Academic work in the quarantine lockdown

The fourth week of quarantine lockdown and work from home is rolling by both with its tough and beautiful sides. While the only stability of the news is the growing number of COVID-19 cases, the world in general and academic society, in particular, are adapting to the changes and the uncertainty. We are learning how to teach remotely, trying to stay connected through online seminars and meetups, and – in case of human-computer interaction – imagining how the future studies will look like. We also realise that it is difficult and perhaps meaningless to compare the work productivity levels to the times before quarantine (feels like a lifetime ago), and trying to be more empathetic towards each other and, more importantly, ourselves.

In Health Technology Design group, we are also rebuilding our work routine, having short daily coffee meetups, regular group meetings, and just staying connected through other online group activities or merely Slack chats.

In the form of an interview, this post compiles our opinions on three basic questions: what works, what doesn’t, and what are our thoughts on the future of our research? 

1. What is most difficult for you about the quarantine and working from home?

Lack of home/work separation

Gavin: Lack of separation from home and work. Missing the exercise and personal time of my commute (cycling all the way or walking to public transport). Lack of extended non-interrupted periods for work. Overall I am slightly less effective, so there is a constant backlog given I was already busy before.

Shane: Casual Routine (or lack thereof). A “normal” day for me will generally be broken up with a walk around campus, a trip to the gym, even the commute to & from the office acts in a way to segment the day. With the shift to fully working from home – by decree, not a choice – I feel I am simultaneously at work & at home all the time. The lack of separation between those makes it difficult to fully check-in to either.

Finding a balance and motivation

Seamus: Probably timeboxing work. I find that the day bleeds into itself with no clear line on when I start working or when I stop working. This means that I find myself doing non-work items in the middle of the day and unproductively starting at work long after I should have closed my laptop. I also find reading is something that I just avoid doing when I am at home, so I need to create space in my life for it. I might plan for a reading afternoon once a week.

Camille: I usually work from home one to two days a week. I try to alternate a day at home and a day at work as I find that a change of environment is always helpful in my research activities. This quarantine changed my routine as I am now working from home five days a week. The most challenging for me is to keep my motivation to get up in the morning and get ready as if it was a normal day. The morning being my most productive time, getting up even an hour later than my regular schedule will trigger a feeling of guilt. 

Managing anxiety

Leysan: I was not used to working from home and being alone all the time, so it took a long time to adjust and find a balance between working and doing other activities. It is still challenging to manage news intake and related anxiety, as the situation is on different stages in Ireland, Italy and Russia where my families are.

CamilleI noticed that when I do not get out of the apartment, even for one day, it impacts my mental wellbeing and triggers rumination thoughts and anxiety about the situation. I start worrying about my family back in France who has been on lockdown for quite a while now. This increases the feeling of guilt of being stuck in another country and powerless.

Workspace and little bits of help

AndreasThe most difficult things are the lack of a workspace and the ability to fully concentrate because of the noisy background distractions during the day. 

SeanThe hardest thing has been keeping a stock of good coffee as places begin to close.

2. What works for you to feel better: what are your coping strategies?

Outdoors and staying physically active.

Gavin: Getting outside for a few minutes whenever the sun is shining. Doing positive things with the kids, who are pretty happy with the situation. Too much comfort eating!

Sean: It’s important to stay active. A home workout, however hard or easy, is good for the mind.

Camille: To maintain a stable and positive mindset, I commit (or at least I will from now on!) to get out of the apartment for an hour walk in the park nearby every day. I am lucky to live with my partner who pushes me to keep on working as normal and to get some fresh air daily.

Planning and self-compassion

AndreasTwo coping strategies work for me better during this period. I set a plan the day before with the tasks that I want to accomplish the next day, and I reward myself when I accomplish tasks. 

LeysanHaving discipline and scheduling activities that I won’t miss no matter what, for instance, having at least 30 mins walk, as it’s still allowed, doing yoga and reading/listening at least one page of a book. These activities create islands of certainty in the ocean of uncertainty in my life these days.

CamilleI try to be more kind to myself and allow myself to have a more flexible schedule. For example, I take the time I need to get up and get ready in the morning and commit to working more in the evening. 

ShaneMaking sure to get outside for a walk or a run is essential for me & making a conscious effort to connect & check-in with friends/family definitely helps in terms of alleviating the cabin fever. Reminding myself that the experience is shared also helps.

Being smart with to-do list items

SeamusA low carb lunch and a lot of coffee. I have also found a lot of benefit in working on items I have been putting off. Expense reports, online quizzes for modules, etc. Stuff that is laborious but not mentally challenging gives a great sense of accomplishment when completed. I also think that everyone should have a clear single item work goal in their mind for every day. This can be something small like respond to an email, or review a journal to see if there is anything relevant. No day is a waste if that small goal is completed.

3. What do you think about the future of your research, maybe you have ideas for the time when things go back to normal?

Carry on

GavinI am actually pretty happy that the work we do is meaningful and useful, as well as being interesting, so I would not actually envisage any changes in direction.

SeanI transported my entire experimental setup to my home, and I aim to keep the research proceeding as normal for as long as possible.

Be careful and alert

SeamusI think all data sets are going to be polluted if they did data collection during or immediately after this whole thing. The validity of results, as compared to other results from different times, will need to be something that is handled carefully in all literature doing data collection now.

ShaneGiven the increase in peoples screen time, our reliance on digital means of communication, and the stress being put on people’s mental health – via both the broader existential threat, as well as our individual experiences living through the day-to-day reality of quarantine – I think that there is going to be quite a lot to unpack after all this in terms of the interaction between our mental health and our technology use. In terms of new ideas, I have to say I feel more optimistic about that interaction.

Stay optimistic

Camille: I am currently planning a new collaborative study for when things have calmed down. This is quite exciting and motivating; it will be an international collaboration implying some remote work, but also travels and face-to-face group work. The perspective of this study helps me to stay positive about the future of my research.

AndreasThere are a few ideas about applying user-centred design to my research.

SeamusOn a personal note, I find that people are getting much better at understanding data visualisation and the quality of visualisations in the general media has been great! So I hope that this improvement can be maintained after all of this is over. I also think that the need for automated and rapidly scalable healthcare tools is going to be even clearer. The long-promised but undelivered tools for triage and data correlation could have been incredibly useful and the fact that we are not seeing them being leveraged means that the academic work still needs to be done before the industry can really implement them.

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