Making Working from Home Work for You

The first Birkbeck Astrea event of 2020-21 explored how small changes can make a big difference to wellbeing, productivity and work-life balance while working from home.

Picture of a laptop with coffee and a children's toy.

If you, like much of the UK population, are continuing to work from home in the New Year, how did you feel returning to your desk (/dining room table/kitchen worktop) after the Christmas break? Were you relieved to give a freezing January commute a miss, or disappointed to miss out on catching up with colleagues? Are you returning to your laptop refreshed, or is it already feeling like Groundhog Day? 

If you’ve found the prolonged absence from the office a difficult adjustment in any way, be it the technology, loneliness or struggling to switch off at the end of the day, you’re not alone, as Birkbeck Astrea members discovered in their first formal event of the 2020-21 academic year, Making Working from Home Work for You. 

Working from Home: Love it or Hate it? 

This virtual event began with an opportunity to share the highs and lows of working from homeAmong the bugbears that we’d rather not carry into 2021 were an increasingly sedentary lifestyle; technological issues ranging from Wi-Fi crises to video call etiquette; as well as habits that we just can’t seem to save ourselves from, such as the obsessive reading of bad news on social media known as ‘doomscrolling’. 

It wasn’t all bad though, as colleagues also shared some of the highs from lockdown life, such as getting to know co-workers on a more personal level by being introduced to pets and other elements of home life; having an opportunity to get chores done in the week, leaving the weekend free to relax; and enjoying more comfortable attire, as one member commented: ‘Spending my working day in outside shoes seems ludicrous and I don’t know how I ever did it.’ 

Change One Thing 

While this end of term gathering was a great opportunity to get together and let off steam about working from home, there’s a serious side to this too. The blurred boundaries created by working from home mean that many of us are working longer hours and finding it harder to switch off at the end of the day. Mental health can suffer too, both for those juggling caring responsibilities with work and for those living alone who may feel isolated. So what can we do to make an improvement in 2021? 

Thinking about how we could improve our work/life balance, productivity and foster a healthy mind in the New Year, we asked members for suggestions of one small thing we could do in 2021 to make a difference. Here’s what they said: 

One change to improve work/life balance: 

  • Turn off all notifications: social media, email – they are designed to serve someone else’s priorities. 
  • Ditch the guilt: give yourself permission to take breaks and don’t feel bad for sticking to your agreed working hours. 
  • Make plans to call a loved one on your lunch break or straight after work. 

One change for a healthy mind: 

  • Be kind to yourself: don’t beat yourself up if you don’t finish everything on your to do list. 
  • Use your commute time to walk or read a book – whatever helps you switch off from the day. 
  • Go outside: use your lunch break to get some daylight and fresh air. 

One change for increased productivity: 

  • Take breaks away from your desk – in the physical office we were much less attached to our desks than we are now! 
  • Focus on one thing at a time – multitasking is distracting. 
  • If you’re in a meeting, switch off your emails. Don’t try to spread yourself too thinly. 

Got a great tip for working from home? Add it to our list. 

What small change can you make this year to get 2021 off to a great start? Let us know what you’ll do differently in the comments below. 

Birkbeck Astrea is a grassroots networking group for women and non-binary people working in professional services roles at Birkbeck, University of London. Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram.

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Lockdown loneliness

In this blog, Rob Martin a Learning Development Tutor at Birkbeck shares four ways to help manage loneliness during lockdown, and some resources available to Birkbeck students. 

A woman looking at her phone to depict loneliness

Some of us during lockdown are experiencing difficulties with loneliness. Many people are relying on the internet for all of their social and relational needs. This may not be the case for all students, and we will be covering other lockdown issues in further posts. Below are our top four top tips for managing your loneliness during lockdown.

1.    Quality connections, not quantity

Academic research into online communication suggests that its added distance and anonymity can provide more immediate rewards than face-to-face (FTF) communication. This might encourage us to text or chat with a greater number of people. But sometimes this can lead to frustrations, because, over thousands of years, we have evolved to relate to others through FTF communication.

In FTF we communicate through a variety of ‘channels’ – through the words we use, through the tone, pace, and volume of the speaker, body language and facial expressions, but also through silences. Silences are natural to us in FTF and allow for a moment to process what’s happening, but most online meetings contain few natural silences. Communicating through a more limited number of channels, with fewer opportunities to pause for thought, could explain why many of us feel more exhausted and could be less satisfied.

If you are noticing a sense of dissatisfaction in your relationships during lockdown, try to acknowledge that things are not quite as you would like them to be at the moment. Ask yourself “how can I take responsibility for better meeting my need for connection/company/entertainment?” Might it be better to distance yourself from certain relationships? During lockdown, it might feel tempting to try to meet our needs for connection through channels that do not serve us in the long run. Try to focus on developing higher quality connections with a smaller number of people. You can make a start on this by switching notifications off on your mobile device, even if just for 20 minutes.

2.    Give yourself permission to feel the way you feel

Give yourself permission to feel dissatisfied, if that is what you feel. Do you feel something else? That’s fine too. Some schools of thought believe that suffering comes from the sense of conflict we experience when we try to fight unpleasant emotions, rather than to understand it or simply be with it. It probably doesn’t feel good, but denying it or resisting it will likely feel worse. There are, of course, certain situations or relationships where an exit strategy is necessary, and this should not be overlooked.

Here, we are talking about particular emotions we might feel when alone – sadness, frustration, loneliness, anger. Acknowledging where we are now puts us in a better position to manage our responses and find more helpful ways of getting our needs met. If you want to learn more about managing difficult feelings, take a look at the range of free mental wellbeing apps via the NHS or contact Birkbeck’s Wellbeing Services.

3.    Use this time to develop a more compassionate relationship with yourself

The pace of life in 2020 has changed for most of us. Forgive yourself for feeling less than thrilled about it. Can you use this time to reflect on what it is that you want, or do not want, to invest your time in? Mindfulness meditation can be a good way of developing self-awareness and cultivating a sense of compassion for yourself and others. Try this list of mindfulness meditation apps to get started.

4.    Use this time to develop your personal interests

Is there something you have always wanted to read about, but haven’t? Are there hobbies you have been interested in, but never found the time or space to pursue? For example:

The Students’ Union still have active clubs and societies – perhaps there is one that matches your interests? Hopefully, you will gain a sense of satisfaction from taking up a new interest or two. It will also give you something different to talk about on Zoom.

We hope that loneliness is not affecting you adversely, but if you are finding things too much, contact Wellbeing Services to ask about counselling or contact the Samaritans. You may wish to consult your GP if you require help, or in an emergency, contact Emergency Services on 999 or visit A&E.

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“I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break.”

When a new role saw Ella moving from practical outdoor work to people management, she applied for the MSc Human Resource Development and Consultancy to build her skills. She reflects on how the course has equipped her for the challenge.

Picture of Ella

I have had a fairly non-traditional career path so far. I worked on farms for many years engaged in therapeutic agriculture, growing vegetables with young adults with learning difficulties and behavioural issues. My passion for people and land now has me working as a senior manager for a small environmental charity which works across the UK planting orchards with urban communities.  

Transitioning from outdoor practical roles to indoor organizational-focused roles threw me into being a line manager, thinking about team dynamics and holding responsibilities across the organisation for recruitment, wellbeing, HR policies and staff development.

The MSc in Human Resource Development and Consultancy at Birkbeck has given me a good grounding in people management and organisational development, with flexibility to deepen my knowledge in areas that have interested me.  

I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break of many years. The course is structured to deepen academic thinking as well as practical knowledge, and that combination means I can bring practical questions from my work into an academic sphere, and I can apply thinking from my Masters directly into my work.  

The support from lecturers and fellow students is phenomenal. I have learned so much not just from lecture and seminar content, but also professors, guest lecturers and fellow students speaking about their work contexts and roles as HR or Organizational Development practitioners. 

I am about to enter my second year, of which a significant part is embarking on a management research project. This differs from a traditional dissertation as it again combines academic rigour and practical organisational focus, as we work with an organisation to address a challenge that it is experiencing as our research problem. I am really looking forward to exploring an area of HR Development in depth, and to try out new research and consultancy skills. 

Further Information: 

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Managing staff who are working from home: business as usual?

Professor Gail Kinman, Professor Almuth McDowall and Dr Kevin Teoh from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology share tips on how to manage staff who are working from home.

Empty office

Steps to manage the Covid-19 virus mean that working from home is now mandatory for many people. This will help contain the virus, but such a major shift in working practices will not be easy. Some employees will be working from home for the first time and may struggle to accommodate to their new environment. It may also pose challenges for managers who are required to ensure ‘business as usual’ but have little experience of managing people who work remotely.

The skills required to manage staff during these challenging times are quite different than those needed face to face. Below, we provide some guidance on how to manage remote workers effectively.

Set expectations from the outset signalling support and understanding

The move to remote working will make communication more challenging and you will have less insight into what staff are doing each day. The first step for any organisation is to communicate with all workers affected, setting out clearly the support you are offering, how you will communicate with them and the expectations you have for their performance.

In the current special circumstances, this may mean waving goodbye to previous management practices such as mandatory core hours and operating a flexible “work when you can, as much as you can” policy. Some workers will have challenging circumstances and may have little time or energy for uninterrupted home working. It is important to acknowledge these challenges from the outset and keeping conversation streams open will help you become aware of any changes in people’s circumstances. Also provide clear information on who staff can turn to for advice and support and issue regular updates.

A settling in period is crucial

Staff will need some time to process the change, access the necessary equipment and systems, establish channels of communication and negotiate and adjust work tasks. Do not make assumptions that people who work at home will be more productive as they have more flexibility and their commuting time is eliminated. People will typically take a lot longer to do things and be unable to work to full capacity, especially during the early days of home working. Keep reassuring your staff that you do not expect them to be as productive as usual – maybe the best that you can do in the short term is to identify priorities and work out how best to meet them. Ensure that you have a mechanism for staff to feed back on how things are working out for them. Double check also that appropriate hardware and software is in place. For instance, there are reports already that some organisations are running out of virtual protected network (VPN) licenses.

Be sensitive to role stress

People experience role overload when they are expected to fulfil multiple roles simultaneously without the resources to do so. Resources can be time, energy or attention. Role conflict occurs where fulfilling the demands of one role (e.g. work) is incompatible with meeting those of another (e.g. caring for children). Understandably, both role overload and conflict can be distracting and impair wellbeing and productivity.

Staff will have to dedicate considerable time and energy to craft a balance between their work demands and domestic responsibilities. They are also likely to be anxious about obtaining household provisions and need to monitor the health of themselves and their family members.

Build trust and avoid micromanaging

Building trust between you and your team is crucial. Jointly negotiated goals will help your staff feel engaged, productive and motivated. Deadlines can be set but, as discussed above, flexibility will be required as personal circumstances are likely to be subject to change. Bear in mind that the communication process should be two-way. It is important for managers to check in with staff to monitor their progress and their mental health, but your direct reports also have a responsibility to provide you with updates. Managers are unlikely to have the time to set up cumbersome and intrusive reporting processes, but avoid bombarding people with unnecessary requests, forms, procedures and guidelines.

Use meetings sparingly

Tools such as Skype and Zoom make organising meetings for remote workers straightforward but be aware that online meetings can be time-consuming. Ensuring that all staff members have an input is also challenging. Try not to organise meetings over lunchtime to ensure that staff have a break and are able to prepare meals for children. Send out clear meeting etiquette guidelines. Ensure that meetings are never booked backtoback, as they can become very draining. A shared diary will help mitigate this.

Be aware of the risks of being ‘always on’

Discourage staff from working long hours even if they are willing to do so, as they will be less effective and more vulnerable to health problems. Encourage people to have regular breaks away from their workstation throughout the day. As well as stopping work physically, staff should switch off psychologically to replenish their energies and to enable them to meet their domestic responsibilities. Role model the behaviour you expect from them, such as making it clear that there are times that you are not available, are resting or are meeting your other responsibilities.

Be aware of people’s personal circumstances and conscious of the challenges they are facing

What caring responsibilities do your direct reports have? Are they home-schooling? Do they have the necessary equipment and a quiet working environment? Some people may have access to a dedicated office, while others have to work on a kitchen table, a bedroom or the sofa. Encourage people to take steps to create boundaries (both physical and psychological) and avoid distractions wherever possible but accept that this will sometimes be inevitable. Children will interrupt meetings, dogs will bark and internet connections will inevitably fail.

Treat your staff as individuals

Your staff will experience the change to remote working in different ways. Some may feel anxious, while others will relish the challenge and break from routine. You will find that some people will need more support than others, so you could offer them short goal-setting meetings at the start of each day and a catch up at the end. Others, however, might find this intrusive and prefer to be left alone to get on with it. Be aware that some people will be prone to over-working and may need encouragement to switch off. Asking staff to share with you any difficulties they may be experiencing will help you gain insight into their individual circumstances, needs and preferences.

Encourage socialising and bonding

Working at home can be isolating; this will be a particular problem where staff are largely confined to their homes. Loneliness can reduce motivation and productivity and increase the risk of stress, anxiety and depression. It is important therefore for people to maintain social bonds and feel part of the team. Take some time before a meeting for people to share something personal. Encourage other social bonding opportunities such as ‘virtual coffee time’, a video chat over lunch, or a joint exercise session. Continue to celebrate people’s birthdays or other special occasions. Be creative – one manager we recently spoke to distributed a mini ‘pub quiz’ to help relieve the pressure and encourage team bonding.

Be kind, compassionate and respectful

Show genuine concern for people’s wellbeing and understanding of their personal circumstances. Provide praise and positive feedback so that people know their efforts are recognised and provide affirmation of confidence in your team. You can encourage staff to be open about any difficulties they are experiencing by disclosing that you too are struggling at times. People’s home environments are now their workspaces, but they should not feel that the organisation has moved in with them. It is important, therefore, that communication is measured and considerate.

What about your own wellbeing?

It is equally important that you show the same kindness and compassion to yourself. Expectations of managers are high, and many are now responsible for keeping the business afloat while endeavouring to support their staff through a major transition. Recognise that these are unusual times and it will be a learning experience for everyone.

Further Information:

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Today is happiness day, but could greater happiness be a permanent reality?

David TrossThis post was contributed by David Tross, associate lecturer at Birkbeck. David is running a series of workshops on happiness and wellbeing as part of Birkbeck’s Pop-up University in Willesden Green, which is running until the end of May.

The 20 March is the UN International Day of Happiness, recognizing, it says, ‘the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives’. If you visit the UN’s observance day website, happy images include Ban Ki Moon dancing ‘gangnam style’ with puffy South Korean popster Psy, though paradoxically its text also recommends marking the occasion ‘in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.’ If this doesn’t sound particularly joyful, the UK organisation Action for happiness suggests a range of everyday activities to increase your happiness and those around you. If hugging strangers on the street sounds more dangerous than life-enhancing, then other ideas, including mindfulness meditation and keeping gratitude journals, are in keeping with older, eastern and western philosophical notions of how to live a good life.

What’s new is the shift in the claims made about the efficacy of these methods, with many contemporary scholars hailing happiness as a ‘new science’ on the basis of developments in measuring happiness that can be applied not just to individuals but to whole countries. The latest World Happiness Report, taking measures of self-reported life satisfaction and mood data from 156 countries, has proclaimed Denmark as the happiest country in the world, with fellow Scandinavian countries following close behind. (The UK is in 22nd place). Forget the bleakness and bad weather of popular scandi-noir TV shows, the research suggests. Denmark’s secret? Social equality, socialising across social classes, generous childcare policies, realistic personal expectations and a cozy spirit of togetherness the Danes call ‘hygge’ ( the closest translation might be the Irish ‘craic’). Although the scientific validity of these measures have been questioned, particularly  in terms  of cross-country comparisons, the findings are supported by claims brought to the public’s attention in 2008 with the publication of The Spirit Level, that the most unequal countries perform worst across a range of wellbeing indicators including trust, mental health, drug addiction, obesity and literacy.

This is the happiness paradox in action: after basic needs have been met, increased wealth has not produced greater happiness in rich countries, the gains made in life expectancy and income cancelled out by the personal and social stresses of a competitive, materialistic society. If happiness and wellbeing provides an alternative measure of social progress to economic growth then surely we should be encouraged by the enthusiasm of politicians, with David Cameron’s commissioning of an ONS-led UK happiness index the latest in a series of government-backed initiatives in France, Canada and the original happiness pioneers, the tiny nation of Bhutan. But some are suspicious. Government-backed happiness is the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World, where everybody feels good and nobody is free. And if the number of people relying on food banks to survive has tripled over the last year, why are we wasting our time on happiness when there are more pressing concerns? As the philosopher Julian Baggini has noted, ‘If you look at the countries that do best in surveys of wellbeing, they haven’t got there by having these indices. They’ve got there by agreeing what priorities should be”.

Such concerns are understandable in the context of recent ONS data suggesting the UK has become happier from 2012 to 2013; instead of an antidote, happiness measures could be used to legitimise austerity economics and increasing inequality.

The British economist Richard Layard declares that ‘happiness must be the business of government’. yet his policy recommendations, including spending to alleviate unemployment and poverty, sound almost socialist. Could it be that the happiness agenda could be a way of sneaking the politically taboo concepts of social justice and greater income equality in through the back door? Should you eliminate poverty because it makes people (including the rich) unhappy, or because it is the right thing to do? The answer might be to create the wider social and economic conditions conducive to individual fulfilment and not micro-manage the personal paths. But paradoxically, happiness is serious. Scroll along from the dancing UN secretary general on the UN website and you get a caption celebrating ten years of peace in Liberia. No disrespect to Psy, but that’s the kind of happiness many more would get behind.

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Beat ‘Blue Monday’ – tips for improving your happiness

This post was contributed by Dr Amy Harrison, PhD, DClinPsy. Dr Harrison is a Clinical Psychologist and teaches Positive Psychology as an Associate Lecturer. Her clinical work focuses on helping young people with eating disorders and her research focuses on how people manage emotions and experience pleasure from social interaction. 

‘Blue Monday’ – the third Monday in January (today) – has been reported as one of the grimmest days of the year. Although there may be no hard science behind this assertion, it’s easy to understand why it’s developed this reputation. The merriment of Christmas has long since faded but the mountains of credit card debt remain as we struggle through to payday; New Year Resolutions have fallen by the wayside; and the next Bank Holiday feels an aeon away.

However, there are ways that you can tackle these ‘blue’ feelings.

It’s important to remember that it’s not what happens to you, but what you make of it that is important. Research from the field of positive psychology, which aims to understand the science of happiness and wellbeing, suggests that there are things we can all do to manage the daily grind with greater ease.

My tips include:

  1. Make an effort to look out for positive things during the day – we can train ourselves to notice more of the good stuff, no matter how small.
  2. Do something for others – give up your seat on the train, feed a parking meter or smile at a stranger. You’ll be surprised at how warm this makes you feel.
  3. Count your blessings – write about something you’re grateful for, or thank someone for helping you.
  4. Look at a picture of your favourite person, experience or animal – research has shown that this can significantly improve your mood.

Many people might be surprised to hear that these small actions can have such a positive impact on mood. However, it’s worth a go – one thing that can be guaranteed is that if you don’t try anything different, things will stay the same.

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