Home-working during COVID-19

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Working from home desk with a view of a garden
Harriet Shortt

Harriet Shortt is Associate Professor of Organisation Studies at The University of the West of England, Bristol. Harriet’s research focuses on organisational space, artefacts, the materiality of work, and visual methodologies. Her research has been published in journals including Human Relations, Organizational Research Methods, Management Learning, Visual Studies and the International Journal of Work, Organisation and Emotion. Harriet has led research projects in both public and private sector organisations, such as the Environment Agency, the NHS, Stride Treglown Architects, and ISG Construction. This is a guest blog from Harriet. 

We are all currently experiencing a situation we have never been in before where society has had to change and adapt beyond recognition, and one of the biggest changes we have had to make is the one associated with our work spaces. Many of us are now working at home and this has meant a complete shift in where we work and left some wondering how to cope with these changes. I have been asked to put together this blog with some thoughts and reflections for those people who have found themselves unexpectedly working from home.

Before we think about space, it’s worth thinking about work more broadly first. I have seen the use of the word ‘productivity’ floating about a lot recently. Be cautious of using this word (and this goes for employers/organisations/team leaders as well as us as individuals!). Whether it’s to ‘prove’ you are being productive at work or being productive in other ways – like taking up a new hobby or learning a language or suddenly taking up running – we need to remember we are in the middle of a pandemic and we are not out of it yet. Trying to set never-ending targets for how you are going to self-improve and working to unrealistic expectations is not good for your mental health or work – it is known as ‘toxic productivity’ and we need to recognise when this creeps into our working lives. Productivity does not look the same as it did before Covid-19, so adjust your goals, your boundaries, and your breaks from work to reflect this challenging period of time.

Let’s now turn our attention to home spaces. Our homes have now become a complex shared space. It’s an office, a gym, a place to relax and for many of us, a classroom. This can make it hard to find a ‘dedicated workspace’ that also encompasses everyone else’s needs in your household. Even for those who are used to working from home, this will be a new challenge as the routine of perhaps working at home alone will have likely changed and you’ll be sharing your ‘work’ space with others. This is going to require negotiation and open conversation about how, where and when we work with a house full of people. Be mindful that everyone’s boundaries have been broken and need to be re-established carefully.

Finally, it’s worth reminding ourselves that this is going to take time. We have all been dumped into this situation and working from home is more complicated than just finding a dedicated workspace, so don’t expect to get it right straight away. Try working in a particular space and if it doesn’t work, that’s ok – try somewhere else. Some work activities may work well in some home spaces, and others will need alternative spaces, so don’t feel you need to stick to the same place every day.

So, some thoughts on creating and thinking about our ‘new’ home-working spaces:

Free up different spaces for different tasks

This might mean adapting or re-appropriating your home spaces at different times of the day, for example, currently my dining room is a classroom by day and a family area at the weekends. I often take work calls in the kitchen or the garden so I can keep an eye on daughter, but my work that needs concentration is done is quieter spaces.

Think about your space creatively

Could you use liminal spaces (these are spaces ‘in-between’, like landings, hallways, stairways) in your house as a make-shift office, a place to take private calls, or as a place to find a few moments of quiet and reflection? I recently wrote a blog for Work Wise UK that explores this very topic and how the liminal spaces of our homes can provide some important and unexpected uses whilst we’re working at home during this crisis.

‘Own’ your space

Wherever you do choose to work from, make sure you make it yours, even if this is just temporary. Research shows that the more you are able to have a sense of ownership over your workspace and create a sense of identity, the more positively it will impact your sense of wellbeing and connection to your work.   

Re-claim your ‘normal’ spaces

If you are having to appropriate a ‘normal’ space (like a kitchen table) into a workspace, try to turn it back to a ‘normal’ space at the end of the day. This might help you to manage the boundaries between work and home, and with your sense of work/life balance.

Visual communication tools and ‘being on show’

For many people, technology has enabled them to make this transition to working from home easier. However, this still comes with its own problems. It has been clear since the majority of UK businesses have adopted remote working, that being ‘visible’ and ‘on show’ in our home spaces has brought many advantages and disadvantages. So, it’s worth reflecting on some of these issues as an individual or as an employer; having your camera on for meetings is a great way to connect socially with your colleagues and the backdrop of your home can be a conversation starter! Lots of people have been commenting on the backgrounds of their colleagues’ homes, the pets that accompany the meetings or even the children that might make a brief appearance. Having spoken to a lot of people about home working spaces over the past few weeks, there is a real sense that this has made us all more ‘human’. Seeing inside other people’s homes has made them more ‘real’ and people have enjoyed seeing this informal/ private side, rather than the typical traditional/formal interactions we are used to in the office. It is this that has brought people together.

Nonetheless, let’s be conscious of privacy and visibility when using these audio/visual communication tools. Others I have spoken to feel they are inviting people into their home spaces that perhaps they would not choose to. The blurring of the work/home boundary has been emphasised by our current use of technology. So, be respectful of asking colleagues to turn on their videos during meetings – there is a case of being social and connecting, but there is also a case for privacy and managing boundaries so that we keep some of the sanctuary of our homes to ourselves.

Capturing this experience in photographs

Apart from workspaces, my other area of research involves visual research to explore the everyday lives of workers. I use an approach called ‘participant-led photography’ and this includes asking people I work with in my research projects to take photographs based on a brief e.g. ‘what work spaces are important to you and why?’ and then they talk to me about their images. This method elicits rich stories from participants and gives them the opportunity to talk about what is meaningful to them at work. Over the past 8 weeks for so I have seen so many images being shared on social media that picture what its really like to work at home. Social media platforms are a rich source of data at the moment and images captured and posted by workers all over the world depict the complexities, the joys, the difficulties and the juggles of working from home. I think this could be a great opportunity for organisations and employers to do their own visual research:

  • Organisations can collect data about the complexities of employees working remotely. Ask your team to take pictures of what it’s like working at home, where are they, how are they sharing their workspaces, what do they enjoy and what are they finding difficult. This could be a creative way of engaging your team, but also getting feedback. Remote working is here to stay in some form, so the more information and data we have about how people are doing it and how they experience it, the better.
  • During the current crisis, these images could be part of weekly catch ups and individual conversations with your line manager or be part of a PDR session. Or, they could be collectively posted on a virtual team noticeboard and discussed as a group. Either way, it might help people to reflect and share, and for organisations to sense-check how their employees are coping with working from home.
  • Post Covid-19, these images could also help us learn from this experience, as part of our recovery – teams or organisations could hold an exhibition of people’s images that document what working from home looked like for them. We will, at some point, need to come together to reflect and heal from this experience and a good way to do that might be through the eyes of employees and their photographs.

If you would like more information or to get in touch please email bbec@uwe.ac.uk.

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