our most recent thoughts deserve a global audience and which arguments are worth picking and with whom.

Then there’s smaller-scale communication, including messaging services which many are using to maintain connection to relatives and reduce isolation, including some for the first time. But this too can be overwhelming and I personally advocate ringfencing particular periods of the day for both online engagement and for news.

Personally, the best decision I made all week was to schedule two news intakes per day at 6pm (radio while I cook or tidy) and 9pm. Where there are specific social media accounts or pages which I find particularly important, I’ve bookmarked those as URLs I can access directly, rather than going in the ‘main gates’ of social media.

 

Oh but to hear your voice

I’ve also started calling people as a first resort before typing a message. The digital era has taken us away from phone calls while simultaneously improving the experience of calling people. Maybe this is the point when the call returns to being the first attempt at contact. For the first couple of days of last week I was reaching out to a lot of people by text but then found I was typing almost constantly. On services which show if a person is typing, I’ve started just hitting the call button and saving them the effort, in the knowledge that they can reject the call if it doesn’t suit. A call also is something I can involve my daughter in to an extent, whereas a written message means multi-tasking and having one eye on her and the other on the device.

It’s been good to see colleagues organising online meetings and maintaining direct contact rather than always reverting to endless email threads. This is one example of where there might be a positive legacy from this period, whereby some of the virtual groups and meeting spaces might remain and become the preferred alternative to the laborious written exchanges.

 

Ask

If you aren’t already, now is a good time to become acquainted with the provisions your employer has in place to support your mental wellbeing, be those policies around work patterns, codes of practice, employee assistance programmes or information resources. It’s worth paying close attention to communication from leadership about any accommodations the organisation is making and following up with line managers and teams so people know what one another’s needs are. Reciprocally, it’s good to be proactive and check in with colleagues to ensure everyone’s clear on the agreed direction and on what supports are available.

 

Ask why

As individuals and as organisations, being knocked off schedule does afford us an opportunity to reassess what’s important in what we do, where we add value to society and the economy and what fires our passions. Much of this is being done at speed and almost through connecting to an unconscious set of priorities as companies scramble to maintain ‘core’ functions and work, leaving some of the ‘usual stuff’ to one side for now. Maybe when things settle, there will be some conversations examining how much of that usual stuff is really of value to anyone and how much of it is work generated by what we perceive that others may value.

My sense is a lot of organisations are still in emergency mode and workers are being swept along by that. And we’ll be carried some way along by adrenaline and this near-term sense of pulling together. But we don’t know how long this will last and it’s likely to be a marathon and not even Eliud Kipchoge can survive 26 miles on adrenaline. What will sustain us through the longer run is connecting to purpose and value. What is it that you value about the work you do? How can you use this period of flux to make your daily experience of work more connected to those values?

Article originally appeared on the Well at Work blog.

The featured image has been used courtesy of Getty Images and a Creative Commons license. 

 

 

Dr John Moriarty
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Dr John Moriarty is a lecturer in the School of Social Science, Education and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests are in mental health, use of administrative data sources, education and careers.

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