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Me this week: why is this guy chasing me for a reply today when he only emailed me on Thursday?
Also me this week: how come that person I emailed on Wednesday last week STILL hasn’t replied?
We’ve all spent time hitting the refresh button on an inbox waiting for a reply to an email we’ve sent and wondering what’s holding things up. The truth is, people send urgent emails before others and if they think a reply to your email is not urgent and is going to take them ages to write, you might be waiting a really long time!
Our frustration waiting for others to reply to our emails led us to investigate which factors influence how quickly people respond to emails and whether there’s anything we can do as a sender to get them to choose to reply to us before answering someone else’s message!The results of our study of 45 people responding to 16,200 e-mails sent over a 3 week period show that when e-mail replies are not urgent, people wait to a later time to send replies rather than responding immediately. However, when they do respond they are more likely to tackle the messages that are easier to respond to (eg needing a short reply) and those that carry the greatest importance (eg when there’s something in it for the sender). In contrast, when presented with e-mails that need an urgent reply, people prioritize these and disregard factors such as length of reply.
Our results are important for all of us who use e-mail and want timely responses. Composing e-mails that clearly signal that an urgent response is needed is the best way to ensure that the receiver will deal with it promptly. If it’s not urgent, making clear that you just need a short response will mean your email gets replied to before others.
Anna L. Cox, Jon Bird, Duncan P. Brumby, Marta E. Cecchinato & Sandy J. J. Gould (2021) Prioritizing unread e-mails: people send urgent responses before important or short ones, Human–Computer Interaction, 36:5-6, 511-534, DOI: 10.1080/07370024.2020.1835481
Our paper “The new normals of work: a framework for understanding responses to disruptions created by new futures of work” has just come out in Human-Computer Interaction Journal.
Open access to the paper is available here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07370024.2021.1982391
In the paper, we explore how people adapted to work during the pandemic and how we might understand people’s response to disruption in the new future of work. We highlight a number of issues, tools and strategies that people used in their work to support them while working remotely. For example, virtual commutes, having dedicated space, new scheduling techniques or staying connected with colleagues through virtual chats and async chats
Exploring these with the Genuis and Bronstein model of “new normal” we show 3 kinds of responses:
- waiting to return to old normal,
- finding a new normal and
- anticipating a new future of work.
These new normals of work help us to understand how we can help workers going forward.
We’d like to thank our reviewers for their feedback and our participants for helping develop our work within eworklife.co.uk and a special shoutout to @DilishaBP whose work with the new normal model inspired this work 😀 You can find their paper on Finding a “New Normal” for Men Experiencing Fertility Issues here: dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.114…
If you find this interesting you might also like our other papers on work during the pandemic:
- Disengaged From Planning During the Lockdown? An Interview Study in an Academic Setting Yoana Ahmetoglu; Duncan P. Brumby; Anna L. Cox (2021) IEEE Pervasive Computing
- Staying Active While Staying Home: The Use of Physical Activity Technologies During Life Disruptions Joseph W. Newbold, Anna Rudnicka and Anna Cox (2021) Frontiers in Digital Health
- Eworklife: Developing effective strategies for remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic A Rudnicka, JW Newbold, D Cook, ME Cecchinato, S Gould, AL Cox (2020) The New Future of Work Online Symposium
The first draft of this blogpost was written as a twitter thread by Joe Newbold and unrolled using ThreadReader
In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, four experts dissect the impact a year of working from home has had on employees and the companies they work for – and what a more hybrid future might look like. And we talk to a researcher who asked people to sit in bathtubs full of ice-cold water to find out why some of us are able to stand the cold better than others.
For many people who can do their job from home, the pandemic meant a sudden shift from office-based to remote working. But after a year of working from home, some company bosses really don’t want it to become the new normal. The chief executive of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, called it an “aberration”, and Barclays chief executive Jes Staley said it wasn’t sustainable, because of how hard it is to maintain culture and collaboration with teams working remotely.
Meanwhile, others are fully embracing a remote work future. Twitter said its employees could work from home forever, and Spotify announced a “work from anywhere” policy. Other firms are starting to announce more hybrid policies, where people are expected to split their week between the home and the office: in March, BP told employees they would be expected to work from home two days a week.
In this episode, we talk to researchers who have been studying the shift to remote working during the pandemic about their findings. In France, Marie-Colombe Afota, assistant professor in leadership, IÉSEG School of Management in France, talks us through the initial results of a new study she did in late 2020 of 4,000 employees at a large French multinational. “The more employees felt that the organisation generally values being visible in the office, the more they felt expected to be constantly available while in remote work,” says Afota. “And, in turn, two months later, the less they felt productive and happy in remote work.”
A year of working from home has left some people close to burnout, according to Dave Cook, a PhD researcher in anthropology at University College London who has been interviewing people about their experiences of shifting to remote work during the pandemic. “Burnout and work-life balance is the forgotten public health emergency that’s emerging through throughout this lockdown,” he tells us. And he says that companies should start communicating with their staff now about what the future has in store: “So their employees can get on with planning the rest of their lives.”
For others, the shift to remote work has been a surprisingly good experience. Jean-Nicolas Reyt, an assistant professor at McGill University in Montreal, has been tracking the language that chief executives in North America used to talk about remote working in 2020. “What you see is that actually that misconception, that telework is just not as efficient as co-located work, has vanished for a lot of CEOs,” he tells us. “A lot of CEOs and a lot of employees are saying it was forced, but it’s actually pretty good.”
Ruchi Sinha, a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour and management at the University of South Australia, gives the view from Australia, where hybrid working is already becoming a reality, and where most invitations to a face-to-face meeting now come with a video link too. But Sinha says that opportunities to shift to a fully flexible way of working may be being missed, with companies implementing new policies as rigid as the old ones. “I don’t think we are spending enough time thinking about are we giving people choice to shape their jobs, to shape what they do,” she tells us.
In our second story, we find out that your genes influence how resistant you are to cold temperatures. To test this, scientists asked a group of men to sit in bathtubs full of icy water to measure their reaction – and how much they shivered. Victoria Wyckelsma, a postdoctoral research fellow in muscle physiology at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, explains what they found and what it means.
And Sunanda Creagh from The Conversation in Australia gives us some recommended reading about the recent floods in Sydney.
The Conversation Weekly is produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio or on Instagram at theconversationdotcom. We’d love to hear what you think of the show too. You can email us on firstname.lastname@example.org
A transcript of this episode is available here.
News clips in this episode are from CNN, CNBC News, CBC News, NBC News, Arirang News, World Economic Forum, Goldman Sachs, AlJazeera English, 7 News Australia, Sky News Australia,, Euronews, DW News and Jornal da Record.
Daniel Merino, Assistant Editor: Science, Health, Environment; Co-Host: The Conversation Weekly Podcast, The Conversation and Gemma Ware, Editor and Co-Host, The Conversation Weekly Podcast, The Conversation
Media interview: ‘If you switch off, people think you’re lazy’: demands grow for a right to disconnect from work
Prof Anna L Cox is quoted in The Guardian’s article ‘If you switch off, people think you’re lazy’: demands grow for a right to disconnect from work
The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that the amount we work would gradually shrink to as little as 15 hours a week as technology made us more productive. Not only did this not happen, but we also began to spend extra time away from home due to commuting and suburban living patterns, which we often forget are recent historical inventions.
However, 2020 has changed all that. In my new history of remote work during COVID-19, I marvel at how much it has shaken up our lives and how much we took for granted. My research also points to a number of trends that will help shape working life in 2021.
Over “in time for Christmas”
At the start of 2020 remote work was a gradually rising long-term trend. Only 12% of workers in the US worked remotely full time, 6% in the UK. Naturally the world was unprepared for mass remote work.
But COVID-19 instantly proved remote work was possible for many people. Workplace institutions and norms toppled like dominos. The office, in-person meetings and the daily commute fell first. Then the nine to five schedule, vacations and private home lives were threatened. Countries even started issuing remote work visas to encourage people to spend lockdown working in their territory.
As old norms vanished, a rapid procession of novel technologies marched uninvited into our homes. We had to master Zoom meeting etiquette, compassionate email practices, navigate surveillance, juggle caring responsibilities. The list goes on.
In the face of grim statistics – the UN predicted 195 million job losses – only the tone deaf complained about working from home. Nonetheless, COVID-19 created the biggest remote work experiment in human history.
In July, UK prime minister Boris Johnson – with Edwardian optimism – daydreamed a sense of normality would return “in time for Christmas”. Fast forward through summer to lockdown 2.0 and the fantasy of a 12-week experiment faded into sepia tinged memories. One interviewee joked: “I really thought we’d be back in the office by July, what fools we were!”
Are you disciplined?
Silicon Valley companies Google, Apple and Twitter were among the first to announce employees could work from home. Ahead of the curve, they were well practised. Predictably, they already had a fancy term for it: distributed working. In 2021 concepts such as distributed and hybrid working will proliferate.
Most were less prepared than Silicon Valley. In March, I published findings from a four-year research study tracking remote workers. I warned, to be a successful remote worker deep reserves of self-discipline were required, otherwise burnout followed.
We understand this now. But I spent the first lockdown patiently explaining to news outlets why working from home was so hard. When I suggested returning to the office might be considered a luxury – because it helped people structure their days – a news presenter laughed. For good or ill, conversations about disciplined routines will intensify in 2021.
I’d have been right if we’d returned to the office. Instead necessity dictated we up our Zoom game – even if they were draining. Zoom simultaneously saved and ruined working from home, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
The commuting paradox
Remote workers, grateful to still have jobs, also reported a gnawing sense of survivors’ guilt. Overwork was one way of expressing this guilt. Many felt working extra hours might secure their job.
In April 2020, I joined other academics researching work-life balance on a project called eWorkLife. The research data revealed increases in working hours when it wasn’t obvious when the working day ended. Especially with no obvious signal to end the working day.
In my four-year remote study, I had noticed a strange pattern. Participants initially said “escaping the commute” was a key benefit of remote working. Yet months later these same workers started recreating mini commutes.
The eWorkLife project uncovered similar findings. People wanted to create “a clear division between work and home”. Study lead Prof Anna Cox urged people to do pretend commutes so they could maintain a work-life balance. In 2021 work-life balance must become recognised as a public health issue and the eWorkLife project is urging policymakers to act.
The right to disconnect
What’s happened to the time previously lost to commuting? Many are using it to catch up on admin and email. This taps into a worrying trend.
Pre-pandemic warnings about an encroaching 24/7 work culture were intensifying. Social scientists argued that contemporary workers were being turned into worker-smartphone hybrids. In 2016, French workers were even given the legal right to disconnect from work emails outside working hours.
A hopeful wish-list for 2021 includes continued increases in workplace activism and for companies and governments to reveal their remote working policies. Twitter and 17 other companies have already announced employees can work remotely indefinitely. At least 60% of US companies still haven’t shared their remote working policies with their employees. Remote workers tell me until bosses reveal their post-pandemic policies – planning for their future is impossible.
The late activist David Graeber described the failure to achieve Keynes’s 15-hour work week as a missed opportunity, “a scar across our collective soul”. COVID-19 may have started conversations about alternative futures where work and leisure are better balanced.
But it won’t come easily. And we will have to fight for it.
During lockdown, travel was not only a distant dream, it was unlawful. Some even predicted that how we travel would change forever. Those in power that broke travel bans caused scandals. The empty skies and hopes that climate change could be tackled were a silver lining, of sorts. COVID-19 has certainly made travel morally divisive.
Amid these anxieties, many countries eased lockdown restrictions at the exact time the summer holiday season traditionally began. Many avoided flying, opting for staycations, and in mid-August 2020, global flights were down 47% on the previous year. Even so, hundreds of thousands still holidayed abroad, only then to be caught out by sudden quarantine measures.
In mid-August for example, 160,000 British holiday makers were still in France when quarantine measures were imposed. On August 22, Croatia, Austria, and Trinidad and Tobago were added to the UK’s quarantine list, then Switzerland, Jamaica and the Czech Republic the week after – causing continued confusion and panic.
This insistence on travelling abroad, with ensuing rushes to race home, has prompted much tut-tutting. Some have predicted travel and tourism may cause winter lockdowns. Flight shaming is already a cultural sport in Sweden, and vacation shaming has even become a thing in the US.
Amid these moral panics, Barbados has reframed the conversation about travel by launching a “Barbados Welcome Stamp” which allows visitors to stay and work remotely for up to 12 months.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley explained the new visa has been prompted by COVID-19 making short-term visits difficult due to time-consuming testing and the potential for quarantine. But this isn’t a problem if you can visit for a few months and work through quarantine with the beach on your doorstep. This trend is rapidly spreading to other countries. Bermuda, Estonia and Georgia have all launched remote work-friendly visas.
I think these moves by smaller nations may change how we work and holiday forever. It could also change how many think about citizenship.
This new take on visas and border controls may seem novel, but the idea of working remotely in paradise is not new. Digital nomads – often millennials engaged in mobile-friendly jobs such as e-commerce, copywriting and design – have been working in exotic destinations for the last decade. The mainstream press started covering them in the mid-2010s.
Fascinated by this, I started researching the digital nomad lifestyle five years ago – and haven’t stopped. In 2015, digital nomads were seen as a niche but rising trend. Then COVID-19 paused the dream. Digital nomad Marcus Dace was working in Bali when COVID-19 struck. His travel insurance was invalidated, and he’s now in a flat near Bristol wondering when he can travel.
Dace’s story is common. He told me: “At least 50% of the nomads I knew returned to their home countries because of CDC and Foreign Office guidance.” Now this new burst of visa and border policy announcements has pulled digital nomads back into the headlines.
So, will the lines between digital nomads and remote workers blur? COVID-19 might still be making international travel difficult. But remote work – the other foundation of digital nomadism – is now firmly in the mainstream. So much so that remote work is considered by many to be here to stay.
Before COVID-19, office workers were geographically tethered to their offices, and it was mainly business travellers and the lucky few digital nomads who were able to take their work with them and travel while working. Since the start of the pandemic, many digital nomads had to work in a single location, and office workers have become remote workers – giving them a glimpse of the digital nomad lifestyle.
COVID-19 has upended other old certainties. Before the pandemic, digital nomads would tell me that they despised being thought of as tourists. This is perhaps unsurprising: tourism was viewed as an escape from work. And other established norms have toppled: homes became offices, city centres emptied, and workers looked to escape to the country.
Given this rate of change, it’s not such a leap of faith to accept tourist locations as remote work destinations.
A Japanese businessman predicted this
The idea of tourist destinations touting themselves as workplaces is not new. Japanese technologist Tsugio Makimoto predicted the digital nomad phenomenon in 1997, decades before millennials Instagrammed themselves working remotely in Bali. He prophesied that the rise of remote working would force nation states “to compete for citizens”, and that digital nomadism would prompt “declines in materialism and nationalism”.
Before COVID-19 – with populism and nationalism on the rise – Makimoto’s prophecy seemed outlandish. Yet COVID-19 has turned over-tourism into under-tourism. And with a growing list of countries launching schemes, it seems nations are starting to “compete” for remote workers as well as tourists.
The latest development is the Croatian government discussing a digital-nomad visa – further upping the stakes. The effects of these changes are hard to predict. Will local businesses benefit more from long-term visitors than from hordes of cruise ship visitors swarming in for a day? Or will an influx of remote workers create Airbnb hotspots, pricing locals out of popular destinations?
It’s down to employers
The real question is whether employers allow workers to switch country. It sounds far-fetched, but Google staff can already work remote until summer 2021. Twitter and 17 other companies have announced employees can work remotely indefinitely.
I’ve interviewed European workers in the UK during COVID-19 and some have been allowed to work remotely from home countries to be near family. At Microsoft’s The New Future of Work conference, it was clear that most major companies were mobilising task forces and would launch new flexible working policies in autumn 2020.
Countries like Barbados will surely be watching closely to see which companies could be the first to launch employment contracts allowing workers to move countries. If this happens, the unspoken social contract between employers and employees – that workers must stay in the same country – will be broken. Instead of booking a vacation, you might be soon booking a workcation.
We are experiencing the biggest remote work experiment in history – but many are beginning to imagine life after lockdown. Amid unprecedented global job losses, concerns about transport infrastructure and the continuing need for workplace social distancing, governments are launching back-to-work plans.
Meanwhile, the latest US research reveals that 74% of businesses want some workers to permanently work remotely and business leaders are actively shedding leased office space – hinting that not everyone will go back to the office.
Here are five key trends that will shape the future of how we work.
1. Commuting will change forever
Before lockdown, US commute times reached record levels and most UK workers spent more than a year of their lives travelling to and from work. People tell me that a hybrid strategy of working from home two days a week, is one ideal scenario.
Those eager to go back to the office will have to wait. Many will need to work from home for weeks or months to come. The situation is fluid, but governments are drawing up plans for workers to stagger working times, so public transport is not overwhelmed.
The genie is out of the bottle, and commuting is not going back to how it was.
2. Bad email etiquette won’t be tolerated
Research repeatedly shows that sending out-of-hours emails is not only bad etiquette – but creates a coercive work culture that requires people to be available 24/7. Social scientists argue this turns us into worker/smartphone hybrids and causes stress and burnout. Expecting quick answers to email is increasingly seen as bullying.
Many now realise that colleagues might need to work flexibly due to caring responsibilities. Lockdown has encouraged a new acceptance of flexibility. But this shouldn’t extend to having a culture that expects people to be available all the time.
3. Video calls will be limited
Zoom calls will remain part of our lives – but we will change and adapt how we use them. Research shows that video calls are more draining and tiring than in-person meetings.
While video calls are appropriate for some meetings, we don’t need to use them for all our communication. Research suggests many are shifting back to phone calls – which as one manager explained to me “feels more spontaneous and flows better”.
4. More co-working spaces will emerge
Workers forced to continue working from cramped living spaces are desperate for alternatives. When lockdown lifts they will turn to the cafes and co-working spaces that are still in business. Before COVID-19 hit, co-working spaces were projected to increase more than 40% worldwide.
The paradox of remote working is that people crave the flexibility but know that being around others boosts productivity. My research shows that over time remote workers crave the physical closeness that comes with just being alongside other people. It’s exactly why in 2017 IBM pulled many employees back into the office, despite having previously published a 2014 white paper in support of remote working.
Local co-working spaces, as opposed to big investor-funded brands such as WeWork, will do well. Independent co-working spaces in some areas were thriving before COVID-19 – they may become more mainstream if they survive lockdown.
5. Could we become part-time digital nomads?
Digital nomads are extreme remote workers that post Instagram stories from exotic locations. Right now, that lifestyle seems unrelatable, impossible and to many unethical.
Nonetheless, many decently paid workers in New York, London and Paris are stuck in uncomfortably small flats, dreaming of escape from lockdown. As a housing manager recently confided to me: “London living without nightlife and culture, isn’t fun. Everyone wants to escape to somewhere outdoorsy when allowed. I’m not sure I approve but it’s understandable.”
For now, remote working from different locations is not allowed. But the allure of relocating to a picturesque location remains – and Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBnB, is banking on it. He sees COVID-19 as a business opportunity and told Bloomberg: “People are realising they can work remote … that’s a huge opportunity.”
Not all will agree – it could cause long-term sustainability issues – and many will not have this privilege. But when lockdown fully lifts, who’s to say more people will not work remotely from different parts of the world, beyond their living rooms.
Prof Anna L Cox talks to Prof Joe Devlin from UCL Changing Minds about The Psychology of Successfully Working from Home
As schools across the UK closed their doors on Friday families focused on how they were going to create a coworking space at home. They spent their weekend moving furniture, clearing out spare rooms, refinding extension cable usually reserved for the xmas tree lights so as to create a new home office that could fit the whole family. We are fortunate enough to have a small extension that is open plan to our dining room that we can fit 3 of us into and we’ve squeezed an extra deskspace on the edge of the dining room so that we each have our own place to work.
My new coworkers include a teen, a tween who are used to spending their days at school and doing a bit of homework at the end of the day. The fourth member of our team is a middle-aged man who is used to getting most of his ‘deep-work’ done in the office, and only using home for catching up on email. None of them are happy to be here! I, on the other hand, am used to having the place to myself to get on with ‘deep work’ and use my office for face to face meetings. I’ve been working at home for at least a day a week (usually more) for the last 16 years, first motivated by avoiding the crazy costs of commuting into London and then to facilitate the juggling of school pick-ups that comes with family life.
Our new normal means scheduling our day around the timetable of a secondary school. They’re encouraging the teen to do the work set during standard lesson time and of course that’s completely necessary for live online lessons. The tween is doing a fantastic job of following the lesson plans that have been emailed over by his teacher this morning. And I’ve realised that this timetable isn’t that different that one I followed on a writing retreat last year so this might actually work well for all of us. I don’t often take a 20 minute break in the middle of my morning but it was lovely to stand out on the patio in the sunshine whilst having a cup of tea.
We all have different needs in this space. Two of us have online meetings with work colleagues and students, as well as video lectures to record. The teen is in the middle of an online lesson in google meets as I type – it seems that he doesn’t have to say anything (thank goodness) but I can still just about hear the teacher’s voice from his headphones. Being physically all in the same space isn’t going to work for all hours of the day so meetings and lecture recordings are going to have to be made from bedrooms. Connecting socially online is also important now we are distancing ourselves physically from everyone else and the kids need time to talk to their friends so we’ve set up daily meetings for them with online conferencing software so that they can hang out together.
We’re also trying to follow the WHO guidelines that state that children and youth aged 5–17 should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_young_people/en/ Walks and runs around our local streets and park involve taking swerving routes away from people who don’t seem to have worked out that moving into single file when you are coming face to face with someone is probably a good idea! Yesterday a group stopped still as they saw us coming towards them – all 4 of them stood side by side across the path!
In this new coworking world, the research I’ve been doing with my PhD student Laura Lascau into the environments in which remote crowdworkers do their work has taken on new personal significance. There are many parallels between the challenges experienced by crowdworkers and those that many families will find themselves facing this week and I’ve tried to take on board what we have learnt when designing our new coworking arrangements. In the rest of this post I’ll summarise some of the findings from a paper we published last year and what we can learn from them:
Laura Lascau, Sandy J. J. Gould, Anna L. Cox, Elizaveta Karmannaya, and Duncan P. Brumby. 2019. Monotasking or Multitasking: Designing for Crowdworkers’ Preferences. In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’19). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Paper 419, 1–14. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300649 (The full paper is available open access here https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10066164/1/1.%20monotasking-multitasking-CHI2019.pdf )
We surveyed people who work from home regularly about what works for them and have been able to extract some helpful tips for others that find themselves in this situation now.
Making an office space
What changes would crowdworkers make to their spaces? Here are the top 4 things that they felt would improve their home work space.
- multiple monitors – our participants were clear that having multiple monitors would help them to get their work done more easily rather than working only from a small screen.
- have designated office spaces – they were also big fans of having a designated office space to work in. We pick up on this below when considering working around other people
- more comfortable chairs – having to made do with a corner of the sofa, or someone’s bed as a workspace was common. Having a comfortable chair was see
- larger desks – having a space to lay out everything they needed to complete their work was important
Working around other people
What are the most common challenges to focusing on work at home?
- presence of other people
- having the TV on
- digital distractions
About 40% of our participants worked from a shared space and struggled with integrating their demands of the different types of work they do with the constraints of their physical environment. As one of our participants told us:
“I would first and foremost move it into a private room. I miss out on numerous [jobs] because I am unable to record audio or video due to the fact others are making noise around me or would be in the webcam video. It also provides many distractions since it’s in the front room. A personal private room would be the best upgrade.”
Tip: Find out from everyone what kinds of activities they need to do in their day in order to identify what kind of spaces you need. Are you able to provide everyone with their own working space? If not, do you need a quiet working space for those doing ‘deep work’ and another place where people can have online meetings? Is this going to work every day or do you need to agree to rotate around? Check in frequently with each other to make sure everyone is getting the type of space they need.
What helps workers focus on their work?
- quiet spaces,
- limited distractions,
- background entertainment (mainly listening to music)
Our participants told us about the strategies they use to manage distractions that come from other people:
“I use noise cancelling headphones. I tune out environmental noises or activities. I remain focused on what I’m doing. I do not engage in more than one activity at a time unless the [the work] require me to do so. I do not eat or listen to music while I work. I tend to work when the environment is calm rather than when I know those around me will be active.”
“I try to work during times I know the kids are being independent or napping.”
Tips: Sharing your work space with people who are prone to interrupt you is always difficult. Agreeing on a daily schedule that everyone agrees to might be helpful for helping to plan when you’re going get your work done. Remember that everyone feels that their own work is important so you can’t have one person dominating the way the space is being used. There’s going to have to be a lot of compromise.
If you have young children then talk to them about what they can be doing whilst you get on with your work. Some children can get lost in a book or happily play for hours with their toys. Most children can be occupied by tv or digital games. If you can, stick on some headphones and power through! Perhaps young children could be entertained by grandparents through videoconferencing software – they could read stories to them, or have a chat.
Work-life boundary management and leisure time
People vary in terms of how they tend to manage their work-life boundaries. Some people prioritise work, others non-work, and some try to do both. People also vary in terms of how separate they like to keep these parts of their lives: ‘integrators’ are happy switching frequently between one and the other, perhaps to the point where these doesn’t seem to be a boundary at all. ‘Separators’ like to keep them completely separate and wouldn’t ever contemplate working at home or at the weekend.
It won’t come as a great surprise to know that we saw that people who work from shared spaces such as family homes experience a far greater number of interruptions from personal matters when they were trying to work than those who were working from private spaces.
Tips: If you or your partner are separators then recognise that you’re likely to find this new co-working environment challenging and that it will take time to adapt to it. Again a schedule can be helpful here so that you block time for work and time for non-work. Remember to schedule non-work activities whether that’s time with friends, taking part in an online “pub” quiz or one of the many online exercise classes that have suddenly appeared.
Many of us have had little choice but to resort to remote working in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It is just days since Google, Apple and Twitter were making headlines by ordering their employees to work from home, but you could now say the same about lots of companies.
Whatever you think about this style of working, the trend is increasing. Remote working was already growing fast – more than doubling since 2005 to 4.7 million workers in the US, for example. If you believe recent headlines, the transition is all too easy and seamless.
Yet the march towards this utopian future has been uneven – witness IBM’s decision to dump remote working several years ago, because it was preventing innovation and collaboration. I have just published research that highlights additional challenges and difficulties. And if people don’t approach remote working in the right way, they risk making their work lives worse.
Pros and cons
When discussing remote working, academics and the media have been split into opposing camps. The pro camp talk about cuttng out commutes, increasing quality family time and productivity and achieving a better work-life balance. Sceptics reply that flexibility comes at a cost. They warn about losing social interaction, nuance and community – and potentially becoming less productive. These give us mixed messages when we need certainty.
As an anthropologist, I’ve spent the past four years researching how people adjusted to becoming an extreme type of remote worker known as digital nomads. These workers move from country to country, always working online. I followed more than 50 in total, employed in a range of jobs including computer coding, graphic design, online marketing and travel journalism.
After an initial honeymoon period, remote working quickly became too isolating for over 25% of my participants. As one said, “Some aren’t naturally self-motivated, and no end of self-help books will change that”.
One solution turned out to be the coworking space. It gave a sense of community and face-to-face interaction, but more important was just to be around other workers – academic jargon for this is co-presence. As a remote employee working in ecommerce explained: “Just being around other folk working turbocharges your day.”
I completely understand this sentiment. I wrote most of this article in a coworking space, and just being around others tapping away at their keyboards creates a feeling of effortless productivity.
Yet things change quickly. Coworking spaces are not going to be an option for many people for a while. Some of those in house shares will be able to recreate the same environment at home. There are various forms of coworking space etiquette that can be adopted at home, such as having quiet zones for focused work and having separate areas for voice and video calls.
If working near other people is important, the need for a disciplined work life is everything. For my research participants, this was the secret ingredient in sustaining remote working – whether the discipline was self-imposed or externally set by deadlines.
My participants never discussed discipline at first. The initial excitement of remote working made them productive for a while. But after a few months, motivation became harder. At this point, some participants gave up on this lifestyle.
Those who thrived tended to be more strict, ensuring they went to coworking spaces every day and put phones and social media noise out of reach. Many also set up rituals. One graphic designer deliberately chose to work in a space that was 15 minutes walk from their home, to “mentally gear up for work” on his way in and to decompress before he got home.
Fascinatingly, here was a worker who had not only given up one office for another, but was recreating the daily commute. And just because coworking spaces are off limits at the moment it doesn’t mean you can’t consider equivalent rituals. It is still an option to build a short walk into the beginning and end of the working day, thereby creating a clear division between your home and work life.
Always on, always available
Digital technology may free people to work remotely in the first place, but it also causes unforeseen problems. My participants reported a growing expectation to be available 24/7, reflecting similar findings in other studies.
This is an issue for the entire workforce, but it is arguably exacerbated by remote working. Our 24/7 work culture didn’t happen overnight, or because of coercive managers. Instead, the perceived division between work and non-work has steadily disappeared over time, while few of us were paying attention.
Sociologist Judy Wajcman argues that this mentality is even restructuring how we think about time, as Silicon Valley designs devices and apps that urge us all on a never-ending quest for productivity and self-discipline. Besides work, the ways in which we read books, watch TV, exercise and meditate can now be timeboxed into app-sized chunks as well.
This culture has led some remote workers to experience mental health issues and burnout. Reflecting back on his burnout, one interviewee called Sam explained:
I didn’t have the concept of free time until I found myself scheduling four-hour meetings in my diary titled ‘downtime’. It’s insane; I look back at this period in my life and wonder why it took so long to burnout.
We all need to keep an eye on this dangerous trend. It is crucial to set clear boundaries between home life and work and not put pressure on ourselves to be available outside working hours – particularly during a crisis when many of us will need to support family and friends.
Finally, remote working could well become permanent for many people. Many companies were encouraging staff to work elsewhere to reduce office costs before the outbreak, and this will probably be all the more attractive to the businesses that survive this crisis. One wonders if in ten years we will look back from our remote workstations and remember 2020 as the year we last went into the office. Either way, we need to be careful. Remote working always tantalises with the promise of freedom, but it can end up delivering the exact opposite.