COVID-19 has done a great job upending our lives. A great many of my undergraduate colleagues had pre-arranged internships cancelled at fairly short notice, leaving them in the lurch over summer. Thankfully, I was returning to the same firm as last year who also had a strong enough financial position to keep their offer open. I sympathise with those who lost placements: after a few weeks in lockdown after the end of my studies for the year I was stir crazy – I had nothing to do in the day and couldn’t see any friends.
I was grateful for a reassuring email during lockdown that the internship would still be going ahead, but warning that it would likely be entirely remote – limiting the nature of work that could be done. In the meantime, it was back to doing some much-needed house clearing.
Eventually my start date came around: I dutifully sorted my wacky sleep schedule to be ready for an 08:30 start. But it turns out you can’t do any remote work without a laptop. And that laptop was being posted out the same day I started. The next week and a half unfortunately consisted of nagging Parcelforce daily – having entered the Liverpool depot, my ‘starter kit’ didn’t move anywhere for a full week.
Finally we were up and running! Having negotiated the IT process, I had a video call with my line manager. I felt the video call was really important to actually feel a member of the team – putting a face to the voice certainly helps. It was nice to see that in addition to a laptop, a headset was included along with a USB keyboard and mouse – no assumptions made about employees’ personal IT kit (or financial ability to acquire more). A laptop riser was also sent out on request.
I definitely felt that my employer cared about my wellbeing – and not just to fulfil their statutory duties. A proper display screen (DSE) assessment was carried out, and we were actively encouraged to make sure we took decent breaks away from our desks. It was made clear too that the expectations for output weren’t the same: these were unprecedented (wow, that word’s beginning to feel old) times and any work you could get done was good work.
“Smart working” already entailed employees working from home where possible prior to COVID-19, but take-up wasn’t that great: people might do the occasional day a week, or even once a fornight, so this was still a big change. It did mean that all the IT infrastructure was already in place though.
One issue was that my project lead, much like a lot of the UK’s workforce, was suddenly having to homeschool their children meaning their availability wasn’t great. This motivated a switch to ‘asynchronous’ comms – which really are far better for technical researchers because you’re not interrupting anyone’s flow.
The act of making that phone (or SIP, rather) call is quite a psychological barrier though. Unlike in an office where you can catch someone’s eye, or see if they’re busy, you’re blind. Not wanting to disturb someone – even if they were marked ‘available’ – meant I didn’t have the same level of interaction with permanent staff as in past years. Even the idle chit-chat around the office was missing.
That wasn’t really a problem when I was in ‘flow’, but on those days where you didn’t really have quite enough work to fill your time it could lead to some loneliness. Being the only one in a student flat in Southampton, there were some days I didn’t speak to anyone!
There was some opportunity to get on site towards the end of my work, in order to load my project on to some hardware and carry out laboratory testing. The end of August differed a fair bit from the start – while on my first visit the place had been eerily quiet and actually quite unsettling, at the end of the month there was a reassuring familiarity in the hubbub of activity (and plenty of desks and parking).
Another consequence of lockdown was my build up of almost 30 hours flexitime: with no-one around in the evening, I had nothing better to do than to carry on working. Not the end of the world, as I very much enjoyed the work – but perhaps not the healthiest habit to develop in the long run. Came in useful once the country re-opened and I was up and down from Wirral to Southampton.
I started out hating enforced work-from-home (WFH), but eventually adapted and in fact probably slightly prefer it. Using the hour commute time to go for a run is great (and I can finally run a sub-30 minute 5 km – 29:15!), and healthier lunches are a plus. But on the other hand, actually seeing people face to face and getting out of the house is too – and I don’t have tens of thousands of pounds worth of RF test equipment in my bedroom. Ultimately, we’ll need to strike a balance going forward, but I can certainly see myself working at least half the week remotely in future.
Oh yeah, the project worked perfectly (in the condensed day of testing I squeezed in)!