By Robert Schultz-Graham, REPHRAIN Centre Administrator, Faculty of Engineering
As trite as it may be to say so, it’s important to acknowledge that working from home is fundamentally different to working in an office environment. The last year has been my first prolonged experience of working alone; where there had previously been the hustle and bustle of colleagues or the gentle murmur of office chatter, there is now the drip of a coffee machine and whatever lo-fi beats are on YouTube.
Everyone’s experience of working in this way (and of the last year generally) will be different. Personally, working from home has given me the space to arrest a backslide into depression, aided by the University’s excellent Counselling Service. I’ve been able to assess my mental health on a more frequent and meaningful basis, with the aid of my support network and various mechanisms and safeguards I have managed to put in place. I appreciate how fortunate I am in this regard.
Another change has been the influx of video meetings as a replacement for face-to-face meetings. As well as work-related meetings, optional social catch-ups and virtual coffees began as a substitute for the more neighbourly aspects of office life.
Initially, I welcomed these informal meetings – while not always the most extroverted individual, I enjoy the company of others (I’ve been using Teams chats with colleagues as a small trickle of conversation throughout the day, as well as various email chains throughout the University community) and saw the wisdom in attending these social events.
I recognise how important these social meetings have been for staff wellbeing, especially for those who live alone or thrive on social contact, and I’ve also felt these benefits. But of course, these events are not a like-for-like substitution: a scheduled, virtual chat doesn’t replicate the organic and incidental conversation of a working day in the office, nor does the technology lend itself to discrete discussions. Furthermore, the switch from working alone at home to suddenly mingling with any number of others can be jarring and fatiguing (see, for example, research at Stanford and an April 2020 article in the Guardian).
Over time, I noticed my capacity to contribute to these events was diminishing, as was the effect they were having on my wellbeing. I decided a change was in order – if a desired outcome of these events is to improve my general happiness, I can achieve this via other means.
I now view these meeting slots as wellbeing breaks. I still drink coffee, but away from my screen, sometimes while taking some air in the street. I use the allotted time to do something meditative, such as yoga or sitting with our pet rabbits, or something more focused, like practicing on my guitar or catching up on some reading. As I need, I do nothing at all, allowing my brain and mind time to process and unpack.
As a result, I’ve found myself more refreshed and with a clearer head, better able to tackle my work efficiently and productively and to support my colleagues and myself. Taking time to assess what is working for us and letting go of what no longer serves us is vital to our individual and collective wellbeing.