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Home-ing from work: the practicalities of working from home under lockdown

Self-isolation, social distancing and lockdown. Now, more of us than ever are working from home, with many working or studying remotely for the first time. Even if you are doing exactly the same tasks, the change from workplace to home environment can be huge.

If you weren’t already regularly working from home, the current pandemic may have rushed you into this situation. Self-isolation and quarantine measures mean whole households are now all at home at the same time, vying for precious internet bandwidth, not to mention physical workspace! There may be more than one of you in a household working remotely, perhaps with children or other dependents with you whilst you’re working.

It’s important that we acknowledge the strangeness of these circumstances. Whilst working from home can offer greater flexibility, and potentially even allow us to be extremely productive, you may have been rushed into remote working, lacking the optimal equipment or prior experience of using collaborative online tools. This can be daunting, so if you can, take time to learn about the online tools available to you, and think about how you might adapt what you do, or how you do it, to better suit your remote working situation.

Similarly, the self-isolation and quarantine measures make this all very different from the ‘normal’ pre-pandemic experience of working from home. For some, home working may feel like an uncomfortable invasion of our personal space, and when we’re already feeling trapped inside our homes, the presence of such an unwelcome visitor may offer further anxiety. Distractions at home are always a risk, but having children homeschooling or other householders also working remotely in the same space will be challenging. You should try to minimise the distractions, but be realistic – this is a difficult time and the ideal home working conditions are just not likely to be possible. It’s also a stressful time, so trouble concentrating or feeling preoccupied is entirely normal. Make allowances for this and don’t expect yourself to be able to work in the same way that you’re used to.

Allowing for these difficulties, there are some practical things you can try to do, to help you work well from home:

Creating a workspace at home

Try to set up a dedicated working area if possible. This can help lessen distractions but can also be helpful in separating “work” and “home” time, when both are occupying the same space. Depending on your situation, you may not have much choice regarding suitable spaces to work from, but ideally you are creating a calm space where you can work comfortably. This can be more challenging at home without dedicated office furniture.

Some potential home hacks:

  • No office chair? Think about seat height – a lot of us don’t have adjustable-height chairs at home, but a couple of cushions can make a big difference, as can adding an extra cushion for lumbar support. Alternatively, folded towels can also add some height.

  • Screen height an issue? If you are working with a smaller monitor or a laptop than you would in your usual workplace, consider using a large book (or two) as an alternative to a riser - it can help get your screen/and or keyboard to a more comfortable position.

  • Shed some light on the situation. Make sure you have enough light. Near a window for diffuse natural light is ideal, but do think about using overhead lights or using a side lamp to ensure sufficient light. Also think about light with computer screens – try to angle screens or lamps to avoid excess glare.

  • Noise can be distracting. If you aren’t able to find a quiet spot, putting on some quiet music or radio can help block out distracting noise from outside, or you may find headphones useful in helping you focus.

  • Get some fresh air. Opening windows may exacerbate noise, but if you can, try to get some air in the house – opening the windows each day will help you feel less stale.

Working out your workday

Even if the majority of your job can be done remotely, working from home is very different from a workday in a shared workplace. It is worth thinking about how you will structure your time, to help you achieve a healthy work/life balance (and indeed to work productively).

  • How you manage your time will depend on the nature of your work. If you are covering email, online chat, or phone lines, your shift pattern is likely to be decided for you. External constraints such as childcare and the routines of others in your household may also dictate your working pattern. However, if you are able to manage your own work hours, think about when you prefer working or when you work more productively. Deciding on a routine that works for you and sticking to that can be helpful in working from home, particularly in separating “work” and “home” time. It can help prevent your work day bleeding into your personal time.

  • It is very easy to overdo the screen time when you start working from home, as physical workplace tasks will have been largely eliminated from your routine. Remember to take regular breaks: too long in front of a screen without breaks can leave you with sore eyes and a headache. If you struggle with this, think about using timers or reminders to ensure you take sufficient time away from your screen.

  • You may not need to dress as formally as you might in your usual workplace routine, but being washed and dressed for your work hours is generally thought to be helpful not only for productivity but also for your mental health and self esteem. Choose clothing you are comfortable in, but you may find it helpful to avoid spending the day in your pyjamas (even if no-one will ever know!).

  • Social media can be a distraction but also a good way to stay in touch with colleagues and prevent yourself feeling isolated. Only looking at social media at specific break times, or muting alerts can help limit the potential distractions.

Safe as houses: Security when working from home

Just as in the workplace, observe security precautions when working from home to keep data safe and to keep work and home materials separate.

  • If you are using personal social media account, listening to podcasts or checking anything personal online whilst working from home, it can be a good idea to use different browsers (or browser instances) for work and personal use (for example, using Chrome for all work-related internet use and Firefox for personal internet use). This can help you keep work and personal life separate.

  • If you are screen-sharing or displaying a screen in a video call and will be demonstrating anything online, it is best to use incognito browsing windows - this should prevent inadvertently showing any browsing history to others. Be sure to close any windows or tabs of private or sensitive material before any such meetings.

  • As well as being aware of who is around you in your physical space, be aware of potential virtual eavesdroppers as well. If you are dealing in anything confidential, you might be best to work away from any voice-controlled smart TV or games console, and out of earshot from Alexa, to avoid the possibility of remote listening-in. Some lawyers have suggested switching off Alexa, when working from home.

Working from home could improve diversity, particularly opening up possibilities for work and study for those living with chronic illness or disability. But is there a danger that increased working from home could pressure employees to work longer hours? What other concerns do you have around the idea of working from home?

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Wellbeing

University of York