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An expert’s guide to working from home

John Moriarty, a Lecturer in Queen’s University’s School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, gives his advice for how to stay happy and healthy working from home during the COVID-19 crisis.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world, an increasing amount of people are working from home – some for the first time. With the UK and Ireland on lockdown, John Moriarty, a Sociology Lecturer from Queen’s University Belfast, says employees will be facing new challenges but also new opportunities. 

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.

As well as posing risks to our mental health, working from the kitchen can disrupt family life. 

Each individual and family is challenged by COVID-19 in a unique way, be that through childcare or other caring demands, or through the stress of isolation from others. To get through it, 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.

Here are his top tips:

1. Establish a routine

Routine is important for most of us, so maintaining your usual alarm time and, yes, actually getting dressed, all keep us connected to normality. Getting dressed 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.

Alarm clock on a bedside table

2. Set up an office space

Create a space which can at least temporarily pass as an office space. Ideally, this would be somewhere that’s well-lit and quiet. Ideally, work somewhere you need to ‘go to’, not the place you’d usually be. Just as important as having a space which is for work is maintaining spaces which are for the rest of life outside of work.

3. Set work/life boundaries

We need to be ready to navigate changes as they arise, but there’s a fine balance 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.

4. Ringfence time for social media

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. 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-19, 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.

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. I advocate ringfencing particular periods of the day for both online engagement and for news.

Social media icons on a phone

5. Adopt a call-first strategy

I’ve 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.

It’s 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.

6. Prioritise your workload

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 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. 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?

Person gesticulating in front of a laptop

7. Ask for guidance

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. On the flipside, you can do your part by keeping in touch with your team. Check in with colleagues to ensure everyone’s clear on the agreed direction and on what supports are available.

School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work