Before the pandemic, working from home was a luxury I enjoyed for one day most weeks. It was a chance to escape interruptions, have an opportunity to focus on specific projects and act as a mental health fire-break. When the first lockdown meant we had to stay at home, I envisaged it would just be an extension of those days. I was wrong. Here is how I have survived working from home during lockdown.
Preparing For Your Day
Unlike some people, I am in the fortunate position of having a desk in a spare room to work at. I soon realised that the most successful way to work from home is to properly prepare for your day as if you are going to work.
Whether working at a desk or a dining room table, trying to have physical separation from the spaces you associate with leisure in your home is important. There are research studies which show that interruptions increase work completion time and the incidence of errors. Research at Michigan State University in 2014 found just a three-second interruption doubled the number of mistakes made.
As well as having the dedicated workspace separation, the challenge is to have routine and discipline. The temptation may be to hit the snooze button or to start ultra-early and skimp on lunch to finish early. There are the health and employment law aspects of not taking a break and research has shown too much sleep can actually impact on your cognitive function. Given I had been used to working from home, these were not temptations I faced. Initially, I did slip into the habit of not taking ‘screen’ breaks and having very short lunch breaks.
Some days, I realised that I hadn’t even made myself a drink all day. With the social angle of coffee rounds gone I was actually getting dehydrated! I recommend you have a bottle of water next to your workspace. Also, if you have a smartwatch, the health app will remind you to take breaks. No-one is watching – go on, have a stretch or do some twists or wiggle those toes!
A benefit of working from home is comfy clothes. Out went the stuffy suits and in came hoodies and sweatshirts. Yet, I still find dressing for your day is useful. If I have an important meeting, I make sure I wear a shirt. This is not just about creating impressions. The psychology has been proven; dressing in different ways affects behaviour. That’s not to say you need to swap out your jeans or sweat pants for suit and boots but your formal shirt and Borat mankini combo is probably not the way to go either!
Creating Work-life Boundaries
Pre Covid, I was often one to stay to clear one more email or finish one more piece of work. The rumble of my stomach, desire to see my family or thoughts of a cold evening cycle ride would make me pack away. Working from home is different. With no commute, the temptation to work longer hours is there. For a while I found myself drifting on into the evening or grabbing dinner and returning back upstairs to work. In the early days of the first lockdown, this was understandable. Thankfully, I work for a firm who had the proper IT provision in place but some processes and communication channels took time to settle down. With a lockdown robbing us of other entertainment options, choosing work seemed an obvious choice. There is a risk that work is seen as a real chore. If you cannot physically leave work behind then the danger to mental health and the risk of mistakes is real.
Thankfully, the glorious summer weather of lockdown helped draw me outside. For the latest lockdown, the challenge I am trying to follow is to finish work at a set time. The next challenge is to try and make use of the time saved, from not commuting, on something other than work.
Staying Connected With People
The biggest issue many of us have faced during the lockdowns is loneliness. For some of us, the kids have been at home which has helped (at times!) but humans are social animals. I have missed friends and my work colleagues. A team Whatsapp group helps with some social exchanges. As a manager I was also talking to my team. Yet, that didn’t replace the coffee machine chat or office banter. Calling someone just for a chat to help my own mental health didn’t seem right. Although it was encouraged, I had a sense of guilt, even though those conversations would have taken place within the physical office. Loneliness perpetuated anxiety and I did start to struggle for a while. I think my colleagues spotted the signs before I did. My experience is that setting regular meetings or just calling out of the blue to discuss issues helps as often the chat will flow into general chit-chat.
I don’t think eradicating loneliness is possible but staying connected and making the effort to talk is key. It does require effort but my own experience has taught me it is one worth making. Another real positive from working from home for so long is learning to make a quick video call rather than sending an email.
Staying Physically Fit
A disadvantage of making video calls is that the longer the pandemic has progressed, the less of me fits onto the screen! Just before Covid hit I decided to do the 5k park runs. No real preparation. I just walked out of the door one day and ran it. I did three park runs in total and felt pleased that my time improved each week even though I hated every single second of the experience. Fast forward several months I have managed to do things in reverse. I have gone from 5k to couch!
Having previously cycled to work every day and done hours of tennis, the lockdowns are starting to take their toll. Like many, in the spring and summer I did take advantage of the government sanctioned walks and the garden. In the winter, my resolve and fitness have slipped enormously. Building physical activity into the structure of the day is so important both for health and the mental health benefits it brings. You need to do what works for you, but I have started to ensure I go for walks and play fitness based console games. I still have a way to go before my video screen profile returns to pre-covid days but the challenge is on!
Staying Mentally Fit
So much has been written about the mental health impacts of this pandemic and I have touched on my own feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Yet, I am fortunate to work for an employer where well-being is high up the agenda and we have access to tools and support to help us. Many people working from home will not have that support.
Following the points covered above has helped me, but there are other simple things that work. Apps like Headspace have helped me with their mindfulness suggestions. I also keep a positivity journal. I write down three things I am hoping to achieve or looking forward to each day. Every evening I write down three things that went well that day. Find something that does work for you and do it!
Embrace The Opportunity
In many ways, I have felt extremely happy during this period and I think adopting a focussed positive mindset has helped with that. For me, having goals has been key. I wanted to learn to play and sing with the ukulele. Thanks to online lessons, I have achieved that and have now moved onto guitar! Writing was something I wanted to get back to and I now write and edit for this site. There is also the benefit of more family time that many of us have found. Setting goals and having a plan to achieve them, can be a real mental health boost in itself.
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought challenges to us all and working from home has been one of them. For me, I don’t think I have just survived working from home I think I have thrived. I learnt new things about myself and in general. It isn’t too late to embrace the opportunity.
If you are working from home, there are many sites with ideas and resources to help you such as the NHS. Don’t forget, you may also also be entitled to claim £6 per week from the government for working from home.
Words by Andrew Butcher
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