As human beings, we are not programmed to be cooped up alone in a small area, day after day. Yet, with the COVID-19 outbreak, that’s precisely what many of us are now having to endure. Working from home and in self-isolation sounds glorious to those of a solitary nature. But it’s agonisingly lonely and troublesome for others, to the extent they cannot get much done.
The circumstances we find ourselves in have given me plenty of space to reflect. Mostly on the paradigm of when working from home becomes the norm, what becomes of the workplace, and just as importantly what becomes of your home?
In an effort to find some delimitation between the two and pursue regular screen breaks I have reignited my neglected love of reading, particularly exploring this quandary, which has provided some comfort and support.
So who better to advise how best to work in isolation for extended periods of time, than Scott Kelly, the man who spent a year circling the Earth from space? If he can cope with 12 months floating about in the International Space Station (the longest anyone has ever spent in orbit), he must have some advice for us while our feet are planted safely on the ground.
After publishing his successful book, Endurance: A Year in Space, a fascinating insight into life up there, he has spoken about several useful techniques to help us through the strange new existence down here.
Whilst there is the obvious difference that the brave men and woman that train for these mission have made the conscious choice to endure such extreme isolation, there are still some key actionable areas to help anyone struggling with the concept of working from home for a long period.
Follow a schedule and establish a routine
One of his top lessons was about prioritisation and time management, skills critical whether you are an astronaut or an accountant. Almost every minute and every task on the international station is carefully scripted and astronauts have a schedule list written by teams at mission control setting out every activity, step by step.
“On the space station, my time was scheduled tightly, from the moment I woke up to when I went to sleep. Sometimes this involved a spacewalk that could last up to eight hours; other times, it involved a five-minute task, like checking on the experimental flowers I was growing in space. You will find maintaining a plan will help you and your family adjust to a different work and home life environment. When I returned to Earth, I missed the structure it provided and found it hard to live without.” Scott Kelly
As humans, we are driven by tasks and deadlines. By mapping out your day into segments, you are always working to the clock and getting things done in a logical structure. It’s also easier to get through a project broken into snackable parts rather than slogging through one vast pile of spreadsheets or presentations.
A structured plan underpinned by clear objectives also stops you getting distracted; to fall down a YouTube wormhole, for example. With no colleagues around or boss over your shoulder, your mind could wander. Before you know it, you’ve learnt all about the rigours of Spanish mountain goat farming, rather than complete that Q2 sales report.
Separate work from your home life
Kelly warns that when you live and work in the same place, it’s easy for work to take over everything. You must pace yourself and set hard boundaries. You might otherwise find yourself working late and pouring over paperwork when you should be unwinding.
Whilst I don’t necessarily miss the commute itself I do miss what it represented each day. I now take a quick walk in the mornings before I sign online and a longer one in the afternoon once I’m done for the day. I might listen to podcasts or audiobooks or just turn my brain off for a bit while my legs take over. It also serves as the transition between work and my personal life. When I come home from my evening walk, I leave my work switched off.
Give yourself something that will signal the end of work and serve as a buffer. If you have mastered the schedule/routine, then ensure it includes a clear cut-off point at the end of the day. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a separate space, remove the temptation, pack away the laptop, put your work out of sight and try to remember home is where the heart is… not where the powerpoint presentations live.
Make sure you go outside
Obviously a somewhat easier concept for you and I on terra firma than for those on hurtling around the earth in a box the size of a shipping container at 17,130 mph.
For an astronaut, this is somewhat trickier. While the worst thing that might happen to us is getting caught in the rain, for Kelly a spacewalk could end in oblivion. It’s also one of the riskiest and is planned in minute detail for up to a month in advance. Just getting the suit on takes four hours as the astronauts run through a safety checklist that is almost 100 pages long.
However, he is correct that you should schedule a fresh air break each day. Working in an office, you travel to and from work, and pop out for lunch. On the contrary, when you work from home, it’s all too easy for the whole day to slip by without stepping out once (I know I have been guilty of this). It’s unhealthy from a physical and mental perspective…. open the pod bay doors, Hal.
Loneliness causes terrible strain on mental health. For those used to being with others, with friends, extended family and colleagues, being thrown into the isolation of working from home can be hard to cope with, and that can affect work.
Kelly wrote: “Technology makes it easier than ever to keep in touch, so it’s worth making time to connect with someone every day.”
Zoom, Hangouts and Facetime have come into their own during the COVID-19 outbreak, allowing us to stay connected in countless ways. But it’s also about picking up the phone and talking things through. Stop, take a breath and reach out to someone you’ve not spoken to for a while.
Isolation can make you forget that – you are not the only human enduring this experience, solidarity is a key component of human connection. Make it an achievable daily goal, you never know it might mean just as much to that person as it can for you.
We will adapt
When you stop to think how strange and lonely life must be on a space station, especially for 12 months, it’s easier for us to begin adapting to working from home for a month or two. Some are already going back to work. But for others, this odd new existence will continue for a while yet.
One of the hardest things for people to cope with at the moment is a feeling of uncertainty – not knowing when lockdown will end, and when (or if) life will return to normal. It’s easy for us to feel down about the current situation – feeling anxious or depressed is a natural and normal response to an uncertain social and political situation but it’s also important not to catastrophise. Just as the worst-case scenario might happen, so might the best-case.
Businesses are already assessing, how, when, or if they will ever return back to a regular working environment. But for now, we must remain humble and fortunate (with a healthy balance or optimism and pragmatism). Adapting to new situations is always challenging, but it’s what humanity has done since the dawn of time. We are resilient beings, capable of adjusting to whatever life throws our way. By continuing our morning routines, maintaining a set work schedule, communicating daily with coworkers and loved ones, and sustaining a strong boundary between our work and home lives, we can carry on until it’s time to return to the office.
Taking the advice from Scott Kelly, however, may help put all this into perspective. We can adapt, endure and make it back to planet earth more resilient than ever before.