Lessons from going into lockdown and working from home during COVID-19

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more of us working from home than ever before – and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. Sure, there’s always someone who forgets to mute or unmute themselves during a team meeting but that’s just the home-working version of forgetting to put milk back in the shared fridge at this point.

But this ‘new normal’ didn’t always come so easily to us and, if we’re honest, it still has its challenges 8 months on.

So what can we learn from how staff and volunteers in community organisations adapted to the UK’s first lockdown and the shift to home working? We dug into our data to find out.

Frontline Staff raised the alarm

While the UK officially went into lockdown on the 23rd of March, many of our interviewees had already started to think about how their services should be running given the rising rates of Coronavirus before the official announcement was made. Indeed, we found that frontline workers often played a key role in raising the alarm and pushing their organisations to consider whether services should be provided face to face, sometimes speaking up weeks before lockdown was implemented.

I remember that close to the time that we really closed the day service, […] I think it was in the week before that I and my colleagues started to get uncomfortable with the situation and we were asking for that to happen. We were giving messages to the management that we did not feel comfortable with the situation to keep the day service open…

It’s important to recognise that these conversations weren’t always easy, and that the concerns of frontline staff weren’t always shared by those in senior management.

I think quite early on when it started hitting the news I told my manager (my line manager) that it was more serious than what they thought it was going to be. I remember going into the office that day and saying to my manager, that is somebody in [our region] got it. She was not bothered about it: she kind of thought it would not come to much.

The lockdown was a sudden thing, because the other coordinators and I had to sit down because to be honest senior management did not want to stop any of the services, and we were going, ‘yes, we really think we have to think about stopping them before lockdown appears’. And we did it the week before lockdown happened.

How management responded to these conversations often made a significant difference to how their employees felt as the pandemic progressed. This didn’t always mean ‘giving in’ to employee demands, however, and often employees valued being listened to and ‘heard’ even if policy didn’t change as a result.

The move into lockdown was always difficult

The official start of lockdown was still difficult, however, even within organisations that had begun to prepare for it in the weeks before the 23rd March 2020 and for employees who had worked from home before. Some of the issues our interviewees discussed were practical – offices needed to be closed, databases needed to be made accessible from home, and service users needed to be informed of the changes that were going on around them.

But there were more problems on the ground than anyone had anticipated. Asking people to work from home was one thing, but asking everyone to work from home introduced new challenges. Many interviewees talked about having to ‘set up’ a desk, having to learn to work in the same house as partners and children who were, simultaneously, trying to work or learn from home. This was often particularly difficult where the shift to online working meant different members of the household were regularly taking part in online video meetings or events as households had to learn how to live in a house that was suddenly a home, a work place, and a school classroom all at once. As one of our interviewees said:

I have enjoyed being in the house/at home, but then I have space in my house where I can be in a different room from everybody. My son once walked in, in his boxer shorts and I was on a Zoom. […] And I think my husband was cursing the printer because the printer was not working one other time, but I think that was at the beginning. I think we have all kind of settled into the roles of it.

This was talked about in more detail by another of our participants who detailed the steps she’d had to take in order to continue facilitating her activity classes from home:

We set up our online offices from home; our remote access to [work]; our team meetings were all set up and then, within that first week, myself and [colleague] were told you need to create a class, you need to send us some test videos. So our digital department checked the test videos and just checked for all the kind of technical things, like sound and lighting and if it was bright, and if they were happy with the look of the room. I am just so glad I got new sofas; I am not going to lie, because my sofas appear on Facebook all the time now […]

I have funny message posters that I put up, like I said earlier, that warn people that I am doing a live broadcast, so they have not to shout mum or swear or fight with their siblings, so that kind of thing. So all prominent positions. […]

[And] My husband is also in the house, so he helps; someone sits with the dog in the other room (he is there just now – he just follows me around the house). He is a Labrador, so Labradors just tend to pick one person and that is his person, so I am his person. […] So he is next door and he can definitely hear me, but if somebody is with him it keeps him calm.

Supporting realistic and compassionate goals was vital

While many of our participants talked about the practical problems associated with working from home – and we talk about some of these in our blog about technology here – there were other problems with making someone’s home into their office.

For some, this included the expectation that they would be ‘always available’. This would have been difficult under the best of circumstances, but became doubly so when people were also dealing with living through the pandemic itself.

I think the constant Zoom is quite draining, really. I was chatting before you were recording about the fact that you have to kind of keep this really interested persona about you the whole time on Zoom. If we were in a meeting, if there was a part that did not relate to you too much, you could actually just chill back a little bit or make some notes or have a think about the next thing that you need to say, but on Zoom you are kind of on 100% all the time – it really does have to be like that, especially if you have got ten or twenty people. A lot of these things are recorded, as you know, and you do not want to the be the person who is falling asleep. And the constant amount of information that comes bombarding at you through the screen is quite intense, and the amount of calls – it is just like – why can you not Zoom because you are at home, where else are you going to go? Just let me pace myself a little bit.

Interviewer – Let me get up and make a cup of tea please.

Or walk outside or walk the dog something – you just need that break in between. I have learned to say, no, a little bit more, and it does not come naturally to me. But, yes, I got a couple of calls today and I have got some work planned this afternoon, so today is quite good, but I just have to think ahead about what I say yes and no to, in a way, which is uncomfortable – it does not suit me, but I just feel I need to at this time – and sometimes not even give a reason, because even finding the energy to come up with a reason is just draining.

We heard many stories like this as the pandemic unfolded. Interviewees talked about working longer hours, tidying up ‘little tasks’ like emails and meeting minutes long after their working hours had ended, and progressively having less and less time to themselves as work and home life blended together.

But we also heard about individuals and organisations that went out of their way to support their employees by setting clear and realistic expectations for them. Managers who went out of their way to make space for honest conversations, and who could be trusted to respond compassionately when their staff were struggling were often rewarded with employees who felt more positive and loyal towards their organisation as a result.

We’ve produced a work sheet based on what we’ve found during this research. This resource will help you to:

  • Talk clearly with employees or volunteers about the needs of the service;
  • Talk about what employees or volunteers need;
  • Set clear expectations;
  • Open clear lines of communication.

The work sheet can be downloaded by following the link below.