Working from home during COVID-19: write up a schedule, but don’t expect perfection

By David Donaldson

Monday April 27, 2020


Don’t wait until you start getting health problems to set up your work from home space properly, warns ergonomics expert Jodi Oakman. And forgive yourself if you can’t do everything perfectly at the moment — “sometimes good enough is okay”.

Having a daily schedule while working from home is useful, especially if you have kids home from school.

But don’t expect everything to go to plan.

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Jodi Oakman

“My answer might be different at another time, but at the minute, you have to be flexible with yourself,” says Associate Professor Jodi Oakman of Latrobe University’s Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors.

It’s important to create barriers between work and personal life so you, your colleagues and your family know when you’re at work and when you’re not.

But of course life is more complicated at the moment — even for those who regularly work from home.

“You don’t normally have all these other things as well at home. You’re not home all the time, you’re not supervising children, you’re not trying to manage those aspects of your life. Even shopping has become more complicated.”

Nonetheless, knowing when to finish for the day is important.

“You are allowed to say ‘right, enough is enough’. Because the number of hours we do doesn’t necessarily translate into increased productivity. There’s a diminishing return after you’ve been there for a long period of time.”

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated just how adaptable we are, though.

“We can make changes to how we work pretty quickly, if you think about how quickly we all transitioned from being at work to being at home,” says Oakman.

“It may make us think about what we like about being at work, and how we work with other people, and the value of things like the chats you have in the lift.”

Many people have seen another side to their colleagues, too. Perhaps it’ll lead to a long-term shift in how we see the work-life balance — but Oakman says it’s too early to tell. Lots about the current situation is unclear, as our current knowledge about the impacts and management of working from home is mostly based on people taking it up voluntarily.

“We know more about people now, because we’ve seen their lounge-rooms, kitchens, so that may make for some more familiarity at work. But we don’t know. This is unprecedented.”

Getting the right setup

Having your own work space with an ergonomic setup is important — but don’t wait until you start getting muscle problems to do it.

“Mostly people do wait until something happens, but prevention is always better than cure,” says Oakman.

If you’re using a laptop, having a separate keyboard and mouse can be helpful.

“Make sure you’re not hunched over your laptop for long periods of time. Organise something comfortable to sit on which is not the couch, and preferably not the dining room chair.”

Your work space is also important for ensuring that boundary between work and personal time.

“Having the space also signals you’re at work. It says ‘right, I’m here, this is what I’m doing’ — for other people in your house, but also for you. Then you can leave it, move away from it.”

Make sure you’ve got an exercise regime in place.

“Everyone needs to be doing something at the moment, because when you’re home you don’t have that incidental exercise you get when you’re commuting.”

For some, maintaining social contact with colleagues will be useful — though it depends on the person.

Clear expectations

Most people will be working differently to normal at the moment — there will be some parts of the job you can do from home and some you can’t.

Managers should be clear about expectations of what staff should be doing, and be flexible about achieving goals.

“As a manager you need to understand what’s possible in people’s roles and what’s not,” says Oakman.

“Then comes discussion about how that translates into performance reviews. There will need to be some adjustment of those discussions because people’s outputs planned for this year will be impacted.”

And trust that even though employees aren’t sitting at their desk, they can get their work done.

“People can work very effectively and autonomously if you allow them to do that, you give them clear expectations about what needs to be done, and reasonable timelines.”

For those needing to influence colleagues and stakeholders through video conferencing, communication may be more difficult than normal, as “you sometimes miss the nuances”, she adds.

“It requires a little more sophistication in your thinking about how you’re going to do that. What are the things that are going to get your idea over the line? What’s going to make it attractive? How are you going to present it? You’re probably going to have to be much more clear because of the mechanisms through which you’re going to present or discuss that idea.”

And don’t beat yourself up if current circumstances make it difficult to get things done perfectly.

“At this time we have to be realistic about what we can do — sometimes good enough is okay,” says Oakman.

“We have to accept there are some things that can’t be perfect at the moment, but that’s okay.”

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