Working from home: civil servants share their top tips

By on 30/11/2020 | Updated on 14/12/2020
Civil servants share the hacks they have developed to support them working from home. Credit: Danielle MacInnes/Unsplash.

Leave the pyjamas for bedtime, set (and respect) boundaries, and get outside: our community shares advice and insights for getting remote working right. By Kate Hodge

Working from home has its benefits. Lengthy commutes are a thing of the past, and can even be used efficiently as laundry time. But having your office at home also has its downside: long days on video calls, work leeching into personal lives, and virtual communication all require constant vigilance and balancing.

And these challenges aren’t going to go away: even after the pandemic – with remote working systems now in place, and employers contemplating big savings on office space – many civil servants are likely to spend a greater proportion of their time working from home.

In search of advice on how to work effectively from home, we asked a range of former UK civil servants for their tips. We would love to hear all your tips too – you can @ or DM us on Twitter via @globegov, or email us at [email protected]. We can share tips anonymously, or with your name – whatever you would prefer.

Set boundaries

It’s work. Don’t confuse it with the rest of your life. Brush your teeth before you start. No pyjamas. Make sure, if at all, possible there’s somewhere else at home for you to be not at work. 

It’s okay to have lunch at your desk – that’s normal. But don’t have your welcome-home gin and tonic at your desk.  

Help others to respect that boundary too. Don’t call and don’t email out of hours (unless it’s an emergency).  If you need to get it off your mind at an antisocial time, use your email’s delayed send function.  

Work chat groups lighten the work experience – but don’t use them for work.  Keep that for email.  

Zoom is like being in front of an interview panel. Don’t let anyone interview you for a whole day without a break. And don’t eat or pick your nose on camera. Enjoy!

Kevin White, former director-general of HR at the UK Home Office

Watch out for wellbeing – and what you wear

Why has it taken a lockdown for businesses to realise that they need to care about the wellbeing of staff? My tip is to keep those habits that we’ve developed about regularly asking everyone how they are coping.

For me, it has been a time of opportunity. At around 11pm last week, I did something I have never done before in bed – I voted in the House of Lords against the clauses in the Internal Market Bill, which would override the Brexit withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland.

My other tip is always to think about how you look on screen – dress appropriately to ensure impact intended equals impact felt. Fortunately the Lords virtual voting system does not involve visuals, so my PJs were not on display!

Gus O’Donnell, former Cabinet secretary and head of the UK Civil Service

Take time out

Get out and go for a walk. It always seems to be dark these days, and my options are limited to ‘up the road’ or ‘down the road’. But whatever the weather it makes me feel better, and doubles up as a time to talk to my daughter at university.

Clare Moriarty, former permanent secretary of the UK’s Department for Transport, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the Brexit department, DEXEU

Get outside

Keep active! Lockdown seems to involve a lot of sitting down. No travel, no walking between meetings, no wandering out at lunchtime to buy a sandwich. Instead many hours in the same seat staring at the same screen. Give yourself a break, take a turn round the block/garden/park. Zoom can wait.

Philip Rycroft, former permanent secretary of the UK’s Brexit department, DEXEU, and head of the Cabinet Office’s UK Governance Group

Disconnect when you need to

I’m on lots of different Whatsapp groups, which are great for staying in touch with different groups of colleagues and friends – but I do mute the ones that get very noisy when I am working.

That said, staying connected with my family is really important to me, and I’ve got into a lovely routine of FaceTiming both our daughters (who are at university) and my mum and dad (who live in Cornwall) every evening. 

Siobhan Benita, former UK senior civil servant

Talk about it

Create visual differentiation boundaries by closing off and putting away your laptop, phone or notes. Then establish time boundaries by having an “end of day” activity. That could be a walk, 10 minutes of stretching or listening to a podcast.

As well as moving regularly through the day (set a reminder, if you need to), it is also important to make sure you desk, chair, screen etc are suitable for long-term home working.

Finally, talk to colleagues and peers. Don’t assume everyone is coping just because you perhaps are or are not. What tips and camaraderie can you share?

Dr Nancy Doyle is chief psychologist and work coach at Microlink, chief executive of neurodiversity consultancy Genius Within and postdoctoral research fellow at Birkbeck.

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected]

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