06 Apr 2020   |   Network Updates   |   Update from University College London
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UCL researchers share advice on healthy home working


As strict self-isolation measures, introduced to control the spread of coronavirus, force millions of us to work from home, UCL academics share their tips and strategies to help achieve healthy homeworking.

Drawing on research insights from the worlds of psychology and anthropology, PhD researcher Dave Cook (UCL Anthropology) and Professor Anna Cox (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) have drawn up five key themes on adjusting to this new life.

Anthropologist Dave Cook studies the behaviour of an extreme kind of remote worker, known as digital nomads. His five-year ethnographic study involves research with millennials from the UK, US, Europe and Australia working remotely in South East Asia. He has examined the use of disciplining practices for managing work/leisure boundaries, when there is often no physical separation between work and non-work spaces.

Anna Cox, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction, uses theories and methods from social science to study digital technology use in order to help people be happier, healthier and more productive. She leads research projects on: The Future of Work in the Digital Age and Digital Wellbeing, which look at the impacts of being “constantly connected” on work-life balance and wellbeing.

Five key themes for healthy homeworking:

1. Avoiding feeling constantly connected to work 

Anna: Using digital technologies to work from home can lead to a blurring of the boundaries between work and home and a feeling that we are constantly connected to work. In addition, managing caring responsibilities is going to mean it’s harder than normal to be productive. 

Dave: Limit time spent on smartphones and use time management techniques. For example, if you check your phone first thing in the morning set an alarm to limit your activity. Better still, focus on your most important task (M.I.T) first, and attend to distracting email and social media when you are done with focused tasks.

Blocking out chunks of time in the calendar for specific work tasks can help us be more structured and productive. Time management methods such as time boxing can be effective for breaking down tasks. Tools such as FocusMe or Momentum Dashboard are modern day versions of the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 80s, which used a tomato timer to break work down into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.

2. Creating work / leisure boundaries

Anna: There is a temptation to use our devices for both work and leisure activities, but this blurs the boundaries between the two parts of our life, making it harder to switch off at the end of the day. Make sure to schedule time for non-work activities such as playing videogames and video-calling with friends and family.

Use different technology for different parts of your life. If you can, keep your work laptop for work and your personal laptop for leisure. The same goes for work phone and personal phones. You can even have separate social media accounts for work and leisure.

Dave: It takes work, planning and new forms of communication to maintain a semblance of work / life balance. While this may seem a bit of a paradox, it’s really important to put the time into maintaining a work/leisure division otherwise we risk becoming what scientist Dr Melissa Mazmanian calls – “always available” - worker/smartphone hybrids.

It’s important to not to let your smartphone run your whole day. Take some time away from your smartphone to disconnect. This could be spending time with housemates, your partner or family or engaging in a hobby, playing board games, reading or doing some exercise.

One complication is that exercise and yoga classes are now being shifted to video calls and social media, so schedule your exercise in your calendar and have a direct link to that live event, so you avoid getting distracted by your social feeds when setting up your workout.

3. Routines for home schooling parents

Anna: Following a routine Monday to Friday can help those of us home schooling. Kids are used to following a routine at school and following a similar timetable at home might make them feel more secure.

Our research on immersion in videogames has shown how we can lose track of time when immersed in an activity. This can happen with work too, leading to kids needing feeding right when you’re in the middle of something important. Using an alarm clock to remind you to move onto the next part of your routine will help you stick to your schedule. If you keep repeating this, ideally it will help you get to a point where everyone knows what will happen next and just follows it.

For home schooling it’s also useful to think about your child’s personality, age and ability when coming up with a routine and setting habits.

For older children, it might be doing one to two hour chunks of work similar to a school pattern. And then having break time together as a family. Then another chunk before lunch and then in the afternoon you may let them occupy themselves watching TV, playing a video game or in the garden, so you can do some focused work.

For younger children, it might be half hour chunks of work and making sure there is physical activity to break up the day.

Either way it is important to recognise that it will take time to find a routine that will work for your whole household. Don’t feel bad if the first version needs some tweaking.

4. Coping with isolation and burnout in the longer term

Dave: Home workers may feel they have a good routine in place after one or two weeks, but problems - caused by working from home over a longer period of time - can creep up unnoticed.  Implementing the simple practice of switching on video for online meetings, encourages people to go through rituals of dressing and presenting themselves professionally. These rituals that initially seem like unnecessary effort, help people structure and separate their work and home lives. 

It’s also important to reframe ‘social distancing’ as ‘physical distancing’. For example, when you finish work, talk to a parent or elderly relative on speakerphone whilst you make dinner. And build this into your routine. Alternatively, the simple act of turning a call into a video call adds an important social dimension to the interaction and requires you give the call your full attention.

As we go beyond the first couple of weeks try to recreate digital versions of water-cooler interactions. Building in time for fun and social activities with work colleagues might sound unnecessary now, however having a team quiz or an informal chat (remotely) over a cup of tea, with a colleague, will help with team cohesion and help us feel less lonely and more socially connected as lockdown goes on.

5. Managing and supporting a work team remotely

Anna & Dave: Managers can support their staff by recognising individual needs and working styles. The most important thing is to understand people’s strengths and where they need support. Some people are naturally quite self-disciplined, and others require external structure and support. This depends on job type and the amount of focused work that is required.

It’s important to also be showing compassion and understanding during this time, to be considerate of those that might find this more difficult due to being in a house share, having caring responsibilities or financial difficulties or a partner that may have lost their job. This is where it’s important to signpost counselling and support services either through work or charitable organisations.

This article was first published on 2 April by UCL.

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