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COVID-19 and working remotely, life 1 year on

Introduction

As a team, we made the decision to work remotely about a week before the UK government asked those who could work from home to do so, bringing on lockdown v.1 in March 2020. Perhaps unbelievably that was a year ago. And while there is now light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t think any of us expects life to go “back to normal” any time soon.

Apart from a few short weeks in September, when most of the team went back into the office, we have been working remotely ever since. Working on the web meant that getting set-up for remote working was pretty straightforward for us as a team. We’d already been using Zoom for some meetings, and had experience of working remotely with clients who live outside the UK.

That is not to say that working from home as a team has been plain sailing. There have been many challenges we have faced; some universal for everyone working from home. But there have been positives too. So let’s find out the team’s experience, both positive and negative, of how the last year has gone.

The Team

Andrew

Was remote working a new experience for you?

Remote working for me wasn’t entirely new. We’ve hired remote employees before so I was aware of the challenges we’d face, but this was the first time I’d worked with an entirely remote team so it’s been quite a different experience.

What challenges have you had? And how have you worked around or resolved these?

I suppose the obvious one is communication. In a studio environment we see and hear all the conversations and frustrations each individual might be facing. Of course these are less apparent from a distance. Our tech stack has worked really well for us but it’s still harder to type out messages than simply speak to each other.

The other one has been managing interruptions. I’ve been fortunate not to have to do all the homeschooling but still, I’ve found some days quite disruptive with occasional long multiplication questions or looking through Google classroom. The reality has become obscure working hours which I don’t mind, but it’s easy to forget everyone’s facing different work environments, particularly during the latter lockdown periods which became more normalised.

What positive experiences have you had with working from home?

There’s been a few. In the first lockdown when homeschooling didn’t seem quite so essential (who knew they’d end up missing nearly a year of school) the kids were interested in what I was doing and I loved showing them how I was editing videos, podcasts, creating graphics and working with code.

I’ve also benefited from having an extra hour in the day because of not having to commute to work. That said I did enjoy this driving time to help prepare for the day and wind down at the end of it, usually listening to audiobooks and podcasts.

What lessons from remote working will you carry on after lockdown?

There are 2 things in particular I’ll be working hard to maintain. The first is better management of my time. Missing family and friends and hearing the many stories from the pandemic make you realise how fragile life can be, so it’s about making every day count. The second is to communicate more. Partly from a business perspective and being more aware of who's working on what or who may need support, but also just because we’ve all become more ’digital’, we mustn’t overlook that we’re all humans and we need to work together and support each other, irrespective of the pandemic.

Mark

Was remote working a new experience for you?

This has been the first time I’ve worked remotely, however I studied my degree through distance learning with the Open University so the concept of working at a desk from home is definitely a familiar one.

What challenges have you had? And how have you worked around or resolved these?

The biggest challenge has definitely been communication and coordination within the team - there’s definitely been tough moments of feeling quite isolated when working on a big project in my spare room.

Earlier in the pandemic, I also struggled a lot with the anxiety of the wider situation and not falling into bad habits of ‘doomscrolling’ not so much from trying to find the bad news, but more due to the fact I believe in being informed and not burying your head in the sand, and early on most of the news was bad. As time has gone on, fortunately the news has started to feel more optimistic (especially lately) and I also think I’ve started to better mediate my consumption of such news.

Another challenge is the total removal of any line between work and home life - not having to commute can be handy, but I quite liked walking for about half an hour in the morning both for the exercise benefit and as having a way to mentally decompress and separate work from home. Not having that makes it much harder to switch off and a lot easier to end up working silly hours - the flexibility can be really helpful, but only when it works for you rather than against you.

What positive experiences have you had with working from home?

Cooked Lunch Fridays™ are certainly one highlight. Another would be walking at lunch with my partner, which our work schedules and the weather have allowed us to do more often than not. There’s also been the better days where I’ve stepped away at 5pm and benefitted from the extra time of an evening. I’ve tried to do that more of late and used the time to pick up my guitar again for the first time in a long while, which is something I may never have gotten around to otherwise. Plus, that little bit of flexibility to put the washing on or whatever else that could normally only be done in the evenings.

What lessons from remote working will you carry on after lockdown?

I think the difficulty in communication has forced me to become more independent and assertive, and to deal with clients more directly. This has brought challenges of its own, but has also empowered me more to solve problems on my own and if a positive development I think has been brought about or at least accelerated by this time. Personally, I’m really glad to have started playing guitar again. My partner also moved in at the onset of lockdown, and we’ve learned that a quiet night in together can be as fun as going out - so even once things start to open up again, we’ll probably be striking more of a balance there.

Nina

Was remote working a new experience for you?

Previous roles have allowed me to work from home for at least one day per week and these days would be planned around tasks that required little or no input and benefited from limited distractions or contact front the wider team, but working remotely on a permanent basis is a new experience for me.

What challenges have you had? And how have you worked around or resolved these?

I started my role at A Digital during the first lockdown, which I found quite a hard and strange experience to say the least. I found going through an induction process behind a computer screen far harder and nowhere near as effective as the experience you gain from face to face contact with your new team.

Communication has definitely been one of the biggest challenges for myself and the team. Not being in an office environment to be able to ask quick questions and develop an understanding of everyone's role and the projects they were working on was a big challenge for me during the first lockdown. Managing a few months in the office prior to the second lockdown was really beneficial in gaining an understanding of not only agency life (after being an in-house marketer for 14 years) but also a better understanding of our active projects and client base through interaction with the rest of the team.

Following reflection on the first lockdown and entering into this lockdown I felt more in control and more focussed on achieving my goals both from a personal and professional perspective (even with homeschooling thrown in the mix). Maybe it's because it's not a new feeling anymore and we were no longer entering into the unknown.

What positive experiences have you had with working from home?

The last 8 months have provided plenty of positives, particularly the ability to spend more time with my son before he started school in September (all though his first year hasn’t been quite the experience he was expecting), although this has created some distraction and multiple home office setups.

Another is that I have saved an hour of my day from not commuting to the office. This does come with its negatives though, as I took this as ‘me time’, allowing me to plan my day or reflect, so as soon as I got home I could switch off from work and focus my time in an evening on Reggie.

While at home I have also been making sure that I take a break away from the screen by going out for a walk or run on my lunch and utilising the time to listen to my favourite podcasts.

What lessons from remote working will you carry on after lockdown?

I still see home working as a positive part of any role to establish a good work/life balance, however; the importance of team interaction and collaboration within an office environment has become very apparent in recent weeks.

Lockdown has forced a change in the way we work and a common theme of conversation in between the team has been the importance of transparency, ensuring that we all know what we are individually working on and are clear on project statuses and client communications. I feel the digital tools and processes implemented during lockdown to bridge the gaps while working remotely will still be seen as beneficial going forwards, even when we are able to get back together in the office and allow for an effective transition from office to home working in the future.

From a personal perspective, ensuring I structure my working day effectively and give myself time away from my desk and take a break from the screen, utilising my lunch break to go for a daily walk and enjoy some fresh air to clear the mind ready for the afternoon.

Matts desk

Matt's desk, now with added green

Matt

Was remote working a new experience for you?

Indeed it was. In the past before the pandemic hit, my only experience of this was a monthly dev day working from home. I used these days to focus on learning new skills and trialling new concepts. I remained largely disconnected from everyone else on these dev days though to minimise distractions. Working from home full time has been very different to this of course, so it has certainly been a new experience!

What challenges have you had? And how have you worked around or resolved these?

I’ve been living with someone who is shielding and in the highly at risk category, so I’ve not really left lockdown since this all began. It’s been a safety first self-imposed restriction but it’s made it quite hard to stay motivated some days, especially when the work/life balance has largely become a work/sleep balance with not much to look forward to in a personal capacity. To combat this I’ve been gaming online with mates and more recently I’ve tried to get outside to do some walks. As the weather improves I will hopefully gain the motivation to do a lot more walking.

With regards to work, the main challenge has been internal communication. A lot of the office chatter doesn’t easily transition to an online platform and gets lost. As a result I’ve felt less connected to those I work with and have also ended up falling behind in my knowledge of projects which I wasn’t directly involved with. We’ve tried to put a few things in place to prevent this from happening but up until now it’s certainly been a downside of working from home.

What positive experiences have you had with working from home?

Although I miss the office chatter, it has been good to have complete control of the volume and sounds in my work environment at home. This has led to some very productive moments when writing code. I can blast my music all day long and sing along, it’s helped when getting stuck into a large piece of work. Cooked lunches have also been wonderful and I shall miss them very much when we eventually go back to the office.

What lessons from remote working will you carry on after lockdown?

In all honesty I personally wouldn’t want to flick the switch completely and go back to working every single day in the office. When a large project needs a big push on the development side it would be beneficial to do this from home, as the distractions can be minimised more easily. This could be in the form of a focus day. Post pandemic I believe a combination of office and remote work would be the most constructive way for me and the work I do. With that said, I am looking forward to getting around the meeting table with everyone and having a beer at the local on a friday after 5 on the way home! Socialising is sorely missed.

When I return to the office I will also definitely be reviewing my desk setup. During the pandemic I’ve tried a number of combinations and the most beneficial of these have been wrist rests for the mouse and keyboard, and some soft padding which I’ve added to my chairs rock hard armrests. Ergonomics wasn’t something I’d put a lot of thought into in the office, I’d just used the provided equipment in its default configuration and left it at that. It just worked. The ergonomics in the office were rather good but at the start of the pandemic I got it very wrong at home and noticed it instantly. This will be something I review when I return to the office to make sure I’m getting the most support and comfort out of our equipment. I intend to add wrist rests and make a few modifications to some other areas.

Dean

Was remote working a new experience for you?

This is the longest period of working fully remote yes, though my roles have always had an element of working ‘off-site’ when needed such as attending networking events, exhibitions or client meetings. I’ve also experienced a lot of hot-desking which enables me to make the best use of my time whilst out of the office. But yes, working fully remote without the use of an office ‘base’ has been a new experience.

What challenges have you had? And how have you worked around or resolved these?

From a work point of view, the main challenge has been the lack of communication and engagement with my colleagues. When in the office together it’s much easier to quickly get feedback on an idea or discuss an update on a project. Managing and collaborating on website projects or marketing campaigns is far easier when you’re all in the same room. Also, as a naturally social person I’m much more in my comfort zone when around others rather than being isolated from people. Zoom calls and instant messaging has helped keep some level of contact with my colleagues, but for me there’s no substitute for having proper face to face conversations.

On a more personal level, working remotely at home has completely removed the lines between work and home life in so much as they’ve become one. I’ve started thinking about work much earlier in the morning than I used to, and can still be doing work related tasks late into the evening. I think that’s been mostly over the autumn and winter months where it’s been too dark and cold to leave the house for a walk at 5/6pm. Also, during lockdown periods there’s only so much TV or social media I can consume before I end up turning my attention to something more constructive which usually relates back to work. As someone obsessed with all things web and digital, and the fact I’m completely customer centric, there’s always something I feel I could be doing to support them and their businesses during these times of change and uncertainty but also opportunity. I have recently been trying to be more disciplined and utilising what should be my spare time with other interests and hobbies. I think as we come out of lockdown and eventually go back to working in an office I’ll start to see some separation between work and home life again.

What positive experiences have you had with working from home?

It’s not been all negative. Whilst I’ve mentioned I prefer working in an office environment where you’re closer to your team, there are times when working remotely at home with no disruptions has helped me focus better in just ‘getting stuff done’. I suppose there’s a balance to be struck between the two.

There’s also been the other obvious benefits of convenience and saving time and money by not having to commute. Another major benefit has been the ability to get out for a run every day during my lunch break which has helped with my physical and mental health.

What lessons from remote working will you carry on after lockdown?

The importance of proper structured working days, irrelevant of whether I’m working in the office or remotely. In an increasingly digital world, I believe remote working will become more commonplace and so the ability to adapt to whatever environment you’re in and take ownership of your own work and time will be critical for future success.

Scout scar

Laura: Lunchtime runs on my local fell have helped my physical and mental health

Laura

Was remote working a new experience for you?

I’ve never worked remotely before and only had the occasional day of working from home for personal development days. I never needed to communicate with anyone else on the team while at home, so this has been a new experience for me.

What challenges have you had? And how have you worked around or resolved these?

Initially just finding somewhere suitable to work was an issue. At first it was in my living room but that came with lots of noise and distractions. Now I work in my bedroom, which thankfully hasn’t affected my sleep, but has come with the additional challenge of internet connectivity. I’m now too far away from the router to rely on it while working throughout the day. But surprisingly, I’ve found using my mobile on 4G to create a WiFi hotspot has been more than fast enough.

Having an appropriate desk has also caused issues with numbing in my hands and strain in my back. Just after Christmas I invested in a standing desk, which has helped with both issues a lot. And to my surprise, working while standing has been a breeze; I find myself standing more often than not.

The biggest challenge has been communication, both as a team and with clients. Almost everyone has been working remotely so conversations that normally took place in person are happening in multiple places, in smaller groups, and sometimes only over email. It is easy to accidentally miss something or to go information blind when reading a chain. Keeping tabs on exactly what is going on, and who is doing what, has probably been the biggest challenge.

Surprisingly, the lack of quick communication with the rest of the team has caused a drop in my confidence as a designer. Being able to quickly ask “What do you think?” and get instant feedback is a more useful tool than I ever realised. To build up my confidence again, I’ve started drawing in my free time after work, which I’d forgotten how much I enjoy doing.

What positive experiences have you had with working from home?

Living in a shared house means there is usually someone else round, so while it can get noisy, I feel lucky that I’m not isolated in the way others have been during all this. Plus there is always a pot of coffee on the go too.

I have found that starting earlier and having a longer lunch to go for a run during the day has been really beneficial, not just for my physical health but my mental health too. During the winter months this has been the only daylight I’ve seen.

Other little things that have been positive have been hot lunches and being able to put washing on in the middle of the day, freeing up time after work. Plus there has been the lack of commuting, which normally involved walking in the cold and rain. It’s been nice not getting so cold and wet all the time.

What lessons from remote working will you carry on after lockdown?

I’ve learnt how important my posture is, how important the correct working set-up is, for my physical health. I’d been interested in standing desks for years now, and having invested in one, I’ll definitely be using it when I go back to the office.

I often had a short walk at lunchtime, even before lockdown, but my experience of getting outside during the day has reconfirmed what I had already thought - that the short break away from the screen really helps to lower stress. And sometimes ideas and solutions come to you during that down time.

Having made a start on sketching during my personal time, and finding that I really enjoy it, I want to keep this up. My drawing ability is definitely not what it once was, but also not as bad as I feared it had become.

Conclusion

While everyone has had some unique experiences, both positive and negative, one thing that stands out from every single member of the A Digital team has been the challenge of effective communication. I think globally remote working will become more commonplace after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but it is clear from our experiences as a team that something is lost when not communicating in person.

That regular contact and ease of communication in person is something that we have all felt as a team, perhaps most of all by Nina when she joined A Digital mid-pandemic. This is something that technology just hasn’t been able to replicate, try as it might. Being unable to ask someone their opinion quickly, and not knowing what everyone else is working on simply by being in the room when conversations are taking place, are surprising downsides to long-term remote working.

However, the positive take away from working remotely is how we all adjusted our days to be more flexible with the rest of our lives. Whether it was for home-schooling, exercise, house chores, or simply having a break from the screen, we all have made some sort of adjustment to our working schedule in order to make the rest of our lives easier during this very trying time. As twee as it might sound, COVID-19 and lockdown has given us all the opportunity to see what is important, both with work and in our personal lives.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

Laura profile

Laura as the creative in A Digital specialises in design and accessibility. She also gets involved with front-end coding, particularly HTML and CSS, with a growing interest in Javascript.

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