Updated: Jun 2
Week 5 of coronavirus restrictions in the UK
I had a plan: I would write a blog at the end of every week and publish it the following week so I could to track what is happening in my business life during the coronavirus restriction. On the third week, I failed. I wrote the blog, but I did not publish it. I did not follow the routine I had set. Why? It made me think about the importance of routine and keeping track of days of the week, even during the Easter holidays.
Coping with the new normal
Throughout my working life, I have worked both from home and in an office. I have been working from home for the last 18 months so I have set ‘routines’. It is easy to tell people who are new at it what you need to do to make it work. Ultimately, you will find your own way to make it work. That means, at the beginning, there will be good days and bad days. As we hear so much, we live an unprecedented situation, we all need to adjust and find the new normal. As a species, we have evolved to adapt to new situations in order to survive.
I hate routines. Repeating the same ritual day in day out is, for me, the death of creativity. Yet, in order to reach your goals, routines - I prefer to call them processes- are important.
Whether you work at home or in an office, you need to know what we should accomplish in a day, in a week, in a month and a year and set to do it. The key to successful routine management is the ability to adapt. We are all adapting to the new restrictions imposed by the pandemic. There has been worries about productivity dropping in the last few weeks, but all this is normal as we change and adapt to the new situation. More than five weeks into lockdown, we have seen that online meetings are working, we can work remotely, and we are moving the tasks along.
Working-from-home is not for everyone. Some people work better surrounded by colleagues. I do not. I like to be alone and I work best and quicker without people around me. Working in an open plan office was not my favourite environment but I adapted. If anything, my routines were disrupted more often that none and yet I managed to complete my tasks and be highly productive. At home, in the current situation, it would be easier without the whole family coming and going. These are distractions and I add them to my daily routine. There will be a longer break for lunch, a few short breaks on bread baking days; the usual distractions from the multiple use of the printer or help to sort out the IT for schoolwork or the random cuddles – more than ever, everyone needs reassurance.
I have created a new coronavirus routine, but I keep it flexible and include all activities that will need to be done. I try to keep to the same number of hours I would have in an office. If you are worried your manager is checking on you every second of your day, remember that you are the same professional person, trust yourself and your manager will trust you in return – manager also have to adapt to a new way of working and they have to trust their own abilities to work with their teams. Life happens and it would also happen in the office. It is not because you are working from home that you are more distracted. The sources of distraction are slightly different, that is all.
However, there is a type of distraction that we all need to be aware of when working from home and it is procrastination. It happens when you are in an office, but you have colleagues to guilt you into getting back to the task at hand. If you have a penchant for procrastination, it is something you need to be fully aware of, when you work from home.
I do have a penchant for the art of doing nothing; I would prefer to sit in the garden and watch clouds go by than do something I do not want to do. That is the point. ‘Something I do not want to do’. In all work there are tasks that are, shall we say, less appealing, less interesting and these are the ones that will bring out procrastination. There is no magic cure. Everything will be more interesting than the boring task. The problem is not that the laundry needs to be put in the washing machine. The problem is that you must do a task that you do not want to do. That is when routine and checklists become the beacon to keep you in the productive mode. As I need to do laundry, I add it to my weekly routine then I do not use it as an excuse to procrastinate.
Although I enjoy being alone and I rarely feel loneliness, it does not mean I enjoy being idle. Even when I drift into procrastination, I will keep my mind busy. Watching clouds go by, I would create a story with the various forms. When you have many hours to fill in a day but he work coming your way is reduced, you hope that the fun things will take most of the time, but, as is often the case, the boring things seem to take over your whole day. As I often say to my daughters do the boring things first, when your mind is still fresh, then reenergise your brain with the fun things. Breaking up the boredom with enjoyable and boring things help to move along the day. When you run out of work to do, do not feel bad, do something else, but do tick that daily checklist first. Learn a new language, find out more about space. Do something you have always wanted to do. You can even include it in your routine – a good thing is to give yourself 30 minutes of high interest after boring activities.
Lockdown: what is behind the door?
I usually read a lot, and this week, have done a bit of reading about remote working. It is not one of my usual topics but the readings were fascinating. Statistics have shown that, both in the UK and the US, about 10% of the workforce was working from home in 2019. Now, it is estimated that more than 40% are working from home and this trend could continue beyond the pandemic.
It is a big experiment with very few control on the variables as we were thrown into remote working with a very short planning phase. In normal circumstances, there are issues with working from home and being dropped into remote working could enhance the issues and give bad experiences to the employees and employers alike. To name a few issues: not all companies have work from home strategy; IT security is in jeopardy, kids at home are creating more distractions, isolation raise issues for mental health. It is an experiment, but with so many uncontrolled variables, I believe it is a flawed experiment.
Nicholas Bloom, an expert in economics warn it will be a catastrophe for the economy and productivity will slump. We all agree, productivity has gone down (way down!). The situation is exceptional, the rate of change is faster than the adaptability of most companies but working from home allows the company to maintain a certain level of productivity. We should not forget human resilience as both employees and employers will find new ways to adapt to the situation and make it work. For the next few weeks and months, we will not have face-to-face contacts. There is also worries that creativity and innovation might go down as a result of social distancing.
Creativity, innovation and cabin fever
Kevin Roose wrote an interesting article about cabin fever and the loss of creativity and innovation when working from home. I am quite sure artists, writers and musicians will differ in opinion on that one, but he makes good points and, as he has been an advocate of working from home in the past, he has lived both lives.
I think that, as for everything in life, finding the right balance is the way forward. Working from home does not make you a hermit - except now as we are in a pandemic- or a slave to working 24/7. Mr Roose reminds us that many ideas come from casual discussions with colleagues. Indeed, I have had many of them in my scientific and managerial career. I also find lots of ideas from phrases, read or heard, and images. At all time, isolation or not, I keep my creativity flowing with activities such as reading, arts and music. We should all find our escapism. Serendipity plays a crucial role in the advancement of humanity and chance encounters and discussions are often the sparks for new ideas. However, whether you work from home or in an office, being at the right place at the right time (to hear the innovative sparks) is not enough. Carpe diem is the mind set of entrepreneurial people. It allows them to execute creative and innovative ideas.
Making it work
Whether or not remote working works for you, you have no choice now. You must make the best of what you have and adapt. Most people are professional and want to do the best job for their company. If your managers are worried about your work from home, reassure them with results. Most of all, be thankful that you still have a job. If you are looking for an overall view of what you can do to make working from home work for you, Vicky Valet, in a recent articles in Forbes gives many tips to work from home from setting up, productivity, planning the future and life-work balance.
One last point: will the pandemic change the way we work ? Most likely. I keep joking with my husband who works for a high-tech company: he has set a portable lab in the conservatory and, if he shows how well he has managed during lockdown, his company will not bother with offices. I know they will need their labs but do all jobs require big offices? Regardless of the situation, we all require good IT, good communications and places to meet face-to-face. As mentioned in a recent CNBC article we are at a tiping point. We could see more remote working. They also report that optimal home/office ratio is 3/2. It is not far fetched to imaging that, in the next few years we might see investments in smaller infrastructures (sharing home and office time with colleagues), more efficient IT and communication which will lead to better work-life balance. Now is the time to embrace change; adapt to a brand-new way of thinking; build on the old and create a better working life so we are ready leap forward when we step over the edge of the new normal into a new-new-normal.