Making the best out of working from home during the COVID-19 lockdown - with Kathryn Jackson

Kathryn Jackson supported businesses as they returned to 'normal' after the Christchurch quakes. A performance coach at Careerbalance and author, Kathryn says, like the quakes, the COVID-19 lockdown means almost all of us are working from home. She describes these challenges and how we can make the best out of the situation.

Many people are working from home for the first time. What are the challenges people are facing? 

One of the significant challenges that I believe we are seeing is how to develop boundaries relating to where our work and home begins and ends; the start and stop of the working day. In stressful situations, we all react in personal ways; and some people try and ignore what is happening by burying themselves in work. It can be a good thing - to some extent - as it is a recognised distraction technique, but if we don't have well-defined start and stop times for work, it is possible to sleepwalk yourself into a long-term high-stress situation. In the longer term, this has the potential to lead to burnout. 

Also, many families are now navigating the delivery of work with the added challenge of children in the background. It's leading to significant growth in what I call 'parental guilt'. Initially, of course, I'd like to acknowledge that some people go to work to escape or to feel safe, and their lives could be more challenging than ever because they are now working from home.

What are your tips for overcoming distraction when working from home? 

It is crucial to think about where you set up your home office. It doesn't have to be perfect, as COVID-19 is likely to be temporary. 

Designate part of your house as the workspace and develop some rules for that area. It might be a spare room; it could be a corner of the bedroom or even a large cupboard. Remember it doesn't have to be perfect, just functional in the short term. 

If you aren't lucky enough to have a place where you can get some quiet time, you could try more radical ideas, like wearing different hats. For example, you are wearing a red hat which means "leave me alone". It works well with kids - when one parent is wearing a red hat, the other person is the go-to person, or else they need to wait patiently for a few minutes.

There are many great learning resources to provide a distraction for children of all ages; our particular favourites are Young Ocean Explorers and Cosmic Yoga. Providing the kids with some online resources can help keep them occupied during the workday, but total screen time needs to be monitored! 

What about those of us who're on our own at home? How do we avoid the feeling of isolation?

It's possible to be lonely at work in the office, and it's possible to enjoy the peace of working alone - but, when you are in the office, you can grab a coffee in the staff room and have a quick chat with a work colleague if you want to. That is something that doesn't happen when so many of us are working from home. To combat the lack of social interaction, you need to force yourself to reach out a little bit more. It is essential to organise a regular online catch up with your workmates or friends. It can be just 15 minutes, but make it a routine part of your day. With the situation we find ourselves in at the moment, we all have to work a little bit harder on our social interaction.

What do managers need to do to maintain a constructive connection with remote-working staff?

I think it is a simple matter for managers to be just as connected with staff working from home as they are in an office. One of the easiest ways to keep in touch is to pick up the phone and call your staff members. 

I think the challenge for managers now is less about connectivity and more about knowing what to say. They will likely have gone from having a team in the office that they can see who is functioning within well-defined parameters to having team members who could be exhibiting a variety of new behaviours which aren't as easily "seen".

Managers need to dial-up relational conversations quickly by using questions like ''what is going well for you?'' ''what's not going well?'' ''what's getting in the way of you doing your work?'' ''who are you connecting with regularly?'' ''how are you looking after yourself?'' I think the lockdown can present managers with the opportunity to demonstrate that they have plenty of emotional intelligence and care about their team.

What are your tips for holding a successful video meeting with staff?  

If your one-on-one meeting is failing due to a poor internet connection or the technology is not working, pick up the phone. There is nothing more straightforward than that. 

With video meetings, ensure everyone knows how to connect and can use the technology correctly. In the past few weeks, there has been a noticeable surge in online training sessions as more staff members work from home. Before you start a video training session, ensure everyone can hear and see each other. Make all the participants feel they are a vital part of the meeting as that prevents people from just zoning out. One of the exciting things I am finding is that in an online training session, you are always on. When you are training in an office setting, for example, there are opportunities to look out the window at odd moments. In an online video session, it is much harder to have micro-breaks which makes them quite exhausting.

When you are running online training sessions, you should ensure that the participants are allowed regular breaks. I learned this the hard way at the end of a two-hour webinar! You could put up a blank screen and play some music for a few minutes, which would give participants time to stretch their legs and make a coffee. Also, make sure training sessions and meetings last no longer than 90 mins with an absolute maximum of two hours.  

I am hearing stories from leaders who have come to realise that their six-hour meeting every Monday morning must change. When staff return to their regular work environment, they should be encouraged to bring back ideas that have worked well during the COVID-19 lockdown so we can all adjust business practices for the better. Perhaps a good start would be shorter or fewer meetings?

Can you recommend an online programme that may help businesses through this challenging time?

Yes. In the last month, four other wellbeing professionals from around the world and I have rapidly developed an app called Kite Support in response to what we perceived as an opportunity to support the skilling up of global wellbeing. It's a 30-week programme of microlearning modules that are based on the science of wellbeing, grounded in theory but very practical to apply. Each day the modules are delivered to your phone and include research, an activity and a link to further learning. Topics include managing anxiety, getting better sleep, leading through adversity, remote working hints etc. The programme will help you and your team grow coping strategies, wellbeing and resilience for less than the price of two coffees.