By guest blogger, on 4 October 2021
In this blog, Sarah Griffiths discusses her experiences of beginning the hybrid working at the PCPH department.
Emily Spencer (Research assistant, PriDem) and I have started coming into the department for two days a week. We have been together in the office twice so far and have seen benefits. Both being new to UCL, it has been an important step in starting to feel a sense of belonging to a department. I think being in-person for some of the time is enhancing the development of an effective working relationship. At the start of each week, we plan weekly goals and have started to prioritise tasks that would work best in-person for office days. Enjoying everyday conversation just for the sake of it, without this being a prelude to a meeting has been a novelty, and the potential for using bodily movement for ‘acting out’ anecdotes or being unaware of what our faces are doing, has created a much-missed sense of communicative freedom. Going for coffee together, airing thoughts as they occur and having spontaneous discussions (rather than having to compose them in an email or wait until the next Teams meeting), are all great benefits of hybrid working and breed creativity. It can also be easier to read and respond to people’s emotions when in person and there is nothing like a co-present giggle for enhancing well-being.
It is early days, and there haven’t been many people around in the department yet, but some chance meetings in the kitchen and corridor have led to spontaneous conversations with new people and a chance to connect with the wider team.
Before the pandemic I loved rare WFH days. To me they were luxury; a chance to switch off distractions and ‘get in the flow’, with all the benefits of being able to get washing done, cuddle the dog and eat whole packets of biscuits unobserved. However, since this became the norm, the enjoyment has gradually faded for me. I’m fortunate that I can find space to work, away from family members, and I don’t have children living at home. Even so, at times I’ve felt trapped by lack of variety. Like many people I’ve been super productive, but have often worked crazy hours, due to a lack of natural breaks to travel to/from work, and no escape from the ‘workplace’.
I live in Cornwall! It takes me three and a half hours to get to London and I’m lucky because I have accommodation when I am there. I am working out ways of working on a train when the internet is poor, saving tasks for travel times that don’t require online connection. Having a snooze and recharging my batteries has also been on my to-do list. I have noticed that coming back to Cornwall after my London stint has led to appreciating and enjoying home working all over again.
However, there are issues to overcome to optimise the hybrid working experience, and everyone’s situation is unique. Although currently Emily and I have started fulfilling the UCL guidance of aiming for 40% embodiment, this guidance is somewhat ambiguous and has been variously interpreted. It will not be possible in the literal sense once recruitment starts. Our working practices will vary week to week, in terms of where we need to be and how we approach interactions. Some research activities will be in-person and some remote. However, the challenges of background noise and confidentiality mean remote activity will not necessarily work when carried out in a shared office. We are going to have to negotiate how we do this, building in flexibility and ensuring that we have the right equipment and office ventilation. Headphones and suitable microphones can help with confidentiality and researchers keeping their own vocal volume to a minimum, although many of our participants will have reduced hearing and/or find background noise highly distracting. The current requirement to wear masks in shared offices adds to the challenge of video calls, especially as people living with dementia and those with hearing difficulties gain communication support from seeing people’s faces.
These challenges have led us discuss future arrangements for hybrid working within our team. The 40% embodiment guidance includes discussing individual circumstances with line managers. We hope that this can be highly flexible, with clearer guidance around managers using discretion and trust; monitoring how well research staff are engaging in remote versus in-person working. Importantly, this will entail balancing efficiency with wellbeing and maintaining a sense of belonging. Fatigue is one to keep an eye on as people return to the world of commuting. Depending on the person, the team and the tasks at hand, researchers may want to be embodied for a whole week at time, but then balance this with a week of working from home. I hope that we can continue this conversation about how we enter the new phase of hybrid working.