Transitioning to working from home

Lots of people are suddenly having to transition to working from home at the moment, and responses have been mixed. I’ve seen both a flurry of social media posts  about awesome ways to make working from home effective, but I’ve seen a lot of people struggling to make the transition. These are smart, self-motivated people, so it’s less likely to be a struggle about accessing knowledge (though that might also help! People are giving great advice, do take it!) and more about the fact that transitions take time.

Long-time readers of this blog know that that is kind of my thing. So this is a small way I can contribute to the conversation.

I’ve been working from home, off and on, for a couple of years. At first it was just a day a week, and then at the end of 2019 I was basically working from home researching and freelancing for 6 months. When I was studying for my Masters and PhD, I was full time and did most of my work at home too. So I have some tips and tricks, but more importantly, I have been through the process of changing, at various stages of my life, from an office to home and vice versa.

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The first thing is to remember that this is a transition, and they typically take a few days. Just like it takes a few days to really relax into a holiday, or to change timezones, it can take a few days to get back into a writing habit, or build a new working from home habit. (In fact, it will take 2 weeks for the habit to really start to stick, but it will feel easier after a few days.)

The second thing is to realise that working from home day in and day out is different from working from home one day a week, or when you have a big writing task. When I only worked at home to get uninterrupted writing time, I found I was insanely productive but also quite stressed. I couldn’t waste any of my day, because I wouldn’t get another one soon.

What’s more, in that situation, working from home was the opposite of working from the office. When I worked from home, I didn’t go to meetings or teach or chat to other people in the office. Instead, I was trying to do work that was really hard to do in the office.

But now home is the office.

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This means you need to reflect on what you actually did all day on campus. You need to count the tasks you did, the time it took, and the energy levels. You also need to count ‘small’ tasks that we often overlook! Just because they are small doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

For example, make sure you count:

  • The time spent in meetings when people discuss things that you need to know about, but only in a peripheral way.
  • A lot of your work might be achieved (as mine is) by having short ‘corridor’ conversations.
  • You may spend a lot of time doing email on your phone or laptop while waiting for meetings to start.
  • You might take breaks in the day to get coffee or lunch.
  • You might have to walk between different campus buildings.

Being on campus allows you to do a number of things passively, and other things you have to be active about. When you are at home, some things that you could easily achieve (like people knowing you were at work and available because they could see you at your desk), need to be done more intentionally. How do you signal that you are available to your colleagues for a chat? How do you recognise that it’s time to stop emailing and head to the meeting?

Now you need to work out ways to achieve the same things at home. For example, sending a start of the day email, logging in to your team live chat, or scheduling a simultaneous ‘hot beverage and hello’ meeting via video. Do you need to set an alarm to give you an audible prompt to change tasks?

Finally, there will have been things you liked about your office job, and that mattered to your team, your students and yourself. For example, your walk to work, those catch ups over coffee, the questions students ask you after lectures, having a pinboard covered in plans for the year. Can you make those work in your home space?

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And this brings me to my final point about the transition to working from home–this stuff needs infrastructure. It needs planning. It needs time to set up. You are building a new work infrastructre in a place that has previously been primarily for domestic life. Writing at the dining table or sending emails from the sofa are temporary measures. If this goes on for six months, or becomes your new normal, you need to build something more robust.

Of course, what we don’t have at the moment is time. This movement for many of us in March 2020 is happening at breakneck speed in the face of a global pandemic. Some of us are trying to move courses online, something that typically takes 6-12 months, in less than a week. That means it will be messy, and your working from home infrastructure will be full of work arounds. It’s okay for it to be a mess, it’s okay if it isn’t seamless and tidy and you aren’t pounding out thousands of words a day.

I hope there will be people with understanding work places and good support who are able to take the time to plan, manage and embed this transition. I hope this post will also be useful in easier times, when working from home is something you got to chose. And while this is happening, perhaps you can find out something about how you work, and what works for you.

Stay safe, keep washing your hands, be kind to one another, be kind to yourself.

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