ON March 23, four days before the entire country went into its first Covid-19 lockdown, German national Aileen Hayes flew into Dublin to start her new job, working for engineering software maker MathWorks in Galway.
She hired a car, drove west and went to stay in the company’s serviced apartments. A few days later, she met a company employee briefly in the hotel lobby, where she was given the technology she needed to set herself up. From that point on set herself the goal of connecting with her 14-strong team - without ever meeting them face to face.
Today, as we find ourselves in the middle of our second lockdown, Aileen’s story is not unique. According to a recent survey carried out by European labour market think tank Eurofound, Ireland has embraced working from home since the arrival of Covid-19, with 47% of us setting up office on home ground.
Business psychologist Dr Joe Mac Aree says the global pandemic has thrown some communication challenges our way. While certain personality types might lean more towards working from home as a positive option, he says we all need social interaction to be at our best. “An introvert may find that they want more time on their own than an extrovert but over time, as human beings, we all need that connectivity to support us.”
Now we've moved into Level 5 of restrictions, it is more important than ever before to foster relationships with your workmates, says Dr Mac Aree. “We have this feeling that we have been through a lot, and the current situation feels like a harder knock and is maybe challenging our resilience a little more.”
Hayes says she had to step out of her comfort zone in order to connect with colleagues. “I had to force myself to be proactive in creating relationships,” she says. “I had a colleague who was more or less responsible for onboarding me and it was easy to connect with her but then after a while, I tried to spread my questions among the whole team - just to get to know them.”
Denise Curtin landed her dream job asmagazine digital editor at the start of March. With the entire team working from home for the last seven months, she says that while there were some teething problems, the experience has been largely a positive one.
Through Whatsapp and regular phone calls, they’ve managed to maintain a buoyant team atmosphere while at home, but there is no denying that some days are more challenging. “My motivation dips in and out and some days I'm definitely feeling a lot more driven and concentrated than others ... the lead up to big government announcements tend to be my off days.”
Grow Remote is a community project bridging the disconnect between remote work and local impact in rural areas. Its co-founder Rose Barrett says it is important to note that the pandemic has created a huge difference for remote workers too. “Remote work doesn't always equal working from home,” she says. “While that has been the reality for most people this year, once things start to open up again, working hubs will play a huge role in the new shape of our working lives.”
At Grow Remote, says Barrett, they find energy mapping a highly beneficial tool in identifying and overcoming challenges while working from home. “This is simply, keeping a note of those tasks in the week that give you energy or zap it. It might be possible to reduce the zappers and increase the givers, depending on your role, or your manager might have some good insights to help you balance this,” she says.
Bonding and fostering relationships with your colleagues are extremely important, says Dr Joe Mac Aree. Allowing and encouraging time for personal chit chat at the beginning and end of all video conferences opens up lines of communication beyond the business of the day.
Barrett heartily agrees: “Sometimes, when the deadline is looming, these parts of work-life can feel frivolous, surplus to requirement. In reality, this is what fuels amazing teams.”
And don’t forget about the good old-fashioned telephone, says Mac Aree. “We feel compelled to put things onto video when actually the connectivity on a phone call can be every bit as powerful. Sometimes using the right tool at the right time make it easier to connect.”
Employing a mix of communication tools has been the solution to the Zoom fatigue Iris Kavanagh and her colleagues were feeling over the last few months. “We have found that using the phone and when we could, meeting at a social distance in the fresh air, really broke up Zoom fatigue,” she says.
Kavanagh began her role as head of marketing at office fit-out construction company Sonica in April. She says the greatest challenge of starting a job remotely was the lack of face-to-face interaction. “The big difference in working from home is that there isn't that person to lean on, to say 'where's this' - it becomes a dedicated Zoom call for every little thing.”
As well as taking on a new role, Kavanagh is also studying for a masters degree at night. The long hours of screen time quickly became a problem for her, manifesting in migraines.
Separating work life from home life is the only way to work from home successfully, says Bríd Murray, research and innovation psychologist with Seven. “Switch off your IT, log off your computer, switch off your phone and remove that temptation to check, particularly if you are struggling with switching off in the evenings,” she suggests.
“It's about creating what's called stopping cues in your routine, because when we are going to work we have natural stopping cues, like getting the bus - we don't have them when we are working from home.”
Working from home allows us to challenge perceptions of office culture, and Murray says she has seen great cultural shifts happen in companies since last March. “We have found the organisations we are working with to be really flexible and conscious of their employees,” she says.
The major learning in this working from home life seems to be establishing homelife boundaries, she says. “In terms of etiquette, it's up to individuals and their leaders, managers and teams to create strategies and boundaries in a way that works for everyone. Each person's situation is so different at the moment, so the key is being flexible.”
Iris Kavanagh says she has had to become very strict with herself in terms of work and home life. “I have had to schedule myself an hour after my workday ends to have food and tie in with husband - I'm still a wife too - and then go into college work for the evening.”
Aileen Hayes has settled into life in Galway and her new role, despite government restrictions preventing her from too much in-person communication. She has discovered a love of golf during the last number of months and believes as long as we find time to get some fresh air and exercise every day, our work-from-home life will fall into place. “Find yourself something that will keep you busy and bring you outside - you can't sit in front of screens all the time, it is not a way to live. There has to be a balance.”