Six years into working from home, journalist Rebecca Seal realised she was feeling lonely. So she did what any writer would do in that situation - researched the topic and wrote a book on it.
Solo: How to Work Alone (and Not Lose Your Mind) was initially intended to help freelancers and the self-employed. Little did Seal know that she would publish her book in the middle of a pandemic, with most office workers now a year in to working from home.
“If it feels scary looking at a future that involves more working from home, I promise it will not carry on being like this forever," she told attendees at yesterday's virtual Omniwomen UK + Allies Summit. "When there isn’t a pandemic on, working from home is actually quite a lovely experience,” she said.
When most of us started working from home, we just plonked our laptops on the nearest flat surface, put our heads down and ploughed on with work. But, Seal argues, that if you take some time to design your work space, it will pay dividends.
The Omniwomen Summit is an annual event set up by Omnicom to help increase the percentage of female leaders across its global business. This year it was run by Rapp UK's chief executive Gabby Ludzker and CPM UK's managing director Karen Jackson.
Here’s Seal's advice for creating brain and body friendly working environments at home.
1. Embrace the natural world
Use the principles of biophilic design to bring the natural world into your work environment. First, work out how to bring as much natural light into your room as possible. “The closer you can get your desk to a window, the better. Light influences your circadian and ultradian hormonal rhythms that govern your ability to sleep and your energy levels during the day.” Research shows that people who put their desk near to a window need less caffeine, feel more alert through the day and sleep better. Light levels drop really significantly even two metres away from a window.
If you can’t do that, she suggests getting daylight bulbs, which bring artificial daylight in, or surrounding yourself with a colour that brings you joy.
Also think about textures and materials. Bring in natural materials like a wooden work surface and soft textures like a fleece on the back of your chair or a wool blanket. Seal has a pair of cashmere wrist warmers to wear when it’s cold. “These feel really lovely,” she said.
2. Create transitional rituals
The lack of physical distance from a workplace and the decompression time of the commute makes it harder to switch off.
“We've lost our transitional rituals, which are really powerful and help our brains move from work mode into home mode,” she said. For example, leaving your house in the morning, arriving at the office, greeting colleagues and getting a cup of tea will signal to your brain that you are about to start work. “These rituals help us move through the day in a pattern,” she said.
Either create new rituals or recognise ones you already have. For Seal, she likes to wear make up and “work clothes” when she works. Her second cup of morning coffee is a signal to start work. She knows she is late if she hears a radio show that comes on at 10am.
She said the markers could be small - even moving position at the kitchen table so you are not in the same seat you ate breakfast will help.
3. Reclaim your space at the end of the day
‘The powerful thing about a transitional ritual is that they allow you to say this is the end of my day and now I’m going to get on with living the rest of my life,” she said. You could light a candle and blow it out when the work day is over. Or throw a sheet over your desk if it is in your bedroom.
Seal puts all her work equipment away in a cabinet so it is out of sight. “It might feel like an extra bit of effort but it’ll only take you a minute and the mental health benefits are really profound. You are reclaiming your space and returning it to its home state. Humans are not good at compartmentalising, so we need to help our brains do that.”
4. Be a better boss to yourself
It is critical to learn how to recover, rest and recharge. Don’t forget to take breaks.
“We need to take breaks, because that is what makes us creative,” Seal said. “Creativity requires periods of reflection time away from emails and your phone. That's when the problem solving part of your brain can kick in. If you're constantly filling it with a hamster wheel of emails, productivity, Slack and other apps, your brain is going to really struggle to have creative moments.”
Seal advises people to remind themselves they are their own boss in this new working environment. “You would quit any job where someone said to you, ‘you must read your work emails when you are in bed and only half awake’ or ‘your lunch break is only four minutes long and you will spend it eating a lump of cheese standing up by the fridge while doom-scrolling,” she said.
“That would be a completely unacceptable way for any boss to treat you, and yet we remove things from ourselves that we would never allow anyone else to take from us.”
In one of her workshops, someone decided to actually write herself a contract stating she must take lunch breaks and set start and end times. “This year has forced all of us to put a huge amount of expectation and pressure on ourselves and I think that we need to just take a breath and remember that the work that we do is important but it's not the most important thing,” Seal said. Pause, take a breath, stand up, go for a walk, get outside and do other things.
5. Have a hobby
Find ways to experience “deep play". Seal discovered that many really successful people also have a very successful hobby. They are often activities that require a huge amount of attention and resources.
For example, Bill Gates’ prowess at card-based games. “I often wondered how these people managed to find time in their busy lives to do these things. But then I discovered that these hobbies, these deep play experiences, are actually what enables them to be so successful, because engaging our bodies and brains really deeply in something else is how we recharge from the difficult stuff we experienced at work and frees us to be creative.”
She added: “The pandemic has robbed us of many things and for many, work has expanded to fill corners and crevices of our lives that it never had a right to be a part of.” But if you give your brain an opportunity to engage deeply with something else, it will be refreshed and more effective at work.
6. Use your lunchbreak to eat well
During her research, Seal was surprised how many people were eating poorly during lunchtimes - such as eating cereal and toast every day. Others struggled with grazing all day.
“If you take a proper lunch break and eat nourishing food, it will allow you to get your afternoon work done better, quicker, and allow you to finish and get on with the rest of your life,” she said.