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Home-working in the time of Covid-19

Image: David Martyn Hunt [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Pointers for working under lockdown from the Research Professional News team

Say what you like about journalists but one thing is true: give them an opportunity to lord it over everyone else with their superior insights and they will not only jump at the chance but actually file their copy on time for once.

Earlier this week, taking advantage of this great truth and applying it to the one field that journalists actually know anything about—working from home—I asked the Research Professional News editorial team to email me with their top tips.

Just about every journalist alive has had a period of unemployment, which in the trade we call “going freelance”. Incredibly, during these periods most of us have managed to tear ourselves away from viewing and obsessively ruminating upon Bargain Hunt (12:15 weekdays, BBC1) long enough to file some copy or send a few half-hearted pitches straight to commissioning editors’ spam folders.

Enriched by this experience here’s our advice to the thousands of you forced to work from home because of the coronavirus outbreak.

1. Look after yourselves…

In normal circumstances I would mock the fact that most of my colleagues’ recommendations focused on maintaining one’s own wellbeing rather than actually working more efficiently, but these are not normal circumstances. What’s more, you will never improve your work efficiency if you’ve devolved into a sad wreck by the end of the first week. “Take it easy: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Make it a pleasant one,” writes Mićo Tatalović, Research Fortnight’s news editor, and I would agree with that.

In fact, I’d go one step further and make a plea to all you high-performing perfectionists out there (I know there are many within academia) : go easy on yourselves. By staying at home, you have already achieved perfection in your principle task, which is to slow the spread of coronavirus. Anything else is a bonus. Many of you will not only have to work from home but also care for children and elderly relatives. If this is your situation then you have every right to ignore the smarty-pants of social media who point out that Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’  and Isaac Newton discovered calculus while quarantined during the Great Plague. What you are doing—caring for loved ones—is more important. (And anyway, Newton didn’t discover calculus, as I pointed out in the office chatroom last week. Don’t @ me.)

2. …and each other

Happily, looking after others is an excellent way of practicing self-care, to use a fashionable phrase, so we should make sure we practice physical isolation, not social isolation. “Human contact with colleagues seems to die out in the afternoons,” warns Research Europe reporter Pola Lem. “Make sure you pester at least a couple of them so you don’t feel like you’re working in a void.”

“You have probably been inundated with requests for Skype calls, Google hangouts, and gatherings on Zoom, but how many of those leave time for social chat?” asks Research Professional group editor Sarah Richardson. “Consider setting up a virtual coffee or pub trip with your colleagues—it can really help with feelings of isolation. And you know that you miss their hot takes really.”

Dear reader, you cannot imagine how often I will remind Sarah of that phrase in the months to come. Speaking the words “oh come on Sarah, you know you miss my hot takes really,” will become as natural as breathing.

3. Focus

This is likely to be especially tricky for those shouldering care responsibilities in the months ahead. “Decide at an early stage what’s your top priority—your current work project, kids’ education, keeping the dog entertained, what you’re having for dinner, the state of the kitchen…and stick to it,” suggests Harriet Swain, HE’s comment and features editor. “That way you don’t waste time weighing them all up against each other when they’re making competing demands.”

Similarly, Inga Vesper, correspondents editor, Research Europe, warns against trying to multi-task. “At home, there aren’t any managers to spy on your screen, so it is tempting to do several things, like combining a conference call with internet shopping or composing tweets and a budget spreadsheet at the same time. Don’t. You won’t do one thing well and will only have to spend more time later on ironing out your mistakes. As far as you can, stay focused on whatever you are currently doing and finish one task before moving on to the next.”

Of course, focusing can be especially difficult for those living in noisy households or struggling to cope with marathon trombone-practice sessions downstairs (my situation). “You may have tried blocking the noise out with headphones and your favourite prog rock album,” comments Craig Harris, chief sub editor, ignoring the fact that prog rock is frequently no better than trombone practice and mostly much worse. “But if you also find music too distracting, head to YouTube or a music streaming app, search for ‘white noise’ and see which tracks work best. Despite possessing a fear of flying so intense that close family members now refuse to go on holiday with me, I can maintain a Zen-like focus for hours while listening to the dull, calming hum of a Boeing 747.”

4. Take breaks

Regular breaks help focus, they don’t disrupt it. But if even we all know this, given the current situation we all need to ensure we are actually taking real breaks and not just feeding our anxieties.

“At the moment, it’s hard to tear yourself away from news and social media when not working, but that’s only going to cause headaches, exhaustion and low spirits,” says Craig Nicholson, Research Europe’s news editor. “I force myself to stare out of the window for five to ten minutes every once in a while.”

“Actually close your computer when you take breaks,” suggests Pola Lem. “Creating a barrier between work and relax time is especially difficult when you work from home and snapping shut your laptop for 15 minutes makes a big difference.”

And if you haven’t already been for your single government-mandated trip outside your four walls to get some exercise, make sure you do so, says fellow Research Europe reporter Ben Upton. “It’s important to vary your environment to avoid the feeling of being trapped in limbo, and a bit of exercise will also help keep the bed sores and lower back pain in check. If you haven’t time to walk, try following along with one of the many stretching videos on YouTube.” Sure thing, Ben, but bed sores? Really?

Kat Lester, Research Professional News production editor and almost definitely the most efficient person on our team, finds performing basic domestic duties strangely soothing. (I’m actually with Kat on this, just please don’t tell my wife so I can continue to play the domestic martyr when she comes home in the evening.) Kat writes: “Laundry is an easy task—you’re not away from your computer for too long, just long enough to stretch your legs, get rid of numb-bum syndrome and have a screen break. It also means you don’t have to do it at the weekend.”

5. Sort out your set-up

No one from our team suggested buying any expensive kit to cope with home-working, but Daniel Cressey, Research Professional News deputy editor, did suggest one item: “Get a self-adhesive whiteboard. You won’t regret it. It’s a roll of sticky-back plastic allowing you to turn any surface—a door, wall, small-child-sent-home-from-school—into a whiteboard. Then you have a surface you can keep a running to do list on.”

I would add one other item to the shopping list: an uncomfortable hard chair. I discovered the benefits of one of these during my six-month stint as a freelancer after developing back pain into month two. Switching to an uncomfortable chair forced me to sit up straight, improved my posture and gradually cured my aches. It also made me more likely to get up and stretch my legs from time to time.

But once you’ve sorted your set-up, don’t start setting your home-office habits in stone. “Working from home gives you a chance to finally get really into yoga without compromising work hours,” says Rachael Pells, our freelance reporter. “A bit of downward dog while on the phone to your supervisor. Tree pose at your DIY standing desk (bookshelf). Email responses with your feet from crow position. The possibilities are endless.”

Which brings us on nicely to our final tip…

6. Be flexible

I’ll leave the final words to Chris Parr, HE’s assistant editor and someone who worked from home for two years. “With the best will in the world, you might not be able to follow much of the advice about effective home-working practice to the letter. Remember Robert Kelly, of Pusan National University in South Korea, who was speaking to the BBC about the impeachment of South Korea’s president back in 2017?”

“Kelly had an enviable work set up. Large desk, rows of books, a world map on the wall and a proper high-backed office chair. His two young children—one in a baby-walker and one looking cooler than I ever will in a bright yellow jumper and thick-rimmed glasses—couldn’t care less. They marched into shot, turning the live interview into one of the most-watched TV bloopers of all time.”

“In short, you may need to be flexible—particularly if you are simultaneously caring for children or parents. Nobody likes working unsociable hours, but it might make sense to put off tasks that can be completed in the evening until domestic life is quieter. That might go against a lot of the other advice you hear about structured working, but it will sometimes be necessary and might even allow you a bit more quality time with your loved ones, too.”