Apart but not Alone? Neighbour support during lockdown

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By Amy Beardmore, Research Associate in Public Health and Community Development

As the UK went into lockdown on 23 March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, communities across the country sprang into action and initiated a rapid process of self-organisation, the likes of which had never been seen before. Help for people within communities was quickly coordinated using online platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and the hyperlocal social network Nextdoor, alongside more traditional forms of communication such as phoning neighbours or dropping notes through letterboxes. The pace at which this unprecedented community response to the crisis was organised appeared to overtake the implementation of more formalised voluntary and statutory sector support in the area. The result was a complex network of street, neighbourhood and community level help, support and resources.

Rapid research

It quickly became apparent to researchers in the Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing that a unique opportunity was emerging to document the extent of this sudden surge in ground level support and how it might be affected by levels of social deprivation. Enlisting the help of colleagues from within the centre and external partner organisations, as well as a number of community researchers and public contributors, the team designed a piece of research consisting of three distinct phases. This work began just four days after lockdown on 27 March under the heading Apart but not Alone, starting with an online cross-sectional survey.

Survey One

Launched on 2 April and promoted largely through online channels, email and text messages, the first survey asked respondents about who and how they were helping, and their wider experiences of personal involvement in neighbourhood life. Of the 862 people who responded to the survey, a total of 539 responses from the Bristol built-up area were eligible for analysis.

Complex picture in areas of higher deprivation

The results showed that help and support unsurprisingly tended to be aimed at the most vulnerable in communities – specifically the over 70s and those self-isolating. Interestingly, the data also indicated that respondents from more deprived areas of the city and surrounding areas tended to be disproportionately supporting those with disabilities and mobility issues, those with no access to outdoor space and those experiencing financial difficulties. These areas of higher deprivation were also less likely to strongly agree that neighbours were supporting each other well.

Women shouldering majority of the burden?

It is notable that 80.9% of survey respondents were female. There could be a number of reasons for this, including the possibility that women are more actively engaged in social and community networks – both on and offline – and men’s helping behaviours therefore exist but are simply less visible. It may also be that women are shouldering the burden of caring for their community as well as immediate family members, with many also trying to work from home, often with children present.

Low BAME response rate

Bristol has a BAME population of around 14% (although this figure is much lower for South Gloucestershire and North Somerset), so a survey response rate of 5.3% does not appear to be representative of the local population. This may well be due to the restrictive nature of an online survey promoted largely via social media, although the sample did specifically include BAME organisations. It is hoped that the experiences of the BAME population will be explored in more detail through the qualitative element of the project.

In-depth interviews reveal lived experience

The second phase of the project consists of in-depth qualitative interviews with some of the survey participants in order to get a better understanding of how social capital – the resources and connections that people have access to that can influence their ability to navigate systems or to generally do well in life – influences individual and community experiences of lockdown. Eighteen interviews have been conducted so far as part of a unique piece of research in which the researchers themselves are living through the same experience as their interviewees.

“Two of my neighbour’s cousins have died because of Covid-19…and it’s difficult for her because they can’t get together as a family to mourn…”

Research participant

Follow-up survey on community spirit

Participants from the original survey who expressed an interest in taking part in further research were also invited to take part in Phase Three – a follow up survey, published on 27 May. This survey asked about positive and negative experiences in communities since the easing of lockdown on 10 May, and early analysis suggests that whilst many reported a continuation of positive activity (such as increased communication, street level events and volunteering), participants also identified a number of emerging concerns. These tended to indicate that tensions were starting to creep in, particularly associated with confusion over the rules and social distancing as well as more general concerns about previous negative behaviours being exhibited by some members of the community. Of particular note were a number of negative comments about the behaviour of young people and teenagers, indicating potential generational conflict.

What next?

Results from Survey One were recently published in Emerald Open Research, and it is hoped that a second article will be published in the next few weeks summarising the findings of Survey Two, which is currently undergoing analysis. The qualitative element remains ongoing as we continue to explore the participant links to social capital and the impact it has had on their experiences of lockdown. For regular project updates, please follow us on Twitter @ApartAlone.

Getting the most out of home-working during Covid-19

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By Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor of Organisation Studies at UWE Bristol

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. This blog offers some thoughts and reflections for those finding 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 my daughter, but my work that needs concentration is done in 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 or so I have seen so many images being shared on social media that picture what it’s 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 performance review 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.