Various desktop items - laptop, hone, glasses, coffee, notebook.

By Warren Evans, Wellbeing Officer in the School of Government

I’ve always preferred to keep work and home separate. I have listened to many friends over the years talk about home working and how they like the idea. Personally I have always felt that having a clear distinction between my personal and professional life is helpful. I am able to come to my office and engage in “work mode”.

Indeed, my work attire almost acts as a uniform, and I am able to put it on to help adopt the role, and equally, arriving home after work allows me to take it off (both the work clothes, and symbolically the role). This helps me maintain a separation between my work and home life. But there are other issues. I know I am very easily distracted, therefore would I be disciplined enough in adapting to working from home?

First things first. This is unprecedented. Many people will never have had to work or study from home. I have never done so. Widespread homeworking is a huge challenge for everyone affected and for those having to supervise performance and help people be productive. Having been working from home since mid-March, there’s lots I have learned, and lots still to learn! 

Let's start with some health and safety considerations. Places of work employ trained staff with specifically written policies and procedures to risk assess the environment. Your home has probably never been looked at as a working environment and won’t have these in place. Think about how you can ensure your home and remote working environment is as safe and comfortable as possible. Not only is setting up your IT necessary, but your whole work area is important. Set up a clear and comfortable working space, always making sure there is enough space to work in. Make sure the temperature in the room is comfortable and that you have a source of fresh air.

Actively turn your laptop off and put it away at the end of the working day. Leaving it out results in temptation to have a quick look. Where possible it can be helpful to divide your work and non-work space. If you can, allocate space in a spare room or home office. However, this is not possible for all of us. Managing separation between work and home can mean simply packing up your work area at the end of each working day so that you create a separation and avoid feeling like you are constantly connected to work.

I’d recommend having one dedicated place to store all of your work items. I have limited myself to using one table only thus keeping everything together. Ensure all wires and cables are out of the way to avoid trip hazards and consider anything else in your working area that could pose a risk. I have no office furniture at home and my chairs would be too low. I’ve actually set my laptop up on a high stand, and am standing up all the time I am working. I attended a wellbeing conference a year ago where research promoted this as an exceptionally healthy way to work.

Desktop with Mac, notebook and glasses

It is also important to ensure your chair is at a comfortable height, with your arms at right angles and forearms lightly supported by the work surface. You may need a footrest if your feet are not firmly on the floor. Also make sure you’re seating gives adequate back support and that your monitor is raised so that the top of the screen is at eye level. This can be done using an adjustable laptop stand, a box or some books if necessary. Locating close to a window allows natural light in, and for you to change your focal length at frequent intervals to minimize eye strain.

I can’t say it enough, but do move around. Consistently. Aim to schedule 30-60 minutes most days away from the screen. How about being sat in a chair by the laptop, but drafting ideas/documents on paper the good old fashioned way!? Also, aim to have a 15 minute period each morning reviewing the “to do” list. Mine is split into short, medium, and long term projects/things to do. This morning, my short term (i.e. by the end of this week) list had 7 things on. It now has 2!

Take regular, short breaks. Move around for five minutes every hour. It is possible to stay focused while working remotely, but it requires active guidance and management. A simple method for ensuring you take breaks is to set a timer when working. We all differ in our tolerance to needing a break, however working for periods longer than 50 minutes to one hour generally results in lowered productivity. Setting a timer at regular intervals may sound quite a basic method of managing your time while working at home, but it is hugely effective in ensuring you get a physical break from sitting at a visual display. It helps avoid eye strain and physical aches and pains from sitting for long periods. Breaks also provide much needed thinking time. Some of the best ideas come when giving your mind time and space away from work. I have an hourglass, and watching the sand fall through it helps me shift focus away from the screen, and helps my eyes.

Lone figure walking in a forest

Meeting up with peers and colleagues will help you maintain morale all-round. Remember to ask ‘how are you?’ to your colleagues, friends, and peers. This period will put a strain on many. We’ll be exploring the mental health implications of homeworking and isolation in the coming months. Talking in person and/or seeing each other retains connections and replicates the in-person conversations you would normally have. Generally, if you want to avoid feelings of isolation, picking up the phone or using other tech options beats email. In addition, limiting the volume of typing and associated screen time can benefit engaging in further aspects of self-care.

Women working at a laptop

Schedule time to blow off steam virtually. Scheduling a ‘coffee hour’ via video link to join others to talk about all those work and non-work related things you would normally discuss around the watercooler. Catch up on chit-chat. Discuss last night’s streaming activities, when sport or the theatre will resume, or new discoveries.

It is also important that we are all flexible in this period to the schedules of others, considering that those we are virtually working with (including our students) may be subject to considerable time constraints and/or may be in other time zones.

Maintain a daily structure to stay focused on your work and try to adopt ‘working practices’ while at home or working remotely. One thing many people underestimate is the power of getting dressed and resisting the temptation to wear your pyjamas all day. While this sounds appealing, there are important self-esteem and self-perception issues. You want to empower yourself to enable working effectively. If you are sat in PJ’s, is this setting yourself up to do so? Have you adopted the “I’m working” mindset? Whether that takes the form of a 9-5 or something quite different is one method of ensuring that you continue to work at a healthy and productive level. It may take time to find a rhythm, but the flexibility available allows work to be moulded to your particular needs.

Whatever the location of your work space, make sure it’s not a relaxation spot. Linked to the above, it needs to be an area where you can physically, and mentally create the space to work effectively. Therefore set the environment up to be pleasant and conducive to working, but where possible, remove potential distractions. Prevention is better than a cure, so removing temptation to be distracted in advance helps! Whether you need music to cancel everything out or complete silence to concentrate, change your environment accordingly. Engage in regular reviews of your work space, assessing what is working, and what isn’t. Figure out how you focus best, understanding when you are most productive and tailor your working to play to your strengths.

Keep your calendar/diary up to date - you need an overview of your workload, responsibilities, deadlines and projects. Therefore being able to review targets, and balance your tasks will aid planning. It gives you a bigger picture perspective and can also help with foreseeing future challenges (eg bottlenecks of work or deadlines). It’s vital that you are able to know when to step away from your desk/workspace. Everyone needs a break from their screens at some point; step away to recharge and return ready to take on the rest of the day. Again, adhering to regular working patterns and taking lunch and coffee breaks helps significantly.

Pinboard with post-it notes