On Monday 13 March 2017, I attended what I think was the first ‘home working workshop’. It was held at on the university campus in Milton Keynes. Since the regional centres have closed, many staff tutors and faculty managers have become ‘designated home workers’. I’m sharing this quick blog of the event for two reasons: (1) so I remember what kinds of things were covered, and (2) on the off chance that anyone else might find it of interest.
Before the workshop we were asked to reflect on a set of key questions (which I’ve briefly edited for brevity): (1) what boundaries do you currently set to separate work from other parts of your life (e.g. having a designated workspace at home to which working is limited)? (2) how we implemented these boundaries? (3) how effective do we find these boundaries?, (4) Have we experienced difficulties with setting boundaries, and what makes them challenging?
The objectives for the workshop were to: identify strategies for managing the potential adverse impacts associated with homeworking, to consider the importance of recovery and switch-off time, and the implications for setting boundaries when homeworking. Other objectives were to help us to reflect on our own patterns when using technology, with a view to setting up effective practices. In essence, it was all about finding a way forward.
Thoughts about home working
Home working isn’t a new thing. Over four thousand part-time associate lecturers are already home workers. It is, however, a new thing for full time staff (like myself) who used to be office based.
I have to admit to being a bit grumpy about the whole thing: I miss my colleagues. A month or so into being a home worker, and I’m beginning to feel pretty isolated and ‘semi-detached’ from the university, and I'm spending a disproportionate amount of time looking at motorcycles on eBay.
On a more serious note I am, however, beginning to really appreciate the flexibility, but I haven’t yet fully started to take advantages of the flexibility that it affords. I do have a worry too: I can’t help but feel that there are some days that I seem to work too much; I know that I shouldn’t be still looking at email at nine o’clock at night (but I do justify this by talking to my inner ‘time guilt clock’ after taking a couple of hours off to go shopping).
I attended the workshop since I was curious: what could the facilitators in the workshop tell me? Also, were there any words of advice that would help me to settle into a new way of working?
The first activity was a group discussion, where we were asked to discuss the positives, negatives, and thoughts about anything that could be done to overcome issues that we might face. I made note that ‘switching off can be a problem’; that you could work all the time, but (as mentioned above) it gives you flexibility. A particular challenge might be if you’re new to the job: you might not be necessarily exposed to all the machinations of the university and have a reduced opportunity to ask questions.
A particular theme was the fear that we might become invisible; others might not know what we do. Also, because we’re not ‘in the office’ there is a fear that things that we do might not be valued. Another theme related to support: ‘watercooler’ chats don’t happen anymore; you can’t just pop your head above a partition and talk over potentially difficult issues with colleagues.
There are some key points: HR, Faculty and School policies need to be clarified. Also, I can’t help but feel that the subject of home working will become more important if the discussions surrounding the new associate lecturer contract comes to pass.
The next activity was to have a chat about two hypothetical members of staff, or personas. One member of staff was very experienced, whereas another member of staff was new. We were asked two questions: what would you say to the people in the personas? And, what advice would you offer to someone who is about to become a home worker?
Our group came up with some good advice: agitate (positively, and within your school or department) as much as you can, do be cheeky (since that can get you recognised), and attend meetings that are relevant to you and your job (whether they are face to face or online). Other thoughts are: be visible; volunteer for things, tell other people what you’re doing (maybe have a blog?), and don’t be afraid of asking questions.
Setting boundaries between work and private life
The next part of the workshop was a short talk by Svenja Schlachter, a PhD student at the University of Surrey. As Svenja talked, I made notes of points that jumped out at me. This bit of the blog is an edited transcript of the notes that I made.
A question is: ‘how do people recover from work?’ A point is: you need to be active in setting your own boundaries, and you need to be active in terms of planning your own recovery from work. If you don’t ‘recover’ properly, there are implications, such as: fatigue, mood, sleep problems, reduced performance, and risk of cardio-vascular death (I remember that Svenja supported this final point with some references).
We’re faced with a challenge: how was we properly recover from work when we’re surrounded by way to ‘get to’ work (such as, through our mobile devices and laptops)? The answer might lie in the concept of boundary management: there are different domains in our life, and we need to maintain mental fences for ourselves.
There is the idea of different boundary management styles. One idea is that there is a continuum: on one hand there are people who use segmentation (keep work and different domains separate), but on the other hand there might be people who integrate work with everything that they do.
Segmentation means that it is easier to switch off from work and there might be less work-life conflict. Integration might mean longer hours but the possibility of work-life enrichment; the argument is that if you keep things apart, you prevent good things that happen in the work domain permeating to other aspects of your life (I’m guessing that the opposite is also true). Interesting, there is also the concept of ‘cyclers’ (or cycles), where you might move across the boundary continuum depending on what is happening at a particular point. A really important point is that it is important to feel in control of things; feelings of control influences well-being.
We were given some questions: how do you set your boundaries, and how do you separate your work from other things? Also, how do you implement your boundaries? An implicit point was that having an office or designated workspace was a natural way to manage work-life boundaries; we were now faced with the challenge of rethinking how to do things. These thoughts led onto a discussion about different types of boundaries.
Space-based boundaries: this could be a dedicated working space at home. A point was: avoid working in a living space (such as using a dining room table). This was a really good point; I have this habit of moving from my study to the dining room table simply to have a ‘change of scene’. On reflection, this might not be such a good idea.
Time-based boundaries: the thought behind time-based boundaries is to set firm work hours, and find ways to keep tags on the hours that you do (and establish working times with other). This was also thought provoking: I think I have an internal ‘work clock’, which means that if I stop working within my work hours to go do something else, I try to make those hours up a bit later on (or at another time). A reflection point is: I need to work on figuring out my time-based boundaries.
Technology-based boundaries: the idea here is ‘use different devices for different boundaries’, i.e. perhaps think of taking a non-smartphone on holidays so you’re not tempted to access your email. Other tips might be: turn off function, such as data connectivity, during ‘down times’. Use features such as out of office reply to tell others when you’re not working.
Psychological boundaries: the key point is ‘don’t spend the whole day in your pyjamas, even if you are able to do so’; consider ‘getting dressed for work’. Consider having a ‘wind down routine’, and take time to plan your non-work time (social gatherings, exercise, hobbies; whatever it is you like to do outside of work). A really important point was that this planning of non-work time is important; if you don’t plan and just end up watching nonsense on the television, your mind might wander back to work issues.
A key point I took away was one about difference: everyone’s situation is different, and everyone chooses to work in different ways, and everyone places different emphasis about how work features in our lives.
I, personally, found the discussion about different types of boundaries most useful. The discussion about the different ‘segmentation strategies’ within these boundary types was thought provoking. I have also concluded that I am a ‘cycler’, and this is down to what I need to do within my job at different times of the year.
The biggest take away point, for me, is that I need to work harder at planning my non-work time. I don’t think this is necessarily such a bad thing.
Kossek, E. E. (2016). Managing work-life boundaries in the digital age. Organizational Dynamics, 45, 258-270.
Zijlstra, F. R. H., & Sonnentag, S. (2006). After work is done: Psychological perspectives on recovery from work. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15, 129-138.