Room with the (same old) view

It’s a slightly different blog this week as one of the ADS team reflects on their personal experiences of working from home over the past few months. Over to them:

There’s an ornamental cherry tree in my front garden and when I first started working from home back in March 2020 it was just starting to fill out with leaves and new blossom buds. Every day since, I’ve watched it bloom, scatter petals everywhere like confetti, change the colour of its leaves before losing them, and stand bare during winter. Now that the new leaves are showing signs of starting to emerge, it’s made me realise just how long I’ve been working from home and prompted me to reflect on how things have worked out for me during the pandemic. Some bits are mundane, others a bit light-hearted or irreverent, but please don’t think for a minute that I’m trying to undermine what’s been going on or disrespect the hard work everyone has been doing. So if you can bear with me through this slightly indulgent post, read on (I won’t be offended if you leave now!).

First off, of a personal note, I want to acknowledge that I am very lucky to be in quite a privileged position in all this, so in many respects I’ve had things quite easy. My partner and I don’t have kids so haven’t had to worry about juggling jobs with home schooling, and neither set of parents has reached the age yet where they are ‘vulnerable’. While this doesn’t stop me worrying about them, it does mean that on a day-to-day basis we only really have to take care of ourselves. My partner already worked from home prior to the pandemic with an office in our dining room, so my biggest choice work-wise was deciding which other room to use. Trust me, both of us working in the same room would not have ended well.

Weirdly, before the pandemic I hated working from home. I went to my office at uni every day, and even if it was just me there it felt ‘right’. I was at work, in a work setting. Working from home was odd, and only something I would choose to do if I had a very specific reason – or if Worcester was flooded and I couldn’t actually get to the office! The whole process of making a packed lunch and setting off for uni was part of the structure of my working day, and in a weird way I even enjoyed my commute. I would read every day on the bus (resulting in being dubbed ‘the book lady’ by two kids who were also regular commuters), before a short walk to campus which was a good way to keep fit. Now, I rarely read at all, and miss that dedicated 20 minutes in each direction where it was the sole focus of my time. I can’t say that I necessarily miss waiting in the dark and/or rain and/or cold for a bus that was usually running late on the way home, and in some respects the prospect of going back to that at some point fills me with dread – even if it would be a sign of normality returning.

Once the switch to working from home was made, I’d like to think I adapted pretty easily. From the start, I thought of it as a long-term situation as mentally that helped me cope. However, ‘long-term’ initially meant thinking it would last until May 2020. Little did I know that May 2021 is looking more likely. Despite my long-term approach, my laptop really was a laptop while I worked in the living room, and I only gave in and set up a proper desk in September when reality was starting to hit. My back has appreciated the swap.

In some respects, I didn’t miss the social aspect of work as much as I thought I would. I’m not anti-social as such, but I’m quite happy with my own company and can get lost in what I’m working on, which (thankfully) makes the days pass more quickly. It’s also helped that work-wise I’ve been kept busy. As part of my work I’ve been involved in helping to develop our online modules from a technical point of view, which has included a lot of video editing. This has actually been easier to do while working from home as there are fewer distractions. It’s easier to ignore an email for a few minutes that it is to ignore a colleague when they come into your office (sorry team, but it’s true!). That doesn’t mean to say I don’t appreciate the regular social interactions that have been taking place, such as our weekly online catch-ups which have a non-work focus, and allowing time in most meetings for a quick chat. I’m very conscious that these are important for me to take part in just to stay in touch with people and not become too isolated (no pun intended), and they have helped me feel like I’m still part of a great team.

Like many people, I’ve found myself getting tired of online meetings. It’s rare to get through a day without any meetings at all. Back-to-back meetings can also be quite common if you’re not careful. As you don’t need time to physically move between rooms on campus or to travel somewhere as you would for face-to-face meeting, I went through a phase of not feeling I could decline a meeting or suggest a different time, but have learnt that actually this is perfectly acceptable and in some cases necessary, just to give you a chance to stand up, have a break and get away from your screen for a bit, rather than ploughing on with the next meeting. Mental fatigue is one of the things that I’ve become more aware of since working from home. I can have a tendency to overthink things (surprisingly not this blog though, which may prove to be a bad thing if it’s rubbish!), and when you’re doing a lot of communication via email without being able to use body language, voice tone etc., that’s a dangerous combination. I’ve found myself spending far longer writing emails than I should, worrying that I’ve not explained myself very well, overexplained things to the point of being patronising, or will come across as grumpy. If someone takes a while to reply I’ll worry that I’ve offended them, rather than them just being busy, which makes me feel like I need to reply to other people’s emails quickly too. I am getting better at not doing this, especially when I’m focusing on things like video editing, but it’s not always easy, and I do find myself going through phases of feeling pressured, even though it’s self-imposed. Thinking about it, maybe there’s also an element of wanting to make sure other people know I’m working and not sat around doing nothing while I’m at home. Again, all in my head, and rationally I know that actually if I don’t reply to any emails for an hour or more nothing’s going to collapse and I’m not going to be fired!

I realise that a lot of this sounds a bit trivial when people are working on the frontline tackling the pandemic, and again from a practical perspective I appreciate that I am very lucky that probably 90% of my work is desk-based. As long as I’ve got a laptop, Wi-Fi and a second screen (liberated from the office right from the start, and it’s been a godsend), I’m pretty much able to continue working as usual. Data analysis, report writing, article writing, video editing, setting up online modules, internet searching, it’s all carried on as normal and doesn’t really matter whether I’m in an office or living room. It’s the other 10% that’s been tricky though. Some of my project work would involve data collection through interviews in person, or working with care homes, neither of which has been possible. Obviously, some work has had to be postponed until people are able to be involved and are in a (relatively) good place themselves. Other work had to be adapted to use different methods. For example, telephone interviews instead of face-to-face, or Zoom sessions to host focus groups. Things haven’t always been easy, but we’ve coped and adapted as a team, and always been aware of the pressure everyone is under. Now, we’ve been in this situation so long that we’re building new processes into our work from the start, rather than having to adapt as we go.

The contact I’ve had with care home staff, Meeting Centres and other professionals, together with the impact of the pandemic on students on our online modules has added another dimension for me. It’s helped me to appreciate the personal, professional, and far-reaching impacts of the pandemic which, when I’m sat in my safe space at home, can otherwise feel distant and at times surreal. As difficult as it can be to hear what they’re facing, it’s an important reminder. It can also be inspirational and humbling to hear how they are overcoming different challenges.

So as the ‘new normal’ continues, I count myself lucky that in many respects it does actually feel fairly ‘normal’ on a day-to-day basis. Can I see myself going back to the office full time when all this is over? In all honesty, probably not, but I can’t wait for the day when that would actually be a viable option. I’m not sure working from home all the time would be great either. As much as it’s worked ok for the past ten months, it’s not the job I signed up for. Some things are just easier, and better, in person. Those quick questions where you can stick your head round an office door and talk to someone rather that trying to write it in an email or worry about setting up another meeting to discuss it. Being in the same room as someone when you’re carrying out an interview. Going to grab a cup of tea with colleagues and catching up on anything and everything at the same time. However, I will miss the new routines I’ve established at home, so maybe a mix of a day or two in the office and the rest at home would be a good compromise. As long as I can have a second screen in both places…

Connect with ADS on twitter @DementiaStudies and on Facebook @adsuow

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