Coronavirus: working from home won’t make you feel free, says new UCL study

Research from UCL anthropologist explains how to manage remote working

Many remote workers underestimate the levels of self-discipline they will require, according to a new UCL study. And creating an ‘imaginary commute’ and avoiding Facebook will help.

The longitudinal study by anthropologist Dave Cook, titled The freedom trap: digital nomads and the use of disciplining practices to manage work/leisure boundaries’, is published in the journal Information Technology & Tourism.

The prospect of freedom can appear exciting but quite soon this ‘freedom’ can become onerous, leading people to feel lost and unsupported

“The digital nomad idea of freedom is often a generalised and subjective notion of freedom that imagines a lifestyle and future where the tensions between work and leisure melt away,” writes Cook.

“In practice, digital nomadism is not always experienced as autonomous and free but is a way of living that requires high levels of discipline and self-discipline.

“Millions of people are now starting to work from home during the coronavirus outbreak – many for the first time. Remote working is not easy even when people make the choice themselves. For some the thought of remote working creates anxiety while for others the prospect of freedom can appear exciting but quite soon this ‘freedom’ can become onerous, leading people to feel lost and unsupported.

Structure and social interaction

“People need to have a long hard think about what kind of person they are, what their working style is really like, and to develop the right working strategy accordingly. Think about whether you are someone that needs external structures like deadlines or if you need to outsource some of your discipline to other people. Some people are great at managing themselves, but not everyone is. That’s why offices and teams were created in the first place, and it can’t all be transferred online automatically”

The research draws on four years of fieldwork conducted between December 2015 and August 2019 within four co-working spaces in Thailand and participants were mostly educated millennials under 35 from the US, continental Europe and the UK.

Cook added: “If you are living on your own, going into an office can be the main social interaction. My research showed that those that did really well are couples or people remote working with a co-worker even if working on different things.

“It’s much harder to self-regulate, that’s why a lot of long-term remote workers go to co-working spaces. People go to co-working spaces even if they don’t know each other because simply being around other people working, increases productivity. This concept is called co-presence.”

Dave Cook’s five pointers for successful remote working:

1. The best remote work/office set up

  • Take time to get the right set up at home
  • Budget for key items like a laptop stand if you don’t have a monitor, the right chair to protect your back or a headset if you’ll be on the phone a lot and live in a shared house
  • Make an effort to separate work and home life as much as possible otherwise it will become an unmanageable mess and its likely you’ll experience burnout
  • Set clear boundaries about what spaces and times are for work. Be clear about these boundaries with online co-workers, friends or family
  • Spend time at the end of each day in first week to write down what works and what hasn’t and re-evaluate this to make changes for the second week

2. Making sure strict daily routines are set up

  • People think they can work from home intuitively. But it doesn’t all fall into place automatically. Think about how you will structure each day the evening before
  • Make a clear division between work and non-work spaces. If you can, work in a spare room away from the living room or bedroom. If you can’t, set up and then dismantle your workspace every morning and evening
  • Create an imaginary commute. It could be as simple as walking for 15 minutes in the morning before you start work. Or walking over an imaginary divide
  • If you can, add rituals like going out to the shop to avoid experiencing cabin fever. And at the end of the first week write down your rituals, pop them on the fridge and stick to them

3.  Homework etiquette

  • Find a way of communicating what your boundaries are to your colleagues and manager
  • Communicate when you are and when you aren’t working (you might need to revisit this from time to time)
  • Be very precise about meeting times and scheduling calls and put them in a shared diary so colleagues can see when you have an appointment
  • Try to avoid only communicating over direct messenger (e.g. Slack) as this can allow for endless interruptions. It’s hard to bring everyone to a decision on direct messaging platforms
  • Try to avoid transferring remote working etiquette to friends and family – i.e. you shouldn’t need to schedule calls with loved ones; allow for some spontaneity in your life

4. Managing distraction

  • Limit smartphone use unless it’s vital to your job
  • Get the right tools whether it is using time management tools like FocusMe or Momentum Dashboard to prioritise your work or create specific times of the day for focused work
  • Blocking out 2-3 hours in the morning for focused work is a popular approach used by experienced remote workers. It’s called MIT (Most Important Task) and it’s a promise to achieve your most important task/goal to yourself (and your team)
  • Beware Facebook. You might need to go on their for work (there are work-related groups), however it’s designed for distraction, and it’s a time eater
  • Email a to-do list at the start of the day to your manager and check out at the end of the day. You can quickly evolve onto better tools like Trello

5. How to maintain work/leisure boundaries

  • When you are at home, smart phones can easily become distracting time-sucking devices. And work and leisure tasks can blur into a mass of unstructured tasks. Think of your laptop as a work device and your smartphone as a communication device
  • Get on top of your mobile and how you use it. Screentime of iOS and similar features give you a reality check and help you to reduce use for a healthier, happier life
  • Avoid answering work emails out of hours, otherwise it becomes the norm. And there is no way back
  • At the end of the working day do something that feels good – whether it’s making calls to loved ones, an activity or hobby or going for a walk if you can

    Read more: Coronavirus: 12 tips for teaching online

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