IT'S the subject of many a water cooler conversation in workplaces countrywide right now. What if – at some stage of the Covid-19 scenario – I’m told to self-isolate and work from home?
There are plenty of jobs where working remotely isn’t feasible – if you work in retail or in the restaurant trade or are a medical professional, for example. But equally, there are myriads jobs that could lend themselves quite easily to working from home.
And so it is that people on coffee breaks around Ireland – used to the structure and professionalism of workplace offices and boardrooms – are scratching their heads and wondering: how in the world would I stay motivated and focused if I had to work from home? Home is where I rest, relax and recuperate. It’s where I immerse myself in family life, where I entertain and unwind. It’s where I get on with the business of living when I’m not at work.
How then would I not lose myself in all the distractions of home – oh, I’ll just make myself another cup of tea (I know I’ve had four already), take five minutes to talk to my partner, put on a load of laundry, and then I’ll start, I really will. How does this ‘working from home’ actually work?
Kathleen Halligan, chartered work and organisational psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland suggests the first proactive question to ask: is my home set up for this? Do I have a space that’s quiet, private, where I won’t be disturbed? Have I got a laptop? Do I have Wi-Fi? Halligan works with global and indigenous companies and says global companies, in particular, are often no stranger to remote working. “They’ll have technology that’ll allow remote workers to do web/video conferencing and instant messaging. These tools make it feasible to work in a remote context.”
However, many smaller companies may not be as well set up – maybe IT systems aren’t set up for remote accessing of confidential files, for example – but on the other hand, there’s a lot of very useful free technology available like Skype and Google Hangouts. “If an employer wants this to work, they need to supply their remote workers with the tools to do the job,” says Halligan.
Working in the family home poses another challenge – family! Maybe your partner’s home too and it’s so tempting to have a leisurely breakfast. Or your child’s home because their school’s closed – for this scenario, you definitely need another supervising adult, says Halligan. And then you need to put a sign on the door of the room you’ve designated your office – no matter if it’s the kitchen or the bedroom – clearly describing it as ‘home office’ during working hours. “The whole family, whoever you share the house with, is going to have to cooperate and be accommodating,” says Halligan.
And then there’ll be that hard-to-shake-off guilt – ‘I bet everybody out there, who’s working, thinks I’m dossing’. To combat this, Halligan recommends replicating your normal routine: get up at the time you normally do, be at your desk at your usual time. Communicate to work that you’ll be keeping office hours. Your new work circumstance might lead friends to think you’re available at the drop of a hat – put them right from the start: don’t answer the door. Take your breaks when you normally would.
Halligan finds remote workers can often be treated differently. “Workplace colleagues can forget you’re there, can forget to update you on issues, snippets of news, the water cooler conversation.” So it’s important, she says, for remote workers to imagine themselves on a par with office-based colleagues and to be willing to make that happen. “You have to literally make yourself visible. Turn on your camera when you’re chatting to someone. Let people in the office know you’re there – ‘good morning, I’m online, give me a shout if you need anything’.”
This staying connected with colleagues is the biggest challenge for those working from home, says Halligan. “You have to make a deliberate effort to get connected with the team. Use instant messaging. Send a quick message: ‘good morning, how are you?’ Try to replicate the normal chat you’d have’.”
Employers need to be proactive too about checking in with their remote workers. “Use instant messaging to ask: how’s everything going? Simple things can be hugely impactful – the employee working at home feels ‘my manager’s thinking of me’.”
Knowing which technology’s appropriate in a given moment can also be tricky for people working from home, Halligan finds. She says it’s important to identify when it’s right to put down the keyboard and pick up the phone, lest something gets lost in translation. “People often use email when they want to deliver a challenging message, yet email lacks the non-verbal, it lacks tone. The receiver, depending on how they’re feeling in that moment, could read a set of words you’ve written to convey a certain message and interpret them in a way you never intended.”
She recommends using email to synopsise and summarise what you did/agreed to do – but if you want to have an exploratory conversation and sift through ideas, pick up the phone or use Skype.
For managers of remote workers, the big challenge is: how do I know they’re doing what they should be doing? After setting reasonable expectations – taking into account equipment available to the remote worker – and discussing what flexibility, if any, there is around when in the day work will be done, managers should watch outputs. “Outputs are important. They tell whether the remote worker has done or produced what was asked for,” says Halligan.
For the person working from home, self-care is crucial. Take your breaks. And let yourself know you’re doing it. Halligan recommends telling yourself: ‘I’m working’. ‘Now, I’m stepping away.’ ‘I’m coming back now’. And move – get up from your desk and walk around. “When you’re in an office, you probably don’t realise how much and how often you walk.”
And instead of focusing only on the challenges of working from home, Halligan urges looking for the positives presented by this unexpected situation. “If you’re someone who’d been angling to work from home a couple of days a week – particularly if you have a long commute – here’s a golden opportunity to show: this can work.”