Saturday, 20 October 2018

Working from Home: Issues and Advice

Written by Calum Carson

Recent developments in communications technology and a greater recognition of the importance of a healthy work-life balance has led to a wider number of workers across the world voluntarily working from home. For those experiencing chronic illness and/or disability, however, such working arrangements are an unavoidable reality rather than a choice. For individuals in this position studying and working within a profession such as academia, where long periods of independent research and a lack of day to day working routine are already commonplace, there are a number of issues that can emerge through such experiences that it is important to discuss.

From my own perspective, the involuntarily imposition of home working arrangements is something that I have spent the past eighteen months coming to terms with, following the beginning of an on-going chronic back injury at the beginning of January 2017 (worst New Year’s gift EVER). This coincided with the beginning of the second year of my PhD following a six-month suspension for a research internship. I had spent the first year of my studies working 9-5 in the communal office space provided for doctoral researchers in my department, a routine I found easy to stick to after spending six years working 9-5 before returning to research for my Masters/PhD. My own particular injury essentially turned my back into what I liken to a cross between Goldilocks and an extremely moody teenager, with seating/standing/walking conditions etc. having to be “just right” in order for it not to tie itself into painful knots. This makes working from the rigid confines of a desk in an office extremely difficult, and has made developing a new working routine from home essential.

In a number of ways, the two key issues inherent in working from home are the same as those within any professional working environment: making sure routines and systems are in place so that you can work well and maintaining functioning professional relationships with colleagues to facilitate those routines and systems. The key difference for most home workers, however, is that the relationship aspect of work shifts from being comfortable with others to being comfortable with working alone and with yourself. This can be more difficult when home working has been imposed by an individual’s circumstances through a chronic illness or disability, rather than a specific choice deliberately made to better support family life and/or a work-life balance.

Given this, it is no surprise that a number of issues can manifest for someone finding themselves in this position. Feelings of loneliness and frustration about one’s circumstances are perhaps the most obvious, with the necessity of working from home making some depressed and anxious about missing out on working with academic colleagues. For some like myself it can also have a detrimental impact on work itself, with more distractions at hand and the lack of motivation produced by the lack of anyone around you doing the same thing.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways that working from home can be made more palatable in the twenty-first century. The same technological advances that have led to an increase in home working can be similarly utilised to provide home workers with more social and colleague-to-colleague interaction, for example through Skype “Shut up and Write” sessions and virtual coffee breaks. For those who can work for short periods outside of the home, meeting up with colleagues at a nearby cafĂ© or pub to work together for a couple of hours can be a welcome break from the confines of your typical routine, and the few-office-hours nature of academia can mean that arranging for others to work with you from your home are easier to arrange than they would be in many other sectors.

Setting clear boundaries between “work life” and “home life” are even more essential when your place of work is also your home, too: for example, by designating official start and end times to the working day, giving yourself a decent break for lunch (preferably outside of the house), and if possible ensuring that you get out in the fresh air at regular intervals (even if it’s just on the front door step). If you’re lucky enough to have a home office, use this more than any other room so that you can mentally leave your work in that room once the day is over.

While these may seem like very small and obvious pieces of advice, I can speak from personal experience that they really do help: working from home when you have no choice but to do so can be rough going at times, but there are a large number of things you can do to make things easier (and to avoid becoming a hermit): if you’ve got any advice of your own for us home workers, do please post it below!

About the Author

Calum Carson is a third year PhD candidate at Leeds University Business School, whose research explores the business case for the Living Wage amidst the continued growth of precarious work in the UK today.

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