Diana Jones is keeping everything on track by applying tried and tested tactics – routine and planning, lists of tasks and objectives, and plenty of creative pursuits.
What is your work from home space like?
My work from home space is in our study, for want of a better room name. It’s the original main bedroom at the front of our 1950s double brick home, with a generous window looking out to the former front lawn (ie, our large veggie patch). The room has been set up for the last five years as a his/n/hers hobby space – one side for me and my sewing stuff, the other side for my husband’s collection of Lego Technic and computers in various states of rebuild. Towards the end of March, it was hastily rearranged, my overlocker and sewing project piles stashed under the ironing board to make way for some ‘office’ desk space. I brought one computer screen and a full-size keyboard home from the office to pair with a Surface computer. The ‘his’ side of the room has more recently been converted into a ‘primary school’ for one of our kids. Our other child attends ‘high school’ adjacent to my husband’s ‘office’ in the lounge room.
What work do you do here?
I’m a Principal at Lyons, currently working on a couple of interstate university projects. It’s been 12 years since I’ve worked full time – most of my time at Lyons, aside from two stints of maternity leave, I’ve worked three or four days. Currently I work a 24-hour week.
Did you work from home pre-Covid-19?
I did occasionally bring work home pre-Covid-19. The reality of being a senior staff member working limited hours means that from time to time there is something that needs to be done that can’t be done in my time in the office. However, I could juggle things so that collaborative activities and team discussions occurred at the office, and work from home entailed more singular tasks – reading, reviewing or writing documents. In terms of tech, I typically used a home computer, saving files on a USB stick and accessing webmail. Now, due to Covid-19, all of my work is happening from home. I’m working via a VPN to access the same files my colleagues are (not just the ones I saved on the stick and hopefully stuffed into my handbag), every meeting is a video conference, and any incidental chats with co-workers require some more conscious intent.
Have there been any benefits to working from home?
Absolutely. There is an added flexibility around my ability to attend to work that I didn’t have before. This is largely around the fact that meetings and team discussions no longer require me to be physically in the office (ie, where I would normally not be, two days per week), just physically next to my Surface and connected to the internet. With family cooperation, I can attend a meeting on any day at any (reasonable) time. And there is a huge time boost to my week without commuting to work – normally an hour each way to the office, or a long dawn to dusk day (and more extensive family cooperation) if I needed to commute interstate.
What have been the main challenges so far?
The key challenges are not far removed from the benefits – the flexibility means that my work, previously and necessarily confined to three days of the week, with two weekdays clear to attend to the Other Stuff of Life, has morphed into working four to five hours per day, five days per week. This has been a conscious decision to address the need to juggle work and parenting. As a family, we found it more reasonable for our kids to keep themselves self-occupied for smaller chunks of time each day, rather than wishing they would stay out of our hair for a full work day. But working in smaller increments, and with household interruptions, means I can’t make the progress I’m used to making in a work day. The fact that I’m not working full days also muddies the waters – when I am available is not the same thing as when I would prefer to be available. I’m still finding my way on how to do things that used to easily slot in around my old three-day working week.
At the same time, while the absence of a commute means I have some extra time to try to accomplish those things, my focus and role for the day is no longer neatly and clearly defined by where I am and who I am with. I used to meditate on my train ride, which was an awesome way to switch off from the inevitable kerfuffles of family life and arrive at the office with a clear head. That doesn’t happen anymore. In the midst of a video conference with earbuds wedged in firmly I’ll catch the hovering shape of a child in the corner of my eye. I’ll wonder if I’m going to have to mute and deal with Some Thing, or whether it will recognise that now is not an appropriate moment and return to where it came from, or seek help from elsewhere.*
What has been surprising?
I’ve been using video conferencing to work with clients and consultants increasingly over the last five or six (or more?) years, but there’s often been a level of reluctance, and IT glitches far too frequently. Now, everyone is eager to engage via video calls and conferences, and miraculously, there are far fewer glitches with each participant connecting from a personal device. You get far better sight of each individual’s face too (hopefully just their face) than when you’re conferencing a group in a meeting room. We are incredibly fortunate to have the IT technology and infrastructure to enable us to work this way.
I’ve also become far more aware of how important incidental chat and discussion is to working in a collaborative team. Suddenly the informal chatter, musing over ideas or observations, helping us to clarify and process our thoughts, requires an act of formal intention. We can’t just eavesdrop to keep up to speed with what everyone’s up to – we need to consciously initiate a conversation and dedicate time to the exchange.
Have you discovered any tools that have been particularly useful for remote working?
Not anything earth shattering – but I’m finding Microsoft Teams incredibly helpful for interacting with colleagues, both the informal and formal teams in the office. The shared chat channels, and the ease of video calls, makes it a handy and relatively effortless substitute for some of the normal office chat.
Do you have any tips for creating successful working relationships remotely? With colleagues, client and others?
As I’m used to working on interstate projects, with clients and consultants who are remote, I haven’t encountered any new issues in working with them. In my experience, vocal and facial communication are incredibly important and should be considered a first choice over emails or Aconex for a great deal of our work interactions. It can be a much more effective way of discussing and solving issues than endlessly typed threads, bouncing comments or misunderstandings back and forth.
With my office colleagues, quick morning team catch-ups each day are helping us coordinate who is doing what workwise and facilitates some of the usual personal chatter that we’re missing, now that we’re not sitting beside each other. Within the practice there are also initiatives to enable us to connect outside project teams, now that our studio is dispersed – utilising Teams channels to collate and share tips and ideas to support wellbeing, virtual yoga and meditation classes, and a Strava club to motivate each other to keep active.
How are you managing the work/life juggle, and all the competing demands?
As a family we’ve actually enjoyed the extra time together that comes from everyone being at home. We developed a kind of household routine and flow in the school holidays, juggling my part-time work, my husband’s full-time work, the kids pursuing their own creative interests, and Quality Family Time. This has had to undergo some readjustment since Term 2 started via remote learning for Victorian school students. We are incredibly fortunate with our in-house tech knowhow, the remote programs our schools are providing, and our kids’ capabilities. But nonetheless, the first week was a mind-crushing struggle and the term ahead looms like an endurance event. I just keep on reminding myself of the reality of what we’re in and try not to get too bogged down: This is just a phase. It’s a learning curve for everyone. Not perfect will be good enough. Experiment. Just try it and see.
How are you staying connected with work, friends and family?
Connection is completely and utterly via IT. Good old-fashioned phone calls with family and social media exchanges with friends have been augmented with additional modes of connection. I’ve attended a video conference virtual lunch with colleagues, had knit night with my knitting pals via Zoom, and we’ve taught the in-laws how to Skype. As a parent I also need to ensure that my children are maintaining connection with their friends, which has included handing my phone over to enable video chats and helping my son set up an Instagram account.
What strategies are you using to switch off from work?
I’m usually pretty good at switching off – I’m currently struggling more with switching on without my usual morning cues (my commute, a change of location, and coffee from Midtown), and refocusing after a household intrusion (a wandering cat, a question from a child, or a ping from the School parents’ What’s App group).
I’m resorting to applying tried and tested tactics in slightly different ways – routine, planning, and creative activities. I tell the kids to ‘head to school’ at 8.45am and play barista for myself and my husband on my way to my work desk. I’m trying to set myself concise tasks or objectives, so that when I stop work for the day, I can tick things off my list or pencil them in for the future. When ‘school’ finishes for the kids, we all head out for a family walk, exploring our neighbourhood. I try to mindfully notice what I see, listen for different birds or the sound of different trees, be aware of how the weather and season is changing. I’m always bringing up the rear of our family group because I’ve stopped to take photos for Instagram. I avoid heading back to my work desk until the next morning.
What strategies are you using to lift your spirits and maintain mental wellbeing?
Cooking, gardening and craft have always been important hobbies for me, and they continue to provide immediate and tangible creative outlets that being an architect often can’t, whether working from home or not. Baking sourdough and growing your own food have suddenly become Covid clichés, but these are things I have dabbled in for quite a while now, and having some extra time up my sleeve, due to the lack of commuting or ferrying kids to activities, has given me the extra time (and occasionally hands) in the garden that I’d normally be pining for.
They’re also hobbies that provide connections with other people, something that I think is vital for maintaining mental wellbeing. There is much joy to be found by teaching my kids to make corn fritters, sharing sourdough recipes with friends and colleagues, chatting with local passers-by when I’m digging in the front yard, or sharing a laugh, pattern suggestions and wine with knitting pals via Zoom.
I’m also indulging in a little Covid cliché by attempting an incredibly difficult jigsaw puzzle. With a bit of luck, I might get it finished by the time I’m working back in the office.
* Had a brainwave yesterday – now they write me a note and place it onto the desk next to me. I can scrawl a response quickly without completely losing track of the meeting, and they don’t get frustrated by being ignored. Win win!
Diana Jones is a Principal at Lyons, based in Melbourne. She has a strong interest in how architecture frames people’s experiences and interactions, particularly those of the public, students and educators. She has been involved in the briefing and delivery of facilities for universities across Australia, including Deakin, Monash, ANU, RMIT, La Trobe, ACU and the University of Adelaide.