Working from home: The Dream, the Myth, the Legend.

Gwen Hill, Research Development Coordinator, Royal Roads University

Hello CARA members. If this blog post seems a bit casual, it’s because I’m writing it in jogging pants and sneakers, and nary a molecule of makeup has touched my face in two weeks. To my left, a mug of half-drunk coffee; to my right a glass of water acts as a paperweight on a notebook full of reminders, lists, and notes-to-self. Downstairs, my partner is on a conference call while my dog barks loudly at nothing, because she is old and deaf and annoyed at our presence during her nap time. Somewhere, my cat is plotting his revenge at not having been allowed to walk to and fro’ across my keyboard.

This is working from home.  A series of compromises, oddities, annoyances, and delights. I am currently working from home in self-isolation during the CoVid19 pandemic, but I also worked from home for four years as an IBM remote team member. My team at the time worked across Canada, all of us in home offices, and on Ontario time. I’m hoping that experience along with my more recent time spent at home will be useful to you. Here’s what I learned.

1. Take a moment.

It’s nearly impossible to be prepared for a global pandemic. This isn’t something any of us have any experience with, so remember that “doing my best” is going to be different for each of us. Any time we take a hit or have a loss of any kind, we need to grieve it. Give yourself some dedicated time to acknowledge what has changed in your world, and know that you can handle not only this but whatever comes next. Jackie Dunham wrote a good article[1] recently on experiencing anticipatory or pre-emptive grief; you may find it of use. Remember that every day will be different for every person – as research administrators, we are planners by either nature or design, but we can only take this one day at a time.

2. Clear a space…

Everyone is saying this, but it’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Some of us are working in small spaces or challenged by the needs of partners and children. Some of us were mid-renovation when this hit, or mid-move. These days, I’m lucky enough to have an office, but back when I worked for IBM I had a corner of my bedroom and a half-sized desk that barely held my laptop. My printer lived on a stack of operations manuals on the floor. And yet, both my IBM half-desk and current home office serve the same purpose: When I come here, I come here to work.

Do what you can to make this space, where you will spend the majority of your day, as ergonomic as you can. Stack books to move monitors and keyboards around, use external monitors when you’re using a laptop, and try to stay away from trackpads. Your institution likely has information on ergonomic setups, but if not, WorkSafe BC has a handy guide with an assessment tool[2].

3. … but don’t fixate on it.

When you went in to work at your university, clinic, or research center, you didn’t stay in your office all day, did you? You probably went to meetings in various offices and boardrooms, popped out for chats with colleagues, went for lunches and coffees, and so on. You may need to keep this movement at home, and each of us will have our own levels of abilities and needs. For myself, I try to move about a bit:

  • When I am joining webinars or Zoom style meetings, I sometimes do so on my phone or tablet (or move my laptop) down to my kitchen table. It’s bright and sunny, and I can mute my mic so that no one else has to listen to the dog bark.
  • If I’m making a call, I move around. Either to the living room or outside, if it’s not pouring rain (or snowing, depending on where you are). Headsets are a gift for this, as I often think better on the move.

Of course, that assumes a certain amount of privilege in the technology you have available. I hope that at least you have a phone that can move with you!

4. Stay connected – not just to your e-mail.

This is imperative. Even if, like me, you are as far on the introvert side of an MBTI as you can get before actually living in a cave, you need to maintain your connection to your coworkers. After all, when you went to the office, you talked about more than work, right? You asked about weekends, kids, pets, plans, and families. Some of your energy will need to go in to maintaining that as best you can, keeping in mind that looks different for each of us.

If you stick with just e-mail, it’s going to be difficult to maintain a personal connection without flooding inboxes, and I think we can all agree that we have no shortage of e-mail. Fortunately, we live in the age of connectivity. Here are some options, in order of my personal preferences:

  • Chats. If you already use Skype, try using the chat box feature. It wasn’t really designed for the job, though, so if you can handle a very small learning curve, try Slack or Google Hangouts. Keep the chats personal; those are US servers.
  • Phone calls. Regular check-in calls can be nice, if only just to hear someone’s voice, but consider others’ time and make sure that you’re scheduling calls that will work with their schedules.
  • E-mail. If you must use e-mail, try specific e-mail chains with subject lines that can be easily noted as personal or social. If you’re using Outlook, you can use the ‘low priority’ flag.

5. Manage your time.

I have saved the hardest one for last because working from home can mean that time loses all meaning. Did I work eight hours today, or fifteen, or five? Does it count if I replied to e-mail on my phone for two hours, in bed, at 11 pm? (Yes, it does, but stop that.)

Your day needs structure. If you used to walk to work, get dressed, and walk around the block (keeping an appropriate social distance from anyone you see). Some people need to dress as though they were going to work; I’m not going to push for that as I sit here in my yoga gear and sneakers. I could do my job in a Halloween costume or a bathing suit - as long as my hands and mind were unimpeded, I would be just as good at it as I am in dress slacks and a blouse. What I need is a morning walk with the dog, a shower, breakfast, ten minutes on Twitter; then I start my day. Figure out what you need, and stick to it for a few days. Then see how you feel and re-evaluate. Track your work time using an Outlook calendar, a pen, and paper, a timer app, or whatever works for you. In my experience, we are far more likely to overwork than underwork, but sitting in front of a screen all day can be hard on your mental health.

While you manage your time, be kind to yourself. You might spend twenty minutes staring at an e-mail before you read it. Tidying up year-end might look like a looming mountain right now. You might snap at someone unintentionally. Take a breath and forgive yourself, apologize as needed, and move on. This is not a time to achieve new levels of productivity – if all you do is get through, then that is enough.

For every moment that I sit behind my keyboard, I am keeping my community safe and flattening the curve. It’s not the kind of heroine I expected to be – I thought there would be more swords and horses involved – but here we are. Every one of you who is home right now, suffering dozens of small annoyances and indignities, figuring out what to do with your kids and how to get groceries and what to use instead of toilet paper, is my hero. I am proud of this CARA community, which has pulled together to support each other and our researchers. I hope this has been useful to you – stay safe and take care of yourselves, and by extension, each other.