Working Remotely in Higher Education

03/25/2020 | by Dr. Daniel Wheatley, Birmingham Business School | Well-Being Corona

As we move to remote working across our seven EUniWell institutions in response to the recent COVID-19 outbreak, it is essential that we give due consideration to how we can work productively and maintain (and even potentially enhance) the wellbeing of our community during this challenging time.

Dr Daniel Wheatley, Birmingham Business School
Dr Daniel Wheatley

One of the core objectives of EUniWell is to engender a sustainable organizational culture within our seven institutions, and promote an inclusive well-being agenda for our staff, students and institutions as a whole. Working through this difficult time is going to test our abilities and our spirit, but we should take great strength from our EUniWell experience which can be most useful in helping us prepare our institutions for some of the internal challenges ahead.

An increasing body of research and experience shows us that, while there are a number of potential challenges faced when working remotely, working at home can provide a number of potential individual and organizational benefits. Recent experience from the EUniWell bid development process evidences the potential effectiveness of remote, collaborative, working. The bid involved 354 people from across our seven institutions working together in 13 working groups and taking part in 68 virtual meetings over a seven week period. This is pretty impressive and evidences how we can make use of the technology and systems available to us to effectively work at home. 

Effective remote working requires us to consider a range of aspects of work which may not usually need our attention at an individual level. This guide outlines some useful practical preparation and techniques for working well at home, drawing on existing research and evidence (see for example [blatant self-citations] Wheatley, 2017 and Wheatley and Gifford, 2019).

Create a positive work environment

Prepare your workspace. It is important to work in a comfortable environment. Locating close to a window allows natural light and for you to change your focal length at frequent intervals to minimise eye strain. Make sure the temperature in the room is comfortable and that you have a source of fresh air. Also make sure that your visual display is at eye level and your seating gives adequate back support. These thing may seems minor, but significant amounts of research and investment have been made into workplace design which considers these factors (and also odour interestingly). When working at home, even on a more temporary basis, it is important we make sure we create a positive physical work environment. 

Divide space

Where possible it can be helpful to divide your work and non-work space e.g. if you can allocate space in a spare bedroom or home office to working at home. However, this is not possible for all of us. In these cases managing separation between work and home can mean simply packing up your work area at the end of each working day so that you can create a separation and avoid feeling as though you are constantly connected to work. 

Divide time

One of the major potential benefits of working at home is managing your own work schedule. With Schools closed in many European nations this may be particularly relevant for parents, but extends to those who are carers and other groups. How to spend the extra time gained from not commuting is one aspect to consider. 

Managing time when working at home can be challenging, especially when this is a new way of working. There are a lot of potential distractions which may reduce our work effort, but equally there is a considerable danger of overwork. What was it that Uncle Ben said in Spiderman (the good one with Tobey Maguire)? ‘With great power comes responsibility’. Employing a structure to your working day, whether that takes the form of a 9-5 or something quite different e.g. 8am-12pm and 4-8pm, is a good method of ensuring that you continue to work at a healthy and productive level. It may take a little time to find a rhythm when working at home, but the flexibility available allows work to be moulded to our particular needs. 

It is also important that we are all flexible in this period to the schedules of others, considering that those we are virtually working with (including our students) may be subject to considerable time constraints and/or may be in other time zones, potentially many hours different from our own.    

Take breaks

Take breaks, but also remember that a change is as good as a rest. The latter is not advocating overwork, but rather emphasizing the benefits of sometimes leaving a task which may be particularly challenging or simply mixing up activities to keep things interesting. 

Taking breaks is essential. A simple method for ensuring you take breaks is to set a timer when working. We all differ in our tolerance to needing a break, however working for periods longer than 50 minutes to one hour generally results in lowered productivity. Setting a timer at regular intervals may sound quite a basic method of managing your time while working at home, but it is hugely effective in ensuring you get a physical break from sitting at a visual display. It helps avoid eye strain and physical aches and pains from sitting for long periods. Breaks also provide much needed thinking time. Some of the best ideas come when giving your mind time and space away from work. 

Finally, make sure to take time to get outside. We are entering the ‘better’ weather months across Europe, and taking time to be outside and with nature where possible is highly important to both our physical and mental health.  

Keep social

We benefit from a wealth of potential methods of keeping in direct communication with colleagues across our seven institutions when working at home. Use of video conferencing facilities such as Skype for Business and others, as well as many forms of social media (e.g. WhatsApp groups), allow for us to maintain virtual (face-to-face) contact when working remotely. If the technology does begin to struggle, which has been reported due to current high levels of demand, it is also important to remember you can could pick up the phone and have chat or send an email to keep in contact with colleagues. 

Also important here is to think about organizing catch-ups and social forums with colleagues even where more formal meetings are not necessary. Regular contact with others is a good way to ensure we look after the mental health of ourselves and others during this time. 

Be mindful

Taking time to take notice of the present, experiencing the environment around us and our own thoughts and feelings, has been shown to improve our mental wellbeing. There are lots of resources available to support us being mindful, including resources such as Headspace and the Calm App