Working from home during COVID-19: a response…

Off-load alert.  This piece is a short reflection on the question as to whether not being able to go on university campus (my workplace) during the COVID-19 shutdown has affected my productivity.  In writing this I acknowledge many privileges. Firstly, that I currently still have a job… this may change. Secondly, that I have an existing practice that maps well to working entirely online and I can generally work from anywhere. Finally, my personal circumstances are stable and I have a good home office and a safe home space. For all of these, I am very grateful.

That said, we have just been “COVID-19 surveyed” about the working from home experience. The survey was very controlled and excluded some of the actual challenges of working from home that I have experienced over the last few months.  This is what I call survey bias to my students when I am teaching them about question design.  A survey controls the response options available and also the questions that are asked.  Whilst it is powerful in producing the prevalence of practices, attitudes and aspects of experience, it is neither a consultative nor two-way data collection tool.

Because there was limited space for me to offer a true reflection of the benefits and challenges of working from home during lock down, I just need to get this off my chest here. The futility of these reflections in the face of the very real need for change in its many forms is disempowering. I admire my colleagues and peers who are firing up at this time and creating a space to engage and contribute to the ways we will change and what the future could look like.

I consider myself many things, however a writer is one of them. This is the tool most visible in these times and the one that I am skilled and practiced at. More than this, it is a vital form of expression and reflection for me. I take up my pen to provide visibility to my own voice and experience. In doing so, change will come, as from the word, form comes. But it will not be in a way that I can control or anticipate. The pen is mightier than the sword, but the outcome is less predictable!

For me, working entirely off-campus (or from home) has affected a couple of areas of my professional practice.  Overall, my professional practice is largely online (including much of my research) with place based practices relating to delivering on-campus teaching, attending meetings, presenting at conferences and catching up with peers to discuss our research ideas and so forth.

For the lockdown period and for much of my practice going forward over the next year, at the very least, teaching, meetings, seminars, networking, research practices, conferences and engaging with distributed networks will be all online both inside and beyond the university.

The challenges I experienced whilst working from home during lockdown (which we are now in our second wave of) relate to three areas, student engagement, internet reliability and job security.

The question of a sense of connection to the organisation and other staff that was evaluated in the survey is a bit of a red herring, whilst making apparent sense to measure. For example, asking the questions “how strongly do you agree with x statement”… or “do you feel less connected to your manager, other staff and the executive” because you are working from home seems logical but is false and leading. This is because there is no baseline to go from.

Deakin is a dispersed campus and the base-line for engaging with colleagues is already low due to busy schedules, teaching timetables and different geographic locations. The Burwood campus is a commuter campus and the hallways where staff offices are do not support “water cooler” conversations.  For me, going into the office does not generally increase contact with other colleagues. This is because many of them are not there. Due to space restrictions, the office space I am allotted is in what I refer to as “the stables” where there are around 10 desks (stalls) that is not conducive to do academic and scholarly work at. I’d prefer to work in my office space at home or go to a venue for student consultations and meetings on campus that is not afflicted with the flickering blue light of fluorescent lighting.

Ironically whilst there is very little sense of connectivity and collegiality in my workplace, this situation may have been slightly improved during campus shutdown. Many more meetings are made inclusive by being online. There was a shared fear and sense of job insecurity as the Major Workplace Change plan was rolled out for staff to “consult” on that signalled 300 redundancies and 100 vacant positions being removed. Fixed-term staff, like myself, were just let go of when their contract ended. You can listen to the sad case of this for frontline staff who were teaching English to international students here. More on this later. I’ve written this out of order and those critiquing my writing structure, as I do for my students, may be shaking their head.

In terms of the second area of concern, internet reliability, there is not much that can be done about this. Given that we are reliant on the quality and speed of internet connection available in the suburb we live, or mobile hotspot coverage, there is nothing much more that I can do to improve the speed and quality of my internet connection. Moving my teaching and meeting all online, means that I am subject to the occasional variable internet bandwidth that characterises my connection in general.  This is made more obvious when the teaching software or Zoom session indicates poor connection.  Sometimes words of wisdom or struggle from my colleagues or students sounds like it has a Darth Vader filter overlaid… I can’t even imagine what I must sound like at times.  “Silent” is probably the best description…

The greatest positive impact that shifting teaching and meetings online however has been that I have experienced is reduced commute times to work.  Granted, I’ve got a 5 minute tech set up, but this is nothing given that the Deakin Burwood campus can be difficult to reach by public transport, has serious traffic congestion at peak times around it and has constrained available parking. The number of times I have circled around the carparks like a hungry vulture, tailing walking human subjects in the hope of a car space opening up is innumerable. Not having to deal with this, and the cost of parking, is a major win.

In the first area of practice that is COVID-19 lockdown affected that I mentioned is in the area of student engagement.  This point, as you will see, weaves into my very real concerns relating to job security. Within my work over last trimester with student engagement and teaching, a key challenge has been the higher levels of emotional labour  I have put in supporting students who had to quickly deal with learning solely online whilst facing challenging personal hardships exacerbated by to the pandemic. This work improved student retention and supported greater adjustments for struggling students. But you know that this was not measured in the staff survey of impacts of working from home and performance indicator. This is the invisible labour that we do as a duty of care process that does not have hours allocated to it in our workloads.

As this additional labour occurred alongside the Major Workplace Change process at Deakin and tightening financial measures across the university sector, I experienced very little sense of security or value/acknowledgement of this work from the university. I also do not expected it, sadly.  There is very little humanity in the sector at the moment. Everyone is focused on their own little patch and just trying to survive the changes and challenges. Emails fall into our inboxes like a snowdrift, the whole sector undergoes a seismic shift and there are so many opportunistic research probes asking us how our lives have changed during lockdown and the pandemic. I am at capacity in general and  do feel that these constant taps to “share my experience” is rude, and smacks of opportunism that benefits someone else’s career.

There is very little occurring in the sector at the moment that feels mutually beneficial or consultative. It just feels like it is imploding. Consequently, I have very little faith that anything that will directly support my challenges will be offered. In the balance hangs my job security alongside the continued requirement of providing duty-of-care emotional labour with students and operating through an NBN that was totally gutted through the political process.