Working From Home - A Practical Guide to Surviving and Thriving

NICVA staff, including Helen McLaughlin and Lynn Kennedy, who both have more years’ experience of home working than they care to admit, share their tips.

As many of us are now having to adapt to working from home, NICVA has already provided resources about the practical tools you need –

In this article, Helen and Lynn share some personal tips on how to complete the work needed, decrease anxiety and stress levels and retain your work-life balance (and key relationships!)   You can also find out what other NICVA staff (both those used to home working and those brand new to it) think of their new, enforced home working arrangements. 

Q) You both previously chose to work from home.  This time it’s not really optional.  Does that make it feel any different?

Lynn:  I think it is different.  Most of our roles were never actually intended to be home-based.  This means that some people will be working in roles that lend themselves more naturally to this style of working than others.  Some staff will also have to get used to the idea that they actually need to be patient with their line managers who haven’t remotely managed staff before.  Some managers are also feeling that they are being thrown in at the deep end.  They have to learn much more quickly than usual how to strike the right balance between making their staff feel that they have to report coffee breaks and making them feel entirely abandoned.  Many of us also have to deal with having an entire family at home, or, conversely, being entirely alone all day with no-one else physically present.  Many people are now also trying to work in a limited space which was never intended to be used as a “home office”.  I think we all need to be gentle with ourselves and each other, try not to expend too much energy railing at the situation, find a “buddy” for a quick rant as needed and then take a deep breath and accept that we are doing the best we can.   I think the #BeKind hashtag couldn’t be more timely.

Helen: It’s certainly different for me, because when I worked from home before, I was self-employed. Whilst there was a pressure to deliver to clients, I really could be flexible about working hours, and it was therefore easy to leave my desk at any time, deal with any domestic / childcare demands, and pick up work later in the evening and at weekends, which I often did. Now I’m very conscious of being part of a team and being available to others in normal working hours. I’d say I prefer having this motivation to focus down on work during working hours, as it means it is much easier for me to switch off in the evening and have a clear division between working and family time.

Q) What are your top 10 tips to manage working at home successfully?

Lynn - Get dressed!  It really is hard to feel professional sitting in your pyjamas.  If you usually wear make-up, shave and blow-dry/sculpt your hair into submission, continue to do so.  The more you look like your professional self, the more you will act like your professional self.  It also saves last minute panic when someone suddenly calls a Skype or Go to Meeting!   Even on the phone you may feel much more in control and more professional if you feel “dressed for work”.  I actually used to put my heels back on when making an important phone call! 

Helen – My top tip is the same as Lynn’s – do just what you would do if you were coming into the office: have a shower, get dressed, and feel like you’re a working person. It really helps you to get your work head on.

Lynn – Explain to your partner/children/housemates, etc. that you are actually working from home and not on some kind of extended holiday.  You are not now suddenly available to cook dinner, go shopping, mend the leaking tap, paint the bathroom or learn new Tik-Tok dances and tell stories all day.  This may be the biggest, seemingly insurmountable, challenge for some of us.  Certainly, I am very aware that neither my child, my partner nor my dog like to be ignored if I am physically around!

Helen – Working at home with the whole family at home at the same time is a very different prospect than working at home on your own. Depending on the layout of your house, it can be really difficult to find a quiet space. Sometimes the best you can do is let everyone else know when you have calls or online meetings and at least ask them to give you peace and quiet for those if at all possible. You can offer to do the same for them as they might need some quiet time too.

Lynn – Ideally, find a way to compartmentalise your work and home life.  This is both mental and physical.  Setting a schedule and keeping to it will help with the former.  Being able to close a door (either physically or by simply putting everything work-related that you can away after you finish work for the day) will help with the latter.

Helen – Get a network! When I worked as a sole trader, it was very important to me to make opportunities to work with others – and to let off steam sometimes too. At this time, it’s good to keep in contact with your work team, and also try to keep in touch with colleagues in other organisations who you would normally connect with – many people are still available – just not in their usual workplace.

Lynn – Think about spending the time you would normally waste commuting to work tidying up your work space or doing quick household chores – if you don’t have a home office it gets surprisingly distracting looking at that pile of dirty washing or papers scattered all over the room.  Then stop at the time you would normally sit down at your desk and “go to work”.

Helen – You might think that you can get ahead of the housework in odd minutes here and there during the day, thereby saving time later. Take my word for it – you will only end up losing time in the evening catching up on the work you didn’t get done because you ended up doing the laundry!

Lynn – Try to avoid “nipping out to the shops” or running any errands during your “working time”.  If you aren’t particularly self-disciplined, you may find that you just lose more and more time this way and end up achieving very little that you were supposed to.  Conversely, if you are a workaholic, you may feel the pressure to more than make up this time.  Work may then bleed into your evenings and you can find yourself firmly in the “work/sleep/repeat” zone, with little semblance of a real life.

Helen - while it’s good to avoid housework and other distractions, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t move from your desk for the entire day. Take breaks at break time and lunch time, including going for a quick walk and a breath of fresh air. I still don’t do that enough, but when I do, I feel so much better for the afternoon, and I’m pretty sure I get more done.

And, finally, a question for other members of the NICVA team, some of whom are “old-hands” at home working and others are who had their very first day working from home yesterday in their usually office-based roles.

Q) What are your first impressions of working from home for NICVA in the current environment?  Did you learn anything? Was anything surprising?

Roisin – For someone who doesn’t approach or complete tasks in an organised way I took the time when I got home after the staff briefing to prepare where I thought I might work from.  So I choose the room upstairs at the front of the house (well it was supposed to be a room to read and stuff anyway that I have been trying to organise for years - so a quick tidy up (as in throw everything out)  and I got the desk ready and the chair.  The chair I have found the most challenging.  Lovely rocking chair but 1st lesson learned is that I need to keep moving in and out of it.  I think we should be doing this anyway but none more so now – calming but really trying on the back! 

What I have quickly noticed is how remote you really can be.  I went into panic mode around 9.05am as I couldn’t connect to the Microsoft teams set up to keep in contact with everyone.  Quick call though from the Information Manager and all sorted and hooked up with everyone for the planned 9.30am briefing from Seamus.  Was the best laugh ever – between dogs and children and I am still wondering when I nipped over to the loo across from my new office did anyone hear the toilet flushing or me singing happy birthday twice.  Crucially though I really enjoyed just us all together like in one big room and while it is serious obviously I quickly realised between delivering training or out and about doing assignment support sessions I don’t see my colleagues really that often so it was really nice.  I am hoping I get to know everyone actually that bit better this way!

This is now day 2.  I woke with such a knot in my stomach that I decided to book a few hours off.  I took myself out for a run.  While I was out and believe me, this is a challenge in itself being out for a run – it felt better.  The knot quickly dissipated and I started to think remote working is a challenge.  Yes, it requires discipline like Lynn says actually putting your clothes on and not sitting with a nice blouse on and jammie bottoms on – that part you don’t see on camera – but to actually stay in work mode.  By discipline I also mean take the same breaks – nice reminder from Úna yesterday – maybe it wasn’t supposed to be a reminder and just a laugh – asking how everyone was enjoying the 11am break.  I had promised myself that I would also learn one new thing a week and share it and I wanted to do this to create a distraction from being “on my own”. 

I did share something yesterday though and that’s this new found obsession with going down stairs (seems like every 10 minutes) opening the fridge door and just looking!  I can’t figure it out yet but I have turned that on its head and think well the exercise up and down the stairs is good if nothing else.

While I won’t have enough time to take off for a snail’s pace run every morning, I am definitely going out every day either before I start work or during the lunch break.  Today I listened to Radio 2 who had a 90s theme to their show and that’s another definite from here on in – listen to music.  Alexa sits now beside me on my new desk.  I like telling her what to do!

Paula - I worked previously from home for quite some time, so I was always used to getting up and dressed and putting the make-up on – essential for me!  However, the last 6 years have seen me office based and yesterday I missed that.  I liked the informal online ‘team chats’ which you would normally get around the NICVA building from day to day.  Also, Seamus’ new online morning catch up (using Linkus) is a useful starting point.  Wanting to eat all day long because food was available was a thing … although I’m not in the kitchen it was still in my mind a lot.   As we are currently isolating as a family, it was good for me to have a structure of work – everyone else at home are like fish out of water.  Also, my job is quite a reactive one, so it was surprising that suddenly my inbox wasn’t filling up.  I’m looking forward to any new challenges in the weeks ahead.

Michele - I would stress the importance of connecting into work. I am finding being able to talk to people on Microsoft Teams and chats very useful.  It might also be useful to get some sort of work plan agreed with your manager as for some people, the essence of their job will have changed.  

Dawn -  I've already made the painful discovery that you really need to think about looking after your back, what with sitting on different chairs, etc.  I'm trialling, ‘ pretend  squeezing an orange between your shoulder blade’ exercises etc.  My back is currently killing me after one day and I'm just trying to remember to sit up straight……

Craig - It really helps to have a structure to your day, plan it out, and try and give yourself a bit of variety even if it’s just different admin tasks.  I find listening to podcasts or music helps me focus on my work when I can’t get away from some distractions (being in a small apartment).   It can feel alienating not being around colleagues but at NICVA we have tools like Teams and Linkus to stay connected, have a laugh and support each other.  It’s also nice to think about the benefits of home working- saving time (and/or money) on the daily commute, having the dog for company, keeping topped up with the espresso machine!

And the final word goes to Amanda…

Amanda – I think it’s really important to remember that ‘we’re all in this disaster movie together’.  Sadly, we can’t change the channel so we really need to try to generate the odd lighter moment and find something that makes us laugh to balance some of the darker moments we are all having.

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