Blog: Working-from-home - reflections on the IGDC experience
IGDC reflect upon our working-from-home experiences and discuss how the changes to working-from-home have impacted on how we work and interpersonal interactions.
In common with other research centres and Universities, we at the IGDC have been adjusting to a new hybrid model of working, in response to Covid-19 restrictions. We are acutely aware of how fortunate we are compared to workers in many other sectors. Technology allows us to do almost all of our day-to-day work from home, meaning that our jobs are more secure and we don’t face the stresses and anxieties associated with furloughing or the immediate threat of unemployment. Through our working-from-home arrangements, we also have the relative luxury of being able to reduce substantially our risks of becoming infected, and hence the risks to our immediate family and relatives.
Nonetheless, the change to working-from-home has had significant impacts on how we work and interpersonal interactions. We have followed all the usual guidelines about wellbeing and working for home, but we also decided to take some time, as a team, to reflect together on how lockdown has changed our working practices.
We realised that there are some things we do that have been relatively unaffected by the change. We are still able to maintain our social media accounts, and email traffic is just as busy as before. The academics in the team continue to publish their research, work on academic papers and book chapters, and submit proposals. We have turned our in-office internships into virtual internships. We still have meetings with collaborators, colleagues and students, and we still host seminars. But the nature of some of these activities has changed dramatically.
Online meetings with colleagues and students miss a key part of social interaction. We can see people on the screen, but we don’t sense them in the same way, and something that makes personal interactions special is lost. When everything is going well, online meetings are efficient. When things are not going so well, or people are under stress, the limitations of online meetings are highlighted, and the frustrations of the partial nature of the interactions become apparent.
On the other hand, we all recognise that online tools can open up some very positive changes for communication. The dynamics of meetings with groups of collaborators from different parts of the world are radically changed and become more equal. Some of us were already running regular online meetings for our projects, pre-Covid, for this very reason, and others have started to use them more regularly now, realising the benefits. We have been making the most of these new opportunities for sharing ideas and learning from the experiences of international colleagues, through our Covid-19 online workshop series.
The impact of the lockdown on us as individuals within the IGDC has varied hugely, depending on our living circumstances. For some of us, the lockdown has brought more time for writing and work. For others, it has led to more time with families and less time for work - but probably a healthier work-life balance.
One of the impacts of working-from-home has been the disappearance of casual meetings and the informal chats that take place in the few minutes before meetings. In the IGDC, we have introduced a Slack channel and virtual coffee mornings to try and maintain these informal interactions. In the process, we have found out much more about each other as individuals beyond the workplace, and of course have had a new window on each other’s home offices, living rooms or gardens!
For some of us, the significance of the process of commuting itself has become apparent, and we have become more creative in planning physical activity and exercise so that we get our daily dose of fresh air and nature. Commuting also serves to separate the home from the office, and without it, work washes through the whole day. Keeping work ‘in the box’ is a challenge that faces all of us, and to which we have each adapted in different ways.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the lockdown on IGDC has been on our research activities. IGDC is an interdisciplinary centre, spanning across the social and natural sciences, and the humanities. We have had to adjust project activities as lockdowns have been put in place throughout the world. Field work is not currently possible for many of our projects, and we have adapted by making more use of telephone or online interviews, or analysis of secondary data.
These enforced changes have coincided with a strong move within the Centre to reduce our environmental footprint voluntarily. Our new Environmental Strategy commits us to minimising travel and conducting online meetings wherever possible, and making sure that any overseas trips are as cost-effective as possible when we compare the benefits to the environmental impact. Indeed, IGDC has been a step ahead of most parts of the University of York in these changes, and had already moved to conducting meetings for many of our projects online. The lockdown has shown us that we can do much of what we did before just as well, if not better. Less time spent travelling means more time spent doing more productive activities, more time with our families and loved ones, as well as reducing our impact on the environment.
We know that working-from-home will not last forever, and that at some point in the next 6-9 months, we will be making some sort of transition back to the office. When we do so, it is likely that our working practices will be changed dramatically by Covid-19 and the lockdown. We will be moving back into a less personal, socially-distanced work environment. Some of the narrower corridors and stairwells may have become one-way systems, and those chance meetings with colleagues that can spark new ideas will become a rarity.
After the initial shock of the first couple of weeks of working-from-home, we in the IGDC are starting to embrace the change and have realised many of the opportunities it has offered. Even when we can return to the office, many of us may choose to continue to spend more time working remotely because of this. At the same time, we need to be mindful of what we have missed - the mutual support that personal interactions can bring, the benefits of personal interactions for generating and exploring new ideas for research, as well as the benefits of face-to-face teaching.
As a Centre for development-related research, we are aware of how privileged we are in the UK compared to the communities we work within many parts of the world. We know that Covid-19 restrictions across many low and middle-income countries have had, and are continuing to have, a devastating impact on income and livelihoods. Addressing these impacts in the context of ongoing global challenges such as poverty, inequalities and climate change presents new challenges to us as a development centre in terms of what we do and how we do it. If we make the transition in the right way, and take on board the what these last few months have taught us, we can use this experience for positive change in our own lives and in our work as a Centre.