By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council (BANES).
A huge thank you to Andy Black, a brilliant social worker and colleague at BANES who helped me formulate some of the ideas in this blog and provided invaluable feedback.
This blog is intended to be a helpful guide for social workers who are currently working at home. In some ways, I am reticent to produce such a guide. It runs contrary to my natural proclivity to avoid giving out advice; I am inclined to think that what I have to say will not be of any utility (or, is so self-evident it’s not worth pointing out) and/or the unique circumstances of your situation will render my perspective and lessons drawn from it negligible. More importantly however, I can barely implement most of what I suggest on a consistent basis! Despite these reservations, I wanted to try and do something that might be helpful during this strange time. I have some experience of working from home in the past 18 months and perhaps sharing my mistakes and lessons may be at least partially helpful to at least some people.
When I work in an office I wake up, get dressed, prepare some lunch and drive to work. Such a process is driven by the fact that I need to be in my workplace at a designated time. However, when I work at home, I don’t need to be in the office at a designated time. Furthermore, I don’t even need to get dressed into usual workwear. Lunch doesn’t have to made in advance, I can prepare it at lunchtime because I am at home and able to do this. When I first started working at home, this is a pattern I slipped into. However, I soon noticed I was starting work late, after an indulgent breakfast, still wearing the clothes I slept in and finding it hard to transition myself into work. At lunchtime, I would spend an inordinate amount of time deliberating over what I should eat before making it, eating it and tidying up the mess I had created for myself! Consequently, I have now adjusted my morning routine, such that it is structured as if I am going to leave the house to work in an office.
In the same way you set up your morning as if you are going to work you may also want to end your day as if you are leaving. This involves packing everything away so that most work signs and accessories are out of sight; this is especially important if you are working in a space such as a bedroom or living room. Creating a ritual, even if symbolic, of ending your day psychologically signifies the end of work and the entry into home life.
When you are based in an office, as you arrive, you are unconsciously exposed to a wealth of sensory stimuli that you have come to associate with work. The office will have a certain smell, you walk past familiar sights that signal entry into a workplace, you will see familiar faces, you will walk up some stairs, or into a lift, down a corridor and you will experience the somatic sensations associated with sitting down at a desk.
From a neurological perspective, memory has a ‘complex biological auto-associative’ mechanism (Hawkins, J, 2004: 74). That is, much of our behaviour is unconsciously predicated upon sensory input that disposes us to act in a certain way based on our past association and meaning attributed to such sensory input (Damasio, A 1994). This pattern recognition process is a universal feature of our functioning and for the most part, we are not aware of this. When you work at home however you don’t have access to all the rich sensory information (sights, sounds, touch) you typically associate with sitting down and working. In the absence of this, you may find it much harder to get started and sustain concentration. Not only do you not have access to all the sensory input associated with working, but you are at home, and exposed to all the sensory input associated with more appealing home-related activities (not work!).
Producing a designated working area will be key. This is going to vary depending on the space available in your home. If possible, you want to avoid the bedroom and the living room, as these are spaces that you associate with sleep and rest. If you don’t have a desk or office chair, you can use a dining room chair and piece of furniture and place it into one location. Preferably, this would be facing away from the internal contents of your home or out a window. You want to have a consistent place in your home so that when you arrive there it will increasingly become associated with work.
Ironically, I’ve spent a lot of time reading books on time management. Poor impulse control; easily activated fear system motivating avoidance of difficult tasks; and the inability to organize and structure my time according to a set of priorities are all issues that have plagued my adult life. If you have these difficulties too, I can assure you, you are not alone. Partly, these are ubiquitous features of the mind. For some however, adverse childhood experiences will have also compounded our in-built pre-existing vulnerabilities to focus and concentrate.
An important step in being productive is to establish boundaries. If you are living with others, such as a partner or children, then you should to agree in advance your working arrangements and if possible, establish non-distractible hours you will work (even if for 1 hour at a time). If you are the only parent in the house when you are trying to work this is going to be much more challenging; children can be delightfully inconsiderate and oblivious to adult’s working arrangements! Therefore, you may need to work early in the morning or late in the evening when your child is in bed. Alternatively, you can work during times your child is “resting” (i.e. watching television). If your child is old enough you can communicate that you will play/learn together for 30/60 minutes then rest for 30/60 minutes so that if possible, you are engaged with one or the other, rather than unsuccessfully attempting both simultaneously. If your child begins to display attention-seeking behaviour attend to that as quickly as possible and offer him/her undivided attention for some time, before returning to your work.
If you don’t have children, then you should still attempt to put in boundaries around your work schedule. It can also be helpful to diarize your day as if you would if you were in the office, for example:
8-10am: Write single assessment
10am – 12noon: E-mails and telephone calls
1-4.30pm: Write chronology
4.30 – 5pm: Reply to e-mails and finish any other tasks
For those that have flexibility, identifying your natural productivity rhythm may prove helpful. I have learned that I work best on activities that require high levels of concentration first thing in the morning. Between 2-4 pm I tend to feel tired and sustaining concentration can be challenging so sometimes I will go for a walk during this time and/or do activities that are less cognitively demanding (phone calls, e-mails, etc). Between 6 pm – 8 pm I can engage in high concentration activities again. This will be different for everyone but figuring out your rhythm will allow you to capitalize on completing high concentration activities when you feel most alert and energized.
Although working at home can provide increased flexibility, it is worth remembering that having a time you decide to finish is important; setting a time to finish gives you something to work towards and a deadline in which to get what you need to done. As pointed out by Mark Forrester (2000: 90) in Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play, ‘working for an undefined period of time is not as effective as working for a defined period of time. Having a definite cut-off period concentrates the mind’. (See Parkinson’s law: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law).
One of the biggest challenges I experience, even if I work during my most alert time and I can create an un-distractible environment, is lapses in concentration and a strong impulse to procrastinate. One technique I learned from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work (2016) is breaking down time into segments and making a tally. For example, if I allocate myself 4 hours to work on a report then I will set a 20-minute timer on my phone and keep a tally of every 20-minute segment I complete without distraction. This helps you to notice when you are being distracted and brings you back on track. Learning how to engage in a work-related activity without distracting oneself is a skill that can only be developed with practice.
Cal Newport also strongly advocates for reducing the use of social media; check out his Tedtalk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E7hkPZ-HTk)
4. Health and Well-being
Sleep is one of the most important, if not the most important, ways in which we effectively regulate pyscho-physiological arousal. It can be easy to relax your sleeping pattern when you work at home because you don’t need to leave the house at a certain time to arrive at work. Sleeping for longer in the morning more than you would normally can make it harder to go to sleep at your usual time and this can set in motion an inconsistent sleeping pattern. Waking up at the same time every morning is an effective way to regulate your sleeping pattern and establish a consistent circadian rhythm. This in turn, improves your mood, concentration levels and wellbeing. Of all the tips in this blog, in my opinion, this is without doubt the most important.
Exercise is another effective means to regulate arousal. I am certainly not going to offer any fitness routine here; the probability that anyone reading this will be inspired or motivated to start running is zero! However, even if you don’t exercise and are office based, you still engage in a considerable amount of movement throughout the day. You may lose access to this working at home and so a lengthy walk once per day may prove extremely beneficial.
Meditation is the final suggestion in this section. This isn’t for everyone. I have found it immensely helpful and it has been instrumental in improving my patience, concentration, quality of sleep and overall wellbeing. Like many others I am often preoccupied with feelings of anxiety, boredom or stress and a compulsion to draw upon external sources (unhealthy food, alcohol, social media, excessive work) to address an inner affliction. In other words, I am often discontent with the present moment. Meditation has helped me to notice that the mind is perpetually self-generating thoughts and each thought is tagged with an emotion. Sometimes these are positive and sometimes these are negative; and this then determines how I feel at any given moment. My wellbeing is at the behest of these automatic thought patterns. Taking a very small amount of time each day enables me to notice that these anxious thoughts and feelings are temporary and short lived. If we notice the transient nature of our thoughts in this way we may be less compelled to look externally for something that will numb or alleviate the discomfort arising from these states. With that said, there have been times when the seriousness, gravity and collective danger presented in this current landscape has overshadowed any previous internal conflicts; faced with life and death we become less concerned with what happened in the past, or what we will do in the future and focus in on the present and that which we find valuable (friends, family, stability). The little things that once seemed so important now appear trivial and redundant. Despite these deeply introspective and existential thoughts however, I still find myself returning more often than not, to the mundane and repetitive self-concerning thoughts of the egoic mind. Thus, meditation remains essential.
I use Sam Harris’s ‘Waking Up’ Meditation App. I have a subscription and it has a function where I can share 1 month free to as many people who would like access. If you are interested, please get in touch and I will gladly share this with you.
5. Focusing attention
We are living in an unprecedented time and many elements of our life for which we typically have control have been necessarily taken away from us. During times of uncertainty, we look to others for support and guidance, and for some who are fortunate they may receive this. However, given the unfamiliar and ever-changing context, many will not receive this, primarily, because it cannot be afforded. When we are feeling unsure or fearful and we are unable to elicit guidance and support from others we can feel powerless and out of control; paradoxically, we can become fixated on issues for which we have little or no control over. This is an understandable response that all of us experience to a varying degree; undoubtedly, we have all experienced the frustration of trying to change something which ultimately, we don’t have control over. The serenity prayer is a helpful antidote to this phenomena:
‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference’
In 7 Habits for Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey (2004: 82, 83) has described this in a practically helpful way as the ‘circle of concern’ and the ‘circle of influence’. If you imagine two circles, one in front of the other. The outer circle is the ‘circle of concern’; this constitutes all the concerns you have that you have no control over. For example, Covid-19, the government’s response to this, how others react, including senior management within the organization you work, etc. If you exert your time and energy in attempting to change that which you have little control over then the inner circle, the ‘circle of influence’, retracts and shrinks. In other words, you decrease your ability to deal with that which you may have some influence over. On the other hand, if you can effectively discern that which you have no control over, then you can focus your time and energy on that which you do. Consequently, your ‘circle of influence’ expands and you will create more control, agency, and leverage to make a difference.
I appreciate that for many people, working from home, and more broadly the implications of Covid-19, will be fraught will personal and professional challenges. Understanding that there are many aspects of this current situation we don’t have control over alleviates us from concerns that would otherwise disable us from concentrating on our small but exceptionally important circle of influence. More than ever, social workers, need to be available, resourceful, adaptable and able to capitalize on opportunities to safely be in service of others. In the current circumstances, most of us will be working from home and so we should, and may as well, strive to become as effective and productive as we can in our efforts to achieve this goal.
Tip 1: Try to maintain the morning routine you would typically have if you were going into the office. For a while, you may even want to get dressed in clothing you typically wear to work.
Tip 2: As much as possible set up a designated work area. Try to use the same space every day. Pack away and tidy the space at the end of the day.
Tip 3: Establish boundaries around working hours and stick to them. Identify times when you are most alert to complete cognitively demanding activities. Break downtime into segments. Avoid social media during allocated work time.
Extra tip: If you want some more time management tips check out Randy Pausch’s brilliant lecture on the subject; over the years I have watched it several times. If you watch to the end you learn about why managing time is so important to him (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTugjssqOT0)
Tip 4: Wake up at the same time every morning. Have a consistent sleep routine. Exercise daily. Check out meditation.
Tip 5: Recognise the difference between areas you have no control versus areas you have some control. Focus on the latter.