How to make working from home a positive experience

27 March 2020
Our advice for turning prolonged work from home into something positive
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant a change in the way we approach work, with many of us facing full-time working from home for the first time in our professional lives. The Prevention Research Collaboration has put together their advice for ensuring your experience working from home is positive.

The COVID-19 pandemic will be one of the most defining public health crises of the 21st century. No one is left untouched as the pandemic changes our way of life and society as we know it. Feelings of doom and gloom and that the world is spinning out of control are palpable and weigh heavily on our minds. The stress and anxiety can be paralysing.

Thanks to the proliferation of blogs, opinion pieces and news articles by organisational change experts and wellbeing gurus, we are well furnished with practical tips and resources on how to stay calm and socially connected during these isolating times. We can also turn to research in the field of positive emotions to help us cope and deal with the stress and strain of rapidly evolving situations.

Here are some ideas from the evidence and our collective lived experience on how we can maintain our sense of control, connection and purpose in the face of these challenges.

1. Maintaining social connection during physical distancing

For many people in the workforce, the working from home experience has likely consisted of one blissful day a week with no meetings and the chance to focus on paper writing and other high concentration tasks. But working nearly exclusively from home can be really lonely.

There are tonnes of practical tips out there about managing your workspace and time – like not forgetting to wear pants during Zoom calls. But it’s also important to actively manage feelings of isolation – working from home can be pretty lonely after long stretches.

  • Try and arrange at least one Zoom or telephone meeting a day.
    Don’t be ‘all business’ on these calls – this is your only chance to make up for the total loss of office banter and corridor chats. By all means try and keep a day to yourself for writing and catch-up, but don’t go days at a time with not talking to anyone from the office – it‘s a recipe for crying into your afternoon cup of tea and talking too much to your cat.
  • Don't use technology for only work meetings, set up personal check ins as well.
    While emails and texts are great for keeping in touch and getting stuff done, they really are no substitute for ‘seeing’ and chatting with friendly faces. Face-to-face connectedness has various psychological and physiological benefits, so take advantage of the opportunities technology offers to see familiar faces during this socially isolating time. Placing your device on top of a pile of books improves the perspective and avoids sharing the inner parts of your nostrils with colleagues!

So, if we are working alone in our homes for the next little while - in addition to doing all the right things like setting up a good workspace, logging off at the end of day, and not eating all the chocolate in your pantry - please make sure to keep strong social ties with colleagues, it makes a world of difference.

2. An opportunity to unplug, take stock, reflect and review

Staying socially connected doesn't mean never switching off nor taking time for yourself. For those not at the frontline working on the COVID-19 prevention and control, the suggestion of disconnecting for some thinking time may sound ridiculous amidst the tsunami of health, social and economic fallout. Working on ‘non-essential’ tasks and being asked to focus on anything but COVID-19 can seem absurd, irrelevant and dismissive of the calamitous impacts of this global crisis on our lives and society. But as shutdown or lockdown becomes inevitable, the prospect of bunkering down could provide a valuable opportunity for us to pause and even take micro-sabbaticals from the coronavirus anxiety. It is an opportunity to spend quality time with family, and to psychologically revitalise and recharge our creative spirit. Whether small wins, like finishing off that manuscript, or major breakthroughs, like hitting a research idea eureka!, all achievements can give us a sense of control and psychological boost. A few suggestions on ways to unplug:

  • Give yourself a new challenge.
    Learn to play a musical instrument, a new language, a new piece of completely irrelevant trivia or a new social media platform! Taking brain breaks on such activities of 15-20 minutes each day can be invigorating and empowering. The best ideas can come when we engage in creative play.
  • Switch off.
    Take time to disconnect from your digital networks and stop consuming news. Create media and digital free zone even if for an hour per day or one day per week. Don’t relapse into the same work pattern or just do the same work during your work from home time. Break up your day into chunks and take working flexibility to a new level. Instead of staying to the 9-5 hour regime, create a new work schedule that would also allow you to fit in childcare, home schooling responsibilities, and even some physical activity time with family.
  • Take a mindful moment.
    When our world is filled with bad news and collective anxiety, it is more important than ever that we find the moments to breathe, turn our awareness inwards and find the spaciousness in our mind. If sitting still does not work well for you, try something else that keeps you in the present moment with a purpose and no judgement, such as gardening, reading or playing with your children. The key is to suspend our autopilot of judgement and reaction, and instead, observe. You may catch yourself less frequently in the ‘fight or flight’ modes and even enjoy glimpses of joy.

3. Stay active during shut downs

Physical activity is critical to our physical health and mental wellbeing and a shutdown or lockdown poses serious challenges to staying active. Frustrating as it is, the good news is you do not need huge amounts of physical activity to get health benefits (the Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend 150-300 minutes per week) and there are ways to incorporate physical activity into our life, even indoors.

  • Be resourceful.
    Whether it is lifting rice bags or doing tricep dips from a chair, there are ways to improvise and keep up with exercise routines outside of the gym. You may be amazed (and horrified) how much is out there on youtube. Many gyms and fitness studios have also moved classes online for students to keep exercising and connected. Choose something that suits you and exercise safely.
  • Break up sitting.
    One danger of working from home is that the opportunity for prolonged sitting is everywhere. Try to break up your sitting with a brisk walk in your living room, a few push-ups on the floor or kitchen counter, or walking up and down the stairs. Even low-intensity activity like house cleaning for half an hour a day is a good way to stay active.
  • Commute actively.
    As stressful as commuting can be, it creates an important buffer between work and home life. When this buffer has become infinitesimally small during working from home, try to adhere to a similar routine of active commuting, be it walking around the block or the living room at the start/end to the day.

The above are just some initial thoughts on thriving in these unprecedented times. We encourage you to share other tips and tools to get us through this new ‘COVID-19’ world, and to make a transition to a life that for many of us will largely be lived at home – at least for the next little while. Staying connected, using the me-time creatively and keeping active are key ways to get us to our post-coronavirus world in good shape and mental health.

Keep well everyone.

About the authors

This paper has been prepared by the Prevention Research Collaboration at the Sydney School of Public Health. This specialised research group is committed to expanding research in non-communicable disease prevention, as well as other aspects of primary prevention and health promotion including physical activity, nutrition, obesity and tobacco.

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