At the end of June, due to some complications with my twin pregnancy, I was suddenly signed off work, indefinitely. Scary health issues and related stress aside, I have found this whole experience pretty weird and difficult. I was 15 weeks pregnant at the time and the prospect of not going back to work for about 18months was a pretty daunting prospect. I was told I could work at home but had to take it easy – avoiding stairs (not that easy), lifting, running, no travel etc etc. Being signed off so rapidly – one day I was in work and then next I wasn’t meant considerable readjustment both for my work and home life.
A lot of people said how lucky I was to be signed off – the prospect of months at home over the summer seemed idyllic to them. And in some respects I am very lucky. I’m lucky to have the flexibility and opportunity to continue to work whilst semi-incarcerated at home – one benefit of working in a university I think. I’m also fortunate in that I live about 20minutes walk from work and this enabled me to invite people to my house and hold meetings at home. I’ve been very touched about how accommodating people have been – I think people like a walk into leafy Islington and a break from the office – or tried to arrange meetings with me via conference phone, skype or adobe connect. And my boss and my team have been fantastically patient and worked with me so that I can keep doing my job, albeit remotely. I’m also fortunate in that remote access, email etc etc have enabled me to keep in touch and keep working.
However, it’s not been easy. At first I found it really hard to structure my days and get motivated to keep engaging without some of the formality of the work environment. I have also felt very lonely at times. Initially I tried to have a meeting at my house every day to keep me sane, but then I realised that this broke up the day so much so I changed it and tried to hold a number of meetings on the same day. This worked better but also left me exhausted at the end of the day (and with a lot of washing up!). During August my partner was working at home too and this is not ideal in a two bedroom flat with no separate “working” area – and with me having visitors – we almost had to schedule where we would be working! And for the second half of August my daughter finished nursery and was also at home. She couldn’t understand why I could not be with her and I felt incredibly guilty. There were times when I thought I should just give up as it was just too hard, but I didn’t want to do that. I created routines around my work to give me more structure and planned my time even more than usual – I realised that when I am in the office I spend so much time in meetings that I don’t plan when I do other work, it just tends to be squashed in around other things.
Now the summer is over, partner back at work, daughter at school it has been easier to start a routine and keep working. My condition has improved so I’m able to come into the office a couple of days a week. Although I am a big advocate of home working as I think it generally encourages productivity and motivation, being forced to work at home for such a long time has really made me appreciate my working environment and also made me understand a lot more about the way I work. I tend to have many many informal conversations with my team and other colleagues that result in actions for them or me, contact being made or progress on various initiatives. I think this is a fundamental part of my leadership style. When forced to be at home that informal contact is very difficult to replicate. Twitter is great, for those on Twitter. But email just doesn’t cut it and I find myself sending endless emails to my poor team when I would usually just walk across the office and ask them something. And although I do phone about various things, it is not always convenient or I feel like I am just dictating a bit long list! The benefit of being “allowed” back into the office has enabled me to deal with those informal queries a lot more.
Joining meetings via conference call has been interesting! For informal meetings it works ok-ish, but we always end up talking over each other as you can’t gauge facial expressions and when to join in the conversation. For formal meetings it is pretty weird. I have realised that it is a real art to chair meetings when staff are joining in remotely. It is much more difficult to just jump in with your comments and you really need the chair to ask you for your feedback/thoughts. Or it is hard to follow the flow of the conversation and then you find yourself put on the spot! Video conferencing is better as you can see what everyone is doing but technical glitches much more common. There have been some successes and amusing moments – the voice from the “ether” in team meetings, or chairing a meeting remotely when everyone else was in the room – I think it was the most efficient meeting I ever chaired, or contributing to a conference panel presentation at ALT-C via Skype whilst I was supposed to be on “holiday” and had bribed my daughter with chocolate and a Barbie DVD only to have her shout at me “be quiet Mummy” every time I spoke – the embarrassment!!
I have had more time to think, though. Not the time I thought to do things like blog regularly or sort out my mess of a contacts in outlook/iphone etc but more time to be organised for meetings and reflect on what I am doing and trying to achieve. I’ve worried about the example I am setting as a leader and been massively conscious of attempting to be a positive role model, not hypocritical, not place undue stress on others and “do my bit” as a leader and for the team. But I have found it massively hard to switch-off. Even though I have taken some leave it has been really difficult when not physically away from my laptop etc to disengage from work. I think as I have brought so much of my working life into my home the boundaries have become so blurred that that separation has not been possible. Roll on next summer when I can take a lovely hot holiday, albeit with multiple babies!
I’ve survived the home incarceration but I miss the office much more than I thought. Although I have perhaps a bit more objectivity and separation which has helped in some situations, there are times when you miss the tenor of the work environment and misjudge situations. I miss the informal and serendipitous contact with colleagues, the frustrations and the laughter. And I think that for me, that has impacted on my confidence – when I first returned to the office I felt very nervous. But, I have, almost become more organised, more disciplined and paid more attention to certain facets of my worklife – attempting to prioritise better as well as deal with the increased mound of email because I am not physically present. I’ve also reflected more on the balance between my work and personal responsibilities, what makes me happy and what I am trying to do. It’s not been an easy period but ultimately I’m very lucky to have been able to do this and to have such great, supportive colleagues who have helped me keep sane (well just), engaged and focused.