Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has both pros and cons. This is how technology has helped. (Image source: Ben McLeod)

By Amelia Scott

South Australia all but went silent on March 23, 2020. Pubs, cafés, retail stores, schools and universities were all forced to shut down. The streets were often empty, and everyone spent their Saturday nights at home. COVID-19 sent the world into lockdown, resulting in a universal call for change in the way society lives. For people who were not deemed ‘essential workers,’ employment was hard to latch onto. However because most Australians have access to smart and constantly evolving technology, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. For the lucky ones able to continue to work, many people found they traded in their heels for slippers and their dining room table became their home office.

Adam Daunt landed his dream job as a Cadet Journalist in January 2020. Originally from Adelaide, Daunt relocated to Lismore, New South Wales, to work for the Northern Star, a regional newspaper. During this time, COVID-19 was mostly affecting China and its neighbours, and was not yet a threat to Australia. He was working in a “pretty decent office just out of Lismore”, where around 20 staff members were based.

Daunt started as an ad features writer and was excited about training as a journalist on the job at the News Corp-owned publication.

Only two months into his new career, Daunt and his team were informed they needed to work from home. “I’d been there for around two months when we were all told to work from home, so I nicked a camping table that I saw on the side of the road, and a chair, and that became my office setup,” he said. “I basically did everything over Skype.”

Safe Work Australia have set regulations for employers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that employees who have transitioned from completing their duties from their workplaces to their homes have all workplace incident risks eliminated by their employer. These regulations state that an employer must provide every employee with adequate and up-to-date software and equipment necessary for them to complete their tasks. Additionally, employers must also check in with their employees regarding their progress and wellbeing over a phone call or a video meeting, so they can offer their support when necessary.

“It’s been really different because a lot of people used to like the office culture; we had a really close team,” Daunt said. “Now it’s been a bit harder because we can’t meet up once a week. The morale was pretty low amongst everyone. It’s been getting better, but it’s still been pretty low with all the border restrictions and not being able to get home.”

The Black Dog Institute has issued advice about how to support your mental health while working from home. The institute noted that negative feelings associated with working from home can arise from loneliness resulting from limited contact with colleagues. Furthermore, working from home can make it difficult for an individual to ‘switch off’ and can lead to a lack of motivation.

“When my morale was really low, that’s when it hit me the most,” Daunt said. “My willpower to do the job was gone, … when it first started, I wasn’t really treating it like a workplace because it still felt like my house.”

Getting into a more of a set routine was key to Daunt getting his productivity back on track. To ensure he was able to file four to five stories every day, he started getting up earlier. “I start around 8am, or 9am, planning my day, then at 9am-9:30am we’ll have a work meeting with everyone, all nine of us will be in a work meeting pitching ideas,” he said. “Beforehand, I was rolling out of bed at 7:55am.”

“At around 11am-11:30, I’ll sort out all my interviews for later in the day,” he said. “Then 1pm-1:30pm is a lunch break,” he said. “You’re normally doing that at your desk, trying to work and eat at the same time. That’s one big thing I’ve noticed with COVID; those boundaries that are different. I have to be on a lot or all the time, whereas I know in the office, those breaks were more defined, because everyone in the office would go out and eat lunch together.” His day would end between 5pm-5:30pm.

“I guess having those boundaries was really weird, because my house is my place where I chill out, now it’s a professional work environment,” he said.

Dave Batchelor, a customs broker, worked in an office on The Parade, Norwood, in South Australia. “My job’s driven by sitting in front of a computer, and banging on the keyboard, so it wasn’t a difficult transition,” he said. “It’s all a matter of setting up a computer at home and some work space, like a desk and logging into our network remotely. It was very similar to being in the office in that regard.”

With several years’ experience under his belt, he has found working from home to be a beneficial experience. “Working from home allows me to get up and walk around for a little bit,” he said. Married with two children, he has discovered at night he can spend more quality time with his family. “At home I can clean dishes, put a load of washing on. I guess household chores probably get done during the day rather than when I get home from work, so that’s positive.”

Additionally, he also saves on travel time, which allows him to be more productive. “Travelling to and from work takes usually about an hour each day,” he said. “I probably start my day a little bit earlier when working from home, and probably work an extra hour or so.”

Batchelor’s job, like many others relies on technology. Advancements in software and improved accessibility allowed many people to keep their jobs when the stay at home orders began. “The technology has always been there,” he said. “In the team I work with in the company, and in our department, we’ve got people spread across an office in Norwood, South Australia and another office in a place called Sunshine in Victoria, so we were already using some of our technology tools to communicate.”

Emails and phone calls are still prevalent, though some companies are now using other communication tools.

“We’ve got a little piece of software called Jabber which is like a communication or chats software,” he said.

“We started using Microsoft Teams when everybody was working from home, and that software’s been quite good.

“We do a leadership call in the morning at about nine o’clock, and a team call at about 9:30am, and just check in with everybody.

“That technology has been helpful. We just do audio, we don’t do video, but the video is there and able to be used. I used it last week when I was doing a job interview for somebody in Melbourne who has been working from home as well, so seeing someone’s face and being able to eyeball them and work around the typical interview is like being in the office.”

Adapting from university life to his new Life and career in Lismore was a tough transition for Daunt.

However, already being familiar with the technology required was a win.

“Mobile and email is still the main way we communicate,” he said.

“News Corp are changing now to Google Suite which includes Google Hangouts, Google Meet is their big thing.

“They think that is the best practice for everything…”

And the software’s ability to link people together regardless of where they are is particularly important in the changing Covid landscape.

“For example, my boss was supposed to be in Byron Bay when they had an editor’s conference in Brisbane but the borders were shut and he couldn’t get across,” he said. “In that way, I think it definitely helps out in big meetings. But for interviews, we seem to be using a lot of technology that we already had beforehand.”

Mobile phones have also made sourcing photographs easier.

“Because of COVID, we had interviewees that were not that comfortable meeting face-to-face,” Daunt said.

“We’re having to get them to take a lot of photos of themselves, just off their camera phone.”

The Black Dog Institute noted that working from home eliminates much of society’s weekday social outings. They encourage everyone to continue audio and video-calling colleagues to ensure positive relationships between employers and employees are maintained.

“I’d love to go to an office,” Daunt said. “I was speaking to one of my workmates last week, and we were just noting how after we do our meeting once a week, or once a fortnight, everyone just seems so much happier in the morning meeting.”

Learning to adapt has been a positive outcome of COVID-19. If an event like this reoccurred, people across the globe now has skills and tools in place overcome it. “It’s almost like a skill in itself,” Daunt said. “It’s going to be a skill in itself to manage in a time like that, to be professional in an environment where you’re not supposed to feel like that,” he said. “It’s been tough… because you just don’t know what the future holds.”

Since COVID-19 hit, the News Corp office where Daunt worked was sold, and in June 2020, numerous job cuts occurred throughout several of News Corp’s regional newspapers.

“We went from 20 staff to eight,” he said. “We had to change up our rounds, and we lost a lot of photographers.”

In late May, News Corp Australia’s executive chairman Michael Miller told the ABC the company was regretful of the job losses, but the decision was “a long time coming”.

“I said in April that we were passing a tipping point of the impact of migration of digital advertising from print,” Mr Miller said.

“We were also passing a tipping point in terms of the number of Australians that are willing to pay for content online.”

Mr Miller said as someone who grew up in regional Australia he understood how important local papers were, but the regional news habits were also moving to the digital space.

Selling the News Corp office, while upsetting to its staff, presented some unexpected benefits.

“We saved so much money from losing the office,” he said. “We basically got to employ another journalist for the sake of not having an office – it might’ve even been two journalists. If you think about that, two journalists for the sake of an office… I’d rather have two people have their jobs.”

Daunt and Batchelor both suggested that COVID-19 was the push needed to kickstart this new flexible working arrangement.

“With COVID and working from home, I don’t think it’s that surprising what we’ve seen, we’ve probably just sped up a process of where we’re going,” Daunt said.

“Working from home probably isn’t a really good thing, or a really bad thing. My mum’s working from home right now and she loves it,” he said. “For certain people they’re going to really flourish under it.”

“I don’t think it’s easy for everybody, I think it’s different,” Batchelor said. “I’m a motivated person so I don’t find that too difficult, but for someone perhaps who is not so motivated, they might find other things to do during the day other than focusing on the task.”

The Black Dog Institute said there can be positives about working from home, including the flexibility to balance family responsibilities, household chores and hobbies around work. Employees are in control. Reduced travel-time and money saved on petrol is another positive. During these times, securing employment in itself is a positive. Financial stability can eliminate some stress for people. The lockdowns caused mass financial hardships which contributed to much of the stress associated with COVID-19.

“Moving to the future, I think employers are probably a bit more open to staff working from home,” Batchelor said. “It’ll be interesting to see how that changes moving forward once COVID comes and goes, everybody has their jab, and they’re no longer affected by it.” He suggested that having to work from home could encourage employees to request flexibility within their working arrangement. Will that mean people start to work from home three days a week, then in the office for the rest of the week? “Who knows,” he said. “I’m sort of keen to do a bit of both.”

Originally published in The Junction.