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Ask the experts: working from home

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Ask the experts: working from home

“You must stay home.” Boris Johnson delivered these words in a televised address, encouraging people to work from home and not leave the house unless it is essential.

Millions of people are now working from home, many for the first time in their career, to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

But working remotely after years of working in an office will not be an easy change for many.

Holyrood has asked five ‘experts’, who were home workers before being ordered to stay home, for their top tips for staying productive, and sane.

“I think that the common misconception, particularly for traditionalists and older generations, is that people who work from home skive, that they will put their feet up or spend too much time in the kitchen or on the sofa,” Samantha Fiander says.

“For some people, the reality is really the other end of the spectrum. For somebody like me, who likes working fairly hard and is involved with news and communications, actually you can end up working through and working too many hours and really not switching off.

“And that’s the real danger of the adjustment, is actually putting in a break. People can’t see what you’re doing so you just plough on, you end up downing tools at 7pm, or you work through lunch, because you can and you just want to get on with things. And that’s quite unhealthy.”

Fiander works from home as communications and engagement lead at the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection.

She says “you have to get to know yourself quite well” to maintain a healthy balance.

“I think making your colleagues aware of what you’re doing, so they’re kind of checking in a little bit with you as well, and they’re aware if you’re taking a break or not.”

Fiander says she was one of few people in her office who worked remotely before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that everyone is working from home, they have changed some office practices.

“When you’re one of the only people in your team that works from home, you’re kind of out of sight, out of mind, people kind of forget. I think the transition now is that we’re using different things, for example we’re using one online function to have banter chats that you would have across the desk.”

Another new addition is a daily video call check in, which is not only about work.

“It’s important to say that the check in, particularly under these circumstances, isn’t just about the work - it’s about how is everybody doing?

“Ordinarily, it’s about you getting on with things, but now it’s about reminding the team that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and to take care of yourself and to be flexible, we might need to do things a little bit differently.”

Writer and editor Sally Hinchcliffe quit her life in London to move to Dumfries and Galloway ten years ago, where she began working from home full-time.

“I was living in London, managing a team of six people, and then we just dropped everything and sold up to move to Scotland. It took me about two or three years to get myself productive again, because it can be really hard to impose that discipline on yourself,” she says.

Having worked through these issues, Hinchcliffe now relishes being able to work when she feels most productive during the day.

“You are productive at different times of the day, and if you can adjust your hours to work when you’re actually the most productive, rather than just because that’s working hours, then you get a real advantage from it,” she says.

“The other thing is being able to have a nap after lunch. It sounds funny, but it really makes a difference if you get that post lunchtime kip.”

Hinchliffe’s other piece of advice is that it is “absolutely key to have deadlines”. “If you don’t have deadlines, then set deadlines. And schedule, so say to yourself, ‘I will do this for an hour’, or ‘I will finish this by Tuesday’ and actually set it down.”

Comedian Matt Forde, who works from home when he is not going to gigs, radio or television studios, says: “Avoiding food is such a big part of my day.”

“So, I do try to not have too much chocolate in the house,” he laughs, “I try not to watch television. I suppose my measures are more punitive, I’m trying to stop myself doing things.

“What I will do sometimes is, if I feel like I’ve been particularly productive, I’ll allow myself a little tinkle on the piano. And I find that in a weird way, because that involves something creative, that weirdly helps.”

Forde worked in an office for years, first for the Labour Party and then in public affairs, before transitioning into more creative work.

“I have this weird paranoia, I couldn’t get used to not really having a boss. Because my life had been entirely structured from school, or nursery even, there are certain hours you have to be in certain places and there’s an authority figure who’s always there.

“I think it depends on the person, but I’m more productive, I think, when I have the fear of someone saying, ‘what do you mean you’ve done nothing?’”

Since moving to home working, he says he still gets up and ready for 9am to sit at his desk. “Even if I am just pratting about on the internet, I still feel that I should be up, dressed, shaved and washed and I’ve never lost the habit of that, and I don’t think I’ve had an office job for ten years.

“So, keep the discipline of office hours, shave and shower, and don’t just sit there in your pants, put proper clothes on, dress for work. I really think that helps.”

Edinburgh-based architect Ben Ingle worked in offices for ten years before transitioning to working from home. He says the hardest thing for him has been separating work from home life.

“For most people, home is where you do everything but work, so it takes a bit of a mental shift to switch off the day to day home life and get your head into work,” he says.

Ingle offered practical advice for people struggling with their productivity at home.

“I tend break my work down into individual elements and allocate time to each. Lately I’ve started to use a desktop timer to try achieve these time targets. I find this can be much more productive than my days working in an office,” he says.

“I also make a work list for each week and update it every day. This helps you to appreciate what you’ve achieved and in turn helps to boost your productivity.”

He has transformed his attic space into an office and uses cloud storage so that his files are accessible from wherever he is, and: “I have a large screen plugged into my laptop and a good chair.”

His advice for people who are transitioning to home working for the first time is: “When you’ve finished work, put all of your work things away.

“It’s even more important to keep the distinction between work life and home life when your home is your office. It’s healthy to switch off,” he says, adding: “accept that it will take a bit of time to find this balance.”

Voiceover artist Jenny Dunbar, also based in Edinburgh, has a home studio that she uses to deliver audio to people around the world. She has been working from home for 16 years.

Thinking back to when she started working from home, Dunbar says “there was definitely an adjustment period”.

“It’s very odd doing business with people when you aren’t actually watching their body language. But the biggest adjustment was trying to see home as a place that you do work, rather than a place that you don’t work,” she says.

“For the first few weeks, I was very busy and I never managed to get out of my pajamas. I’d slump around without a timetable, so that is something that I’m really strict about now, I start work at a certain time and I have to do certain things before I start work - I have to walk the dog, I have to have a shower.”

Dunbar says she finds working from home can be quite isolating, so she has a network of people who do the same work as her “that I can call and they understand”.

“Even if it’s just WhatsApping people, or it’s chatting to people. For me, you have to keep social with people because it would be really hard if you didn’t. If you’re in an office environment, you’ve always got that opportunity to talk to people just casually passing by. But I think when you’re working from home, you’re thinking ‘I’m working, I’m working, I’ve got to work’.

“You’ve got to allow yourself almost that standing around the coffee-maker time, having a wee chat, just to keep sane!”

To keep productive, Dunbar says she always has a plan for the next day, “so that I know exactly how my day is going to pan out”.

“It’s also really important that you have a work station. Just set yourself up a little corner, somewhere that that’s where you work and when you’re out of there you don’t have to work.”

She adds: “And allow yourself to go and make a cup of tea, or to get a breath of fresh air, I think that’s really important or you lose track of time and suddenly think ‘oh my God it’s dark’.”

Five tips if you are working from home for the first time:

  1. Get into a routine – wake up at a certain time, shower, get dressed and try to get outside and take breaks as you normally would.
  2. Remember to switch off – just as you normally knock off work, make sure you switch off and do not continue working into the evening if you don’t need to.
  3. Find a dedicated workspace in your home – don’t spend your day working from the couch or the bed, set yourself up at a table or in a corner and leave that space at the end of the work day.
  4. Keep social – have non-work-related chats with colleagues during in the day, just as your normally would in an office environment.
  5. Eat healthy – stock your house with healthy food and avoid eating too frequently.
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