By Peter Collyer, Head of Music and Performing Arts
So, here we all are, working from home, with no commute (hooray), but no colleagues smiling across the office either (boo). For me, it has brought back memories of writing up my PhD just ten years ago, a time I reflect on with mixed emotions. As anyone who has gone through that process will tell you, the final stages of a PhD have nothing to do with how clever you are – it’s all about how hard you can work, on your own. I learnt a lot about working at home and, I think, became reasonably good at it for someone who would be quite happy whiling away their days in the shed scrubbing WD40 into a rusty bicycle with an old toothbrush.
So what did I learn and what can I pass on? Here are my top tips for working from home. There is plenty of advice out there and I don’t lay claim to much originality with my ideas here. This is just how it works for me- I can’t pretend I always get this right, so do as I say here not as I do!
1. Get up, properly
What I mean here is, don’t roll out of bed, switch the laptop on and just go straight into working without some sort of personal hygiene and nutrition routine (that’s just a fancy way of saying have a shower and some breakfast). It can feel really miserable to reach 1pm and realise that you are still sitting there in your pyjamas with your stale morning breath bouncing back into your face off the screen. Get up, put on proper clothes and have a breakfast that you enjoy. Looking good is more important today than it was ten years ago, as now you’ll be conducting your meetings by video call. On Day 1 of the shutdown I had a video meeting at 10am with the Principal and Deputy Principal no less – not a time to present oneself to the world with sticky-up hair and a dressing gown stained with last night’s Ovaltine.
2. Make a plan and stick to it
Plan your day as you would if you were in the office. Decide what your hours are going to be and which tasks need to be done. At the start of the day, with all of those hours stretching out in front of you, it’s worth remembering that you are going to working for just seven of them. The risk is that working from home will become a rather inefficient 24 hour pastime, dipping in and out of the inbox and flitting between tasks. Plan the hours, plan the tasks and then stick to the plan. In the words of (potentially- who knows these days) Benjamin Franklin: ‘if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail’.
3. Take plenty of breaks
We’re told this so often, but do we really take enough breaks? Advice ranges from a short break every hour to a longer break every two hours. I would say that it really depends what you are working on. It’s the focused screen time that requires the most physical and mental stamina so yes, if you are reading and writing (emails etc) then a short break every hour is a good idea. If you have back-to-back video calls then you can probably go quite a bit longer. And when you break, make sure that you move. Look away from the screen, stand up, stretch, maybe jog on the spot, take that outdoor exercise break while the sun is out, or put on some music and have a dance party.
I can tell you that, from my own bitter experience, if you completely ignore these first three tips then you will reach about 11.30am looking, feeling, and probably smelling like a zombie with progressively incoherent babble where your work should be on your computer, little willpower to continue with anything productive and a guilt-ridden daytime TV binge threatening to rob you of a meaningful existence in the afternoon (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?!).
4. Reward yourself
This follows on from tips 2 and 3. Don’t try to ban all fun from your life for the length of the working day. Do enjoy your coffee break browsing power tools on Ebay, but only because you have promised yourself that you would clear your inbox and write that report first. Make sure lunch is something to look forward to and that your permissible exercise trip out of your home is also a reward for the productive afternoon you have achieved. At the end of the working day, switch off the screen and switch off from work completely. You’ve earned it.
5. Keep in touch
I’m writing this at the end of Week 1 of the lockdown and I can say that the positive change compared to my PhD days is that we can keep in touch with each other so easily. I have always preferred face-to-face interactions and it’s great to keep this up online. Avoid playing ‘email tennis’ and make full use of Microsoft Teams (I’m not being paid for this endorsement) so that you see and hear your colleagues. Within the Music and Performing Arts team we’re having great fun comparing the backgrounds to our talking heads. It’s lovely to see colleagues in their domestic habitat, surrounded by cook books, ornaments, and strange musical instruments.
There are other approaches, some that I have tried- burning the midnight oil, trying to do everything all at once or living in a state of denial until 4.30pm and then panicking- and some that I haven’t- shouting at the screen while running on a treadmill, staying in bed all day, to name but a few. However you approach this, it looks like we’re going to have the chance to get really good at it!