Professor Amelia Hadfield is the Head of Department of Politics and Director of the Centre for Britain and Europe (CBE) at the University of Surrey
“I’ll admit I’m not crazy about working from home. But I also enjoy a challenge, so I attempted to get my head around the idea early on, and set up the structures I needed. I possibly took too academic an approach to this, and actually started by (yes, dear reader) researching the various suggestions and tips for working from home in order to see the whole scope of this weird new terrain. I didn’t have to look far. UK and indeed global media remains awash with different guides to working from home. Most of our domestic pointers, from BBC to the NHS and the Independent, highlight the importance of setting a schedule to distinguish working time from home time, creating a dedicated working space, getting dressed, taking breaks, etc. So far, so good. Clear rules, benchmarks, zones, and times. The idea that this degree of control could in fact be exercised initially made me feel relaxed about juggling online work, my own research, the slew of online meetings, and pretending to be a competent junior school teacher for my 11-year old son. Sure, I thought, why not. Bring it on, pandemic protocol and all.
Just two small problems. One, I felt I wasn’t actually contributing enough to helping out during the crisis. Second, I wound up struggling mightily to actually balance everything. I attempted to remedy the first by volunteering in various unofficial capacities around my neighbourhood and other groups. Which made me feel less guilty about still being healthy, and not being one of the thousands of front-line workers who so heroically labour to keep the country safe. The problem was, I still felt genuinely helpless every time I heard the daily death toll. The lesser problem was that juggling online work, volunteering with primary schooling proved an unholy trinity for the most part, with my son’s maths probably taking the brunt of it.
Geographically, I’ve shifted around quite a bit. I started out in my tiny home office, but then Junior proved more focused at ‘mummy’s desk’, so I set up my pop-up station in the kitchen. That worked for about 20 minutes when the constant oversight required in governing Junior saw me running back and forth with laptop in one hand and phone in the other. So, I gave up, sat cross-legged on the floor in our tiny home office, with all my various accoutrements spread around me. I’m still too far from coffee machine (and frankly not close enough to the fridge), and I’ve tipped all manner of various beverages onto the floor, but it’s working. Thanks to headphones, it’s working.
I have been dogmatic in one thing: the alarm clock. One mid-March morning I allowed myself to drift a little later, and do online work / meetings in a t-shirt top and pyjama bottoms. By 9am I’d cracked. So, I’m sticking to the same working hours that I normally do. Except I’m now extending these by starting earlier, and finishing much later. It seems that online meetings virtually anaesthetise small-talk, and hence you can shove a lot more meetings on endless topics into a given day, so – like many others – I’m upping, rather than reducing my overall workload. I don’t mind, I feel I ought to keep as busy as I can. Juggling is itself a skill, and one that reminds me I’m (a) lucky to be working at all, (b) healthy, and however poor my Form VI compound fractions are, (c) in a position to help, even a little.
What’s strange is the unevenness of it all. Some days I’m a little whirlwind. Other days, I’m so unproductive I think I’ve failed to get out of bed at all. I’m unable to resist checking my emails at the best of times, but now – well, the problem has bloomed into an obsession. I asked a friend of mine how she was doing. Here’s her answer:
“It took me a while to realise that all the boundaries I had set were more physical than emotional in nature, and instead of listening to myself, I had enforced restrictions on myself that I normally do not have. I realised that while my working time ends at a certain time, if something needs doing, I often stay in the office to finish it off. Do I normally check my emails after hours and on the weekends? Absolutely. Do I normally have meetings at my desk? Absolutely not. In an attempt to better separate work and home, my new working from home routine was actually keeping me from doing the things that I was used to.”
She’s quite right. Don’t succumb to structures that don’t suit you. I’m working within SOME boundaries, still determined to crack that unholy trinity, but I’ve learned at least not to let the boundaries structure and constrict me. I had a similar experience with the news. When I started working from home, I thought I wanted – and indeed needed – to hear absolutely everything that was happening in the world.
Consequently, I had the news on in the background, all day long, including all available Covid-19 briefings. It didn’t take long to reach saturation. The more I heard, the more questions I had, and the harder I found focusing on things that were both related and unrelated to Covid-19. Rather than throw any more shoes at the radio / laptop, I attempt to limit my news intake to when I’m pottering in the kitchen (down to a healthy average of 18 out of 24 hours a day). Better than the endless news cycle, I’ve opted instead for daily Covid-19 digest that provides an overview of the key developments. Some days, I read this in great detail, other days, it’s more of a top and tail. Again, the key is flexibility. Forcing yourself to read/listen to the news and/or your emails after hours can be counterproductive. Better to spend any extra time you can with your equally frustrated family, get that extra hour of neighbourhood support in, or set up another virtual pub quiz for your team.
We’re in it together, but together we’ll get through it. I AM going to need to clean that carpet, though.”