Working from Home – some thought

I’ve worked from home for about 6 months and am now on sick leave. I was extremely grateful to be able to work in a flexible manner from home that means that time for attending appointments can be made up elsewhen. And you’d be amazed at how much you can get done in hospital waiting rooms (yay for Eduroam at the local hospital).

I thought it might be useful to share some of the things that have helped greatly over the past months. It’s no bed of roses (particularly not when coupled with side-effects from chemo and the general ebb and flow of the academic year, more significant when two academics live together), and I do have several very serious issues with how some things have been handled in various contexts. I will not discuss these here (but should you ever face a similar situation of having to work from home and want to know of possible pitfalls and things to ask for, get in touch).

Video Conferences have saved my soul. Quite literally. Anything that has facilitated interaction with people and the ability to keep up with normal activities has been wonderful. Admittedly it was interesting running in from one round of chemo and immediately turning on the computer for one video conference, but my head coped. Now, this is an accommodation that’s generally available for several of the committees I’m involved in and this is largely to accommodate people unable to travel to the venue (for work reasons etc). My major recommendation would be that with widespread internet access, the option to connect to meetings via skype (where no specific software exists) should be a standard accommodation for those working from home for any reason and it should just be offered. It isn’t bloody difficult and  just being able to listen in is helpful.

Twitter. In a similar vein to above, it facilitated interaction with people. LTHEchat has been the highlight of many Wednesday evenings, and the online RSC Poster conference a few weeks ago was fantastic. Both were breaks from the normal routine and offered the chance to feel like a competent and functional person for a period of time. That makes a big difference.  Also being able to interact with folks and generally engage was helpful. I also loved the 12 Apps of Christmas MOOC (Hosted by Regent’s University London) that had a fair twitter presence. It made December easier. And in a similar vein, MICER had a good strong twitter presence, although keeping up with it from the hospital ward the day after surgery was…let’s say somewhat surreal!

I’d generally recommend that people consider social media and the like when organising conferences – online poster sessions can easily be facilitated through free online tools, and discussions can start with a hashtag on Twitter. Be creative – we so often are with teaching, why not with conferences?

Routine. Yes, I know, I like a timetable. There’s something about having a routine that pulls you through a day and provides sufficient structure to get stuff done. The working week has largely been a working week and weekends largely weekends. I decided that I would aim to work my contracted hours of 35 hours a week, and had to seriously think about how to structure that time. Some tasks were better suited to an hour in the evening, some tasks simply could not be done in a chemo week, and some tasks required triple checking and so just took a lot longer. I also had to make serious decisions about how to prioritise which tasks got done and when, and to be OK with not doing ‘all the things’ in a blind panic because there were ‘deadlines’.  I didn’t always get it right but I do think people should be more aware that things often don’t get done as quickly as they might like because people have to make difficult choices about what to give priority to.  It is better to take longer and get something done right, than to rush it. But the big thing is just that everything took a bit longer, and not in the sense of just expanding to fill available space, just longer. Marking took longer, compiling spreadsheets of grades (which had to be checked more than usual) took much longer. Writing emails took longer. This was counterbalanced to a point by the comparative peace and quiet of home and lack of interruptions, but only to a point.  The way to deal with things taking longer is to aim to do less rather than allow work to inflate beyond whatever time limit you’ve set.

Email. I’d happily ban it. But as that’s not really possible, I’d recommend restricting it’s use to a couple of periods a day and whizzing through the necessary replies. The flow dries up anyway as people don’t bother you as much when you’re not there in person. I do suggest that you learn to use message filters to file as much automatically as you can. If you can sift out the essential emails from the generally informative but not critical, then you can save a lot of time. There’s also the option to file emails from specific people in specific ways that may contribute to lowering your general stress levels. If you’ve got a colleague undergoing medical treatment and working from home, watch the tone of your emails. You simply don’t know what they’ve done in the day leading up to them reading said email (or where they read it from). Often many things that could be resolved easily face-to-face take on a life of their own with the imprecision of written communication, and worsened by the lens of being sick. Consider whether a short phone call that allows an instantaneous dialogue would be better instead of being a text-based nob (yes, phones, those devices that let people talk to one another, they’re quite a good invention), or asking someone else to get in touch. I also recommend the Boomerang app for Gmail that allows you to schedule emails  – at least then you can respond whenever you like and still model ‘good’ email practices like responding inside business hours. It also lets you whizz emails back to you in a certain period of time if you suffer with ‘it’s not on the first page of messages so it’s forgotten’ syndrome.

Ebb and Flow. For me, the only ebb and flow of work related things was how it fit around appointments and chemo and family. The other flow of the academic year with hectic weeks and marginally less hectic weeks is irrelevant. If it’s not possible to adjust deadlines to accommodate a consistent workload, then tasks need to be passed on or adjustments made to expectations about when things are done. For me, there simply wasn’t a way to work late into the evening to get x, y or z done because it was important. If it wasn’t done by the end of the day, it was done next working days. That’s probably frustrating for people to work with but it’s actually quite a reasonable thing to require and one that more people would benefit from.  Generally I was effective at getting my 35 hours a week in, some weekend/evening working accommodated appointments or pacing some tasks like marking exam scripts. I found it very difficult to stay sat in the same position marking for more than 40 minutes at a time so there were lots of wandering breaks. Being able to spread marking out over three days became critical at that point.

So what’s with the sick leave then if all of this worked so well? All of the above was simply exhausting and with the three weeks of daily weekday visits to the hospital that radiotherapy will bring, the whole ‘spinning plates while balancing on a tightrope’ act wasn’t going to cut it anymore.  I knew I had to take some leave after surgery anyway, and as the vast majority of teaching responsibilities were done, downtime seemed a good idea.  I am, however, counting down the minutes until the end of treatment.




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