SSRC Members, SSRC Research

Stuck Working: The Challenges of Working from Home for the First Time

credit Bongkarn Thanyakij

With the country de facto lockdown and acting on governmental advice a significant number of people are now working from home as the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic grips Ireland and other regions across the world. It is estimated that 100,000 people have now switched to eWorking, this in addition to 218,000 people already working from home before of the Coronavirus outbreak suggests that more than 318,000 Irish people are currently working in this way. Many of these first-time eWorkers are only now beginning to grapple with some of the challenges and struggles such conditions impose upon individuals working from home for the first time. eWorking (also known as telework or telecommuting in the US) is nothing new to a cohort of the workforce familiar with this way of doing their job – often people from within the tech sector and other sales and mobile workers – and many of these individuals have customised their way and style of working to suit their changing needs and dynamic circumstances. For the majority now working from home this is something new. Being told of the positive benefits and ease with which others work from home is not that helpful for first time eWorkers; it can be challenging and stressful trying to juggle the demands of work with those of the home, particularly when dealing with restless and ‘bored’ young children. Based on research carried out over a number of years, the following are some key tips and recommendations for people who find themselves working from home for the first time, for extended periods of time:

  • It is extremely important to ‘carve out’ a practical, quiet work area in the home. You must separate the domestic space from the workspace; you’re either at work or at home. Removing yourself from your domestic responsibilities not only allows you focus on work commitments and tasks, it also is a good way of letting others in the home know you are working when in that space. A backroom, a spare room, even a bedroom; anywhere away from main domestic communal living areas such as the kitchen.
  • Carefully plan out and structure your working day. This becomes much more important working from home as technology will blur and distort time and you will find yourself working at unreasonable hours and for unreasonable lengths of time, if at all. If you regularly begin work at nine then do so at home also. Take your hour lunch break and coffee breaks, and finish at five or six in the evening, making sure to switch off your computer and all other work technologies. Remember, in the long run there are physical, psychological and occupational consequences to overwork and burnout but not being able to do your work also has costs.
  • Don’t neglect the social. ‘Water cooler’ moments are very important features of everyday working with any organisation so seek to continue this practice with colleagues in the virtual world but remember, such moments are mostly social and not always about work. Simple free technologies can support and strengthen these important work, social and community ties and connections. Platforms and applications like Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout, and even smartphone instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Viber will allow you stay connected to family, colleagues and friends, relationships which are extremely important to our mental well-being in these challenging times of social isolation. My own personal favourite free smartphone app to stay socially connected at the moment is Houseparty.
  • To maintain your physical well-being working from home, make sure your computer or workstation is set up correctly for anticipated prolonged use. To counteract any potential risk of musculoskeletal disorder arising you should vary work tasks to ensure that you are not in the same position for long periods of time. Review where your screen is located to avoid unnecessary glare and place equipment in a way that minimises twisting or overreaching. Make sure to have enough workspace for your equipment and materials and take regular breaks standing, stretching and moving about for about one minute every hour. Limit your screen time to prevent computer vision syndrome.
  • Be mindful that your consumption patterns will change and, in some cases, most likely increase significantly. The everyday costs of working from home are often shifted from the workplace to home so what you save on fuel will be offset in additional energy consumption in the home, for example. With this increase in overall consumption comes an increase in waste. We don’t quite know, as yet, of the exact consumption impacts of working from home but avoid getting blindsided by very large energy bills in the near future.
  • An Employer can make a payment of €3.20 per workday to an eWorker employee without deducting PAYE, PRSI, or USC to help offset many of these additional costs, such as increased heating and electricity bills. Amounts in excess of €3.20 paid by the employer will be subjected to tax but if costs are higher you can make a claim based on submitted receipts.

Working from home, surrounded by family and the commitments that entails, is a particular skill and way of working that needs to be developed and cultivated, and being ‘thrown in the deep end’ without the essential competences and knowhow is both stressful and challenging. But in the face of this pandemic, and bearing in mind the recent increasing disruptive weather brought about by the climate emergency, working from home will become a regular and familiar feature for many in the future. While working from home will not appeal to everyone, companies and organisations will still now need to build in such resilience and plan for more episodes of immobility over the coming years to continue to survive and thrive. Central to such planning will be training employees to eWork efficiently from home, or otherwise remotely.

This blog post was made possible by the means of research carried out as part of the Consensus Project which used social science and collaborative research methods to explore innovative solutions for sustainable household consumption in Ireland.

Dr Mike Hynes is an Environmental Sociologist and Lecturer in the School of Political Science & Sociology, NUI, Galway and current Joint Secretary of the SSRC