by Paul Ford
With most of the world it seems now locked down or on the verge of doing so, those of us who can work from home, are. And this has meant, for many, coming to terms with a whole new way of life. Even those who’ve dipped their toes in the WFH world before have usually had the option of going into the office from time to time. Not now. Here at Volt in the UK, the doors shut on Tuesday for at least three weeks, with the distinct probability of that period being extended to ensure that transmission of the Coronavirus among our staff is reduced and therefore lessening the burden on an already pressured health service.
Our French and Belgian colleagues of course have been WFH for somewhat longer than us in the UK.
So, the office is now the dining table, the lounge, the spare bedroom, the summer house or garden shed or even the cupboard under the stairs. Wherever it is, it needs to provide at least the basics that you need to get the job done. I don’t mean just a decent wifi/phone signal, although efficiently functioning IT and communications kit is a must-have. You need enough space, enough comfort, enough quiet (or noise) to allow you to focus on the tasks in hand. It’s going to be different for everyone. For some, balancing a laptop on your knees at one end of the sofa with headphones blasting out your favourite Spotify playlist represents productivity heaven. For others, what’s needed is stillness, calm, a closed door and a decent-sized flat surface for everything you’ll need for the day ahead. Whatever the ideal, the current situation is likely to require compromise. Do you have children, pets and/or partners? All three? Then balance will need to be struck. Be open and discuss it with them. (Not the pets. They really don’t understand every word you say, no matter what you might think). And be flexible, adaptable. Like the best business plans your approach should be reviewed regularly. You might think it’s all working out brilliantly, but what do the others in your household think? Are they equally impressed? Do check. For the young, and sometimes the not so young, the almost ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ conundrum that you are there but at the same time not there, can present a mis-step in understanding and the ability to deal with it.
Having got the psycho-social aspects sorted, there are other pitfalls that need to be taken into account. If you don’t have the comparative luxury of a study or separate workspace, and you’re using everyday tables and chairs in place of your usual set-up, then be aware of the physical changes you’re going through. The laptop screen probably won’t be at the correct eyeline, it’ll most likely be lower. The chair, whatever its usual purpose, will be designed for occasional use, not being sat on for eight hours straight. So where you can, make adjustments. Raise the height of the laptop, or if you can, find a separate screen that you can put at the right level. Find the chair that best does the job in your home, not simply the one closest to the table you’re using. Maybe, if you still have access, borrow your work one (please ask permission first, or the police might think you’ve begun looting). If you are constantly sitting badly, hunched over and peering at your screen, your posture will be affected and potentially lead to tension, back-aches, head-aches and other things you really don’t need.
There are opportunities here too. And like many opportunities they’re born out of necessity. Need to get a contract signed? You can trial electronic signature packages. You’re stuck in a position where you can’t meet face to face, but it’s vital for you to talk to a client and email or telephone just don’t cut it? Try out new video conferencing software.
But if you’re using video conferencing, then make sure you’re ready for it. You should still be projecting a certain level of professionalism, and though perhaps suit jacket and tie or full-on, dressed to kill make-up won’t always be needed (it depends of course on the other people you’re likely to be speaking with, and always err to the side of caution if you’re unsure), even talking to your colleagues shouldn’t really conducted in your pyjamas, dinosaur onesie or a t-shirt with a humorous but glaringly inappropriate design. Check the background. Without completely remodelling your home, try to make sure the that what’s behind you can’t distract from the conversation you’re going to have. And let others know what you’re doing. Nothing is going to kill the discussion quicker than child or pet demanding attention at just the wrong time, or your partner wandering through the camera shot in their underwear. Or less.
Make sure there is a clear division between work and not-work. A separate workspace makes the move from one environment to the other easier, but for those without it, it can be difficult to make the change. ‘I’ll just check my phone for that email’, ‘Give me a moment, I need to update that spreadsheet’, ‘I’m sorry, this is really urgent’ and all of a sudden the evening’s gone, your kids are in bed and your husband’s asleep in front of the TV. There will always be emergencies but, on a daily basis, get used to the click of the laptop lid going down as close of business, not to be opened to the following day.
Despite all this, and a myriad of other trials and tribulations, working at home is set to expand going forward. The UK’s Office of National Statistics has predicted that 50% of the workforce would be doing so at some level by 2021 and the current Coronavirus situation can only serve to increase that figure. Stress levels for those employees who were already actively using WFH were significantly reduced, retention rates improved, and as commuting time was being turned into work time, productivity increased by as much as 30%.
Working from home may be the future, but it needs to be done properly, with the same care and attention to health, safety and wellbeing that would be spent in the office. Get it right, and everybody comes out ahead.