Rowena Hennigan – Remote Working in the Midst of a Pandemic

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Hello Folks! We’re another week in and it’s time for our weekly Coworking Values Podcast. For this episode’s guest, we have Rowena Hennigan of Nomad City.

Rowena is a lecturer and project consultant based in Zaragoza, Spain and had been working remotely since 2007. 

Not only that, but she is also well known for co-founding and authoring the “Management Strategies” for Future of Work module in TU Dublin. She also ran an academic conference on the said subject last April 2019.

She is also one of the few people who have developed academic courses for remote work skills. 

Rowena will take us on the journey of the Future Of Work and Remote Work. As someone who has been working remotely for a long time, and now that almost everyone all around the world is forced to work remotely, she provides insight on how people can manage their time between working from home and homeschooling if they have kids and how to be emotionally and mentally prepared. She also delves about how remote work skills should be taught or integrated into academic curriculums. 

 

With the current Pandemic, how do you think people can cope with working remotely? And how does this time differ for freelancers and remote workers such as yourself?

 

Really good point because that’s what I would start all my sessions with. 

Reminding you of was abnormal remote. Work wasn’t even normal work from home. 

It was emergency remote work. It was an emergency working from home in a crisis. Because well walk the whole established remote work community of advocates, experts, academics around the world.

Some of the first reactions on social media where we need to let people know this is not what it’s normally like. And I would always introduce all my training to exactly that.

I would explain that in January in February. My normal week was a day or two in a shared Coworking with maybe a day at home or morning at home and it was a day in the library or some time in the cafeteria.

I moved around. I moved around and did my work. My hashtag is work is not a place. It’s not freedom work from any place. 

If I had a literature review to do for a paper, I have to develop the learning content. I blocked my calendar for certain errors, and I would choose where to work from. 

That is not what we’d all and what we’re still going through. It’s a really important distinction because people have experienced it so differently. And there’s been, as you say, I think we need to, and you’ll hear a lot of people in my community talking about it, we need to keep going on about it, to get over the point that you choose where and when you work. We haven’t been able to do this in the pandemic in the crisis.

Links 

RoRemote

Rowena on LinkedIn

Edgeryders | Coworking Recovery

Nomad City

TU Dublin

 

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Bernie J Mitchell 0:15  

Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this week’s episode of the Coworking Values podcast, this is the podcast of the European Coworking Assembly. And before we get into it, let’s go over to Zeljko for a little word from our sponsor.

Zeljko Crnjaković 0:31  

This episode is brought to you by Cobot, a leading management software for coworking spaces, office hubs and flexible workspaces around the world. You know, one of the best things about Cobot is that it is produced by people who manage a coworking space and know the ins and outs of the main problems and issues, bugging coworking managers. So if you want more time for your co-workers and community check out Cobot @cobot.me and take your coworking management to the next level.

Bernie J Mitchell 1:05  

Thanks for that. And so, on this week’s episode, we have Rowena. Before I fluff the whole thing and don’t introduce you beautifully, what are you known for? And what would you like to be known for? 

Rowena Hennigan 1:22  

I’m known for being a remote work advocate, and very, hopefully prominent and well known, established remote work community. Well before COVID, which is great. In terms of me having experience, I’ve been working remotely since 2007. And what I’d like to be known for? One of the few people in the world has developed academic courses in remote work skills. So, I’m a great believer that what we’re doing today, how we work remotely better together, best practice needs to move into training, education, academia properly. So, I’m working currently with multiple universities to take those remote work skills and turn them into really practical courses that undergrads and postgrads, and our future workforce can avail off. 

Bernie J Mitchell 2:15  

So, when COVID hit, and everyone started going: oh, let’s work remote. How did you feel about that? Because I’ve been working remotely, since like 2010, not traveling, working remotely, but working with people online. And people started talking about this. And I was like, that’s what we do anyway. And then I didn’t realize how much of the world didn’t know how to work remotely.

Rowena Hennigan 2:36  

Yeah, yeah, it was really interesting. It was suddenly very popular, after banging the drum for quite a few years. I mean, I got lots of extra requests for lots of live sessions, lots of training. And within that, for me personally, and I know speaking to people who are still in the midst of COVID and still in the waves of the pandemic in different countries. It’s important to respect everyone’s individual place. In Spain, in Zaragoza where I normally live and even ongoing now, in Oregon, there is a highest incidence in the world, I think, of coronavirus cases. So, we had full severe lockdown. And so on a personal level, with suddenly all this interest in remote work and everyone asking about it and wanting to know how to do it and all the rest of it, personally it was very traumatic because I was stuck in a 70 meter apartment with my husband and a six year old, trying to home-school, and we had almost no outside access. So, doing my work as a remote worker, trying to work day to day was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

So it was really interesting for me, I took all the lecturing that I would do and the best advice and the training, and I actually had to revisit a lot of that every day. It was like microcosm of best practice and advice. Because what I advise people is, as a knowledge worker, as a home worker, as a remote worker, your time away from the computer is as important as your time on it… It manages your priorities and helps you take care of yourself self-care wise. To maintain sustainable remote work to keep you healthy and happy and functioning is as important and when we’re confined to these small spaces dealing with massive stresses, sharing spaces and external stress, illness, whatever it may be, it’s so difficult to do that, Bernie. So for me, personally, I had to really remind myself. That’s the only way I can answer that in terms of that response and being able to do my job then day to day after that.

Zeljko Crnjaković 4:52  

I’m going to jump in and ask a question. So, being a remote worker for a long time and even though you know a person who does training in remote work. So, the COVID situation brought about something that is different from just normal remote work. Because in remote work, people got used to working not just from home but also from coworking spaces, from coffee shops, from wherever they found the needs that they can work from. In this situation, the pandemic, we were confined. Even freelancers and remote workers found themselves in a situation that they cannot go out. They are confined to a space that may not be their primary remote work location. So, how did that bear on your situation and your comprehension of remote work? 

Rowena Hennigan 5:53  

Really good point because that’s what I would start all my sessions with, reminding them it wasn’t normal remote work. It wasn’t even normal work from home. It was emergency remote work. It was emergency working from home in a crisis. Because the whole established remote work community of advocates, experts, academics around the world, some of the first reactions on social media where we need to let people know this is not what it’s normally like. And I would always introduce all my training to exactly that. I would explain that in January and February, my normal week was a day or two in a shared coworking with maybe a day at home or morning at home, and it was a day in the library or sometime in the cafeteria. I moved around. I moved around and did my work. My hashtag is ‘workisnotaplace’. It’s not freedom work from any place. If I had a literature review to do for a paper, I have to develop the e-learning content. I blocked my calendar for certain errors and I would choose where to work from. That is not what we’ve gone and what we’re still going through. It’s a really important distinction because people have experienced it so differently. And as you say, I think we need to, and you’ll hear a lot of people in my community talking about it, we need to keep going on about it, to get over the point that you choose where and when you work. We haven’t been able to do this in the pandemic, in the crisis.

Zeljko Crnjaković 7:23  

And from your experience in the talks that you had with other people, how quickly do people adapt to this situation?

Rowena Hennigan 7:31  

I think what was really interesting is, I noticed at the very start when I was doing some training sessions and support sessions for two large insurance companies in the UK and Ireland. And since March actually, I have had over 1000 people on these sessions, lots of big companies, through an employee assistance program. And at the start, the stress levels were palpable, and people were simply asking things like how do I stop feeling guilty about my child running in onto my calls? How do I create boundaries between work and life? How do I stop being so exhausted? How do I improve my sleep? And I’m not a healthcare expert or a mental health expert. But in the first few weeks, people were just trying to get through the day.

And it would be a simple reminder that they needed to balance their time at the computer, because what we know from the established research in remote work, we talk about productivity and remote work and there is lots of research to show that if you give workers autonomy, within certain reason, and all of that, they will be and can be more productive with the right training and the right established processes and procedures. But if they haven’t got that and some of those checks and balances, they may overwork, particularly when people with children who are logging on at half five in the morning to get those quieter hours in before the kids get off again at night. Where does the day start end? Nobody knows. But what’s really important to note is that if we look at the established remote work companies around the world, the Get Lofts, Get Hubs, automatics, all of them talk about the transition, when they’re bringing in new team members onboarding. Hub Spot transitioned to a remote work division about a year and a half ago now, and they it over a year. These big companies have training, establishing policies, all of that. And we were people doing it overnight with no notice. So, we have to remind everyone and I’ve been continuously reminding them that there’s been no transition period, there has been no time to adapt, and people are in shock, right? Even coming on to sessions with me, where I would say, do you feel like you’re in shock or how are you doing? People say it’s the first time I’ve stopped in three weeks and realized I am stressed. I am shocked. I haven’t had time to myself, etc. And so it’s been really interesting to watch. Now there’s a bit more, it’s more established. And where I am now with some of my sessions actually, is getting particularly managers and leaders to focus on the positives. To focus on what’s worked during this crisis and what’s been working so far. But actually, because we’re going to hybrid, which we may come on to talk about where people are starting to go back to the office, maybe go to coworking spaces. There’s also been some space to reflect that there is maybe the chance for workers to process what’s happened and on an emotional intelligence, on a psychology level for me, that’s really important because otherwise, we don’t have a little bit of a transit. We can’t move to a new chapter…

Zeljko Crnjaković 10:53  

Yeah, what is very important also, is that companies, I’ve talked about this a couple of days ago. So companies, depending on how big they are, or how focused they are, are thinking in two ways, some very narrow-minded are looking from week to week, day to day on updates to the situation, when can we go back to the offices? When are we able to bring our people back to the offices? How are we going to change things? And this is okay from a personal point of view from a home set, or when can I see my friends and so on. We see other major companies like Google and Apple and Facebook and Twitter that are saying and already have said we are expanding the stay at home work or remote work policy until mid-2021 or early 2021. Twitter said, from now, every worker will be able to work from home if they wanted indefinitely. So from your experience and what you have had a pulse on, the companies acted?

Rowena Hennigan 12:19  

It’s such a mixed bag, so different depending on the company, depending on whether they survived or just want to acknowledge. Because I’ve come across people furloughed, all of that and divisions. It really depends on how they have survived and then what provisions they’ve put in, how proactive they’ve been in their communications, in terms of what their plans are. But when I do my sessions, I do obviously, sometimes have management teams on or leaders, a lot of my sessions as well will be with the employees directly. And what I try and do is work with them where they are in the industry. Where they are in that space. So, again, because they can’t control often where and when they’re working, right? I try and on an individual level, look at what they can influence in their day, what they can control what they can take, for example, ensuring their health, their self-care, for example, ensuring they maybe have a buddy they can reach out to, etc. and giving them some tips that come from the established a lot of constantly established remote work, companies and research that shows for example, calendar planning, time management, etc. needs to be so explicit and so intentional, and that’s what’s really interesting about looking at what’s happened. I think the companies that have been more vulnerable are the managers. They’re more make the companies and the leaders and the people that create the companies that have been more vulnerable and empathetic and on may be more open to discussion about how they’ve been impacted having those open no work virtual calls, for example. Hosting these different online events that people can join in with no pressure, to support and engage with their workers. They’re the ones I can see that are more engaged and have their finger on the pulse and are able and available to support their workers. But it’s been such a mixed bag. And I think also just to comment, I deal with lots of it, with lots of different countries.

So, I also have some other projects in the States. It’s dependent on what’s happening regionally. Again, speaking on behalf of Spain, I’m in Tarragona at the moment. Personally, I was able to move down here locally from Aragon, but I mean Aragon is facing the potential for lockdown again, where we normally live.  And this virus in terms of its impact, you have to be so sensitive to people either feeling a different wave of the virus experience, experiencing a different wave of the virus or feeling it in terms of fatigue, if that makes sense. Some people have just motored along on autopilot for three months. And then they’re slammed for example, for a month or two because they actually only process the impact of what it’s been like for them. 

Bernie J Mitchell 15:34  

I’ve got a cool question. So I’m just going to like shout it out. It seemed to me that before COVID, remote work had this kind of cool little thing, yeah, we’re remote working. And then COVID hit and in that first week, because just, ladies and gentlemen, I am not a remote work expert. I just happen to be the person in a small group that knew the most about it. So I went on webinars, and I was on a webinar with someone from a taxi company that I won’t say the name, but it runs with Scuba. And I wanted to know, I wasn’t over the moon with them, that that individual’s response, because he said, me and my wife have come to our cabin, and we’re able to work remotely. And it just occurred to me and I said it on the webinar, that’s a very privileged thing, isn’t it? You know, like remote work assumes that we’re all going to like, run to our holiday homes, pop open our state of the art Mac computers and sip our mojito while we do our work, but there’s like the reality as you described this, like a lot of people who are thrown into a situation without the right equipment, and are cooped up and how do you think it’s images, before, during and after?  And then ladies, gentlemen, we’ll get to coworking.

Rowena Hennigan 17:16  

It’s a really good question because I spent like two years open to more or less 24 months up until this year on COVID coming in, working with people like John Oden in the States who looks at socio economic benefits of remote work at a regional and governmental level in the States. The same with the Irish government, I’ve been involved in policy and consultation and various projects with them and back then I was there with others going, let’s look at all this amazing research, return on investment calculators Bernie that exist. You know, we save on carbon emissions, the list you could go on and on. You know what’s really important to pull out, and it was in there, but it only made sense in the first few weeks of COVID with business continuity or disaster recovery of crisis. So obvious, but there’s actually so little discussion about it. So, just reflecting because we’re all still reflecting on these last few months. Look at all the companies – You saw these statements going, Facebook is sending x people home, blah, blah, blah. They were able to do that, because their infrastructure was able to handle it. I’m not saying that the individual workers were all on perfect systems and our perfect connectivity. It’s a whole other discussion, whether their broadband or their connection individually in their home locations was working. But we seem to miss that one of the major benefits in the pandemic overall was it enabled business continuity.

Bernie J Mitchell 19:00  

I still think it had this kind of privileged sense about it. Because like there are people I know who have good jobs, but they’ve been working in their bedrooms for like three months now. And we have calls with a London coworking assembly twice a week, and suddenly we’ve done like 40 calls. And some of those people who, even the owners, community managers are sitting on their bed because that’s the only room in their house where they can get some peace. So it does assume A an internet connection, and B the right equipment. And I think I just felt that it was like this cool thing to do. And then suddenly, it was the harsh reality of keeping a company going and keeping a job.

Rowena Hennigan 19:49  

And I think you’re right, the digital nomads on the beach image that was in existence, okay. That was nice but confusing. There was also a lot of unofficial remote working, Bernie. Officially in company policies, I got a real sense of this when I was doing the very sessions that I might find out from HR managers that they had an official flexible working policy or not pre-COVID. But when I would host sessions l would find out from individual workers that unofficially the odd day was done from home. So, there was a lot of or wherever you choose to do it, as we know, they might have gone to a library or a coworking, or a different office or whatever with a connection. So, I think there wasn’t a measure of that. But, it’s interesting because it’s thrown it all upside down. And the thing is, in terms of a business case in my community, we were often talking about the justification for having flexible working and remote working, having the ROI done. Having the business case done and ready to speak to a company or even on a government level if it was on your public sector agency or whatever. But that’s been flipped now, in terms of, in my mind where I see it moving is this ability to handle disaster recovery or business continuity. 

Bernie J Mitchell 20:19  

Obviously, it would be better that we hadn’t had a global pandemic… I absolutely don’t want to make light of it because I know people in Argentina that have been in lockdown in their flat for like, 100 something days now and it’s just impossible to think about what is available for us coming out of this. I feel companies with somewhat like archaic, command and control policies in place either officially or unofficially, have been forced into flipping the way they operate. And some of that is for the good. And what do you think’s available? Now, that we’ve all been forced into working collectively differently?

Rowena Hennigan 22:11  

I think the awareness is there, I think because unfortunately again, and you already said with that empathy and appreciation of the waves of COVID and people still going through a horrible time individually with it, in confinement or whatever is happening personally for them, that we moved on from can we set up remote working to Oh there’s Zoom fatigue. Oh what is the health and safety of an individual worker look? Lots of the media moved on and the reporting moved on to more viable discussions about that it’s not a one size fits all. In recent weeks now in Ireland, that’s been the discussion of#homeandhub, Bernie, to bringing the coworking back. In Zaragoza I managed to actually access a local coworking temporarily there in June and el Recreo, a small space that I was able to join temporarily for four weeks and my life changed. After almost three months in lockdown, my mental health drastically improved, my stress levels went down, because I was able to separate work and life because what I found personally when I was in confinement, trying to work, my breath, I couldn’t switch off. I didn’t even have that 10 minute commute because I couldn’t go outside my apartment.

So, I managed to do that in Zaragoza and I’ve maintained that in Tarragona. In the temporary residence we have here, I don’t take my computer home. And for me I’m so much better able to handle my own personal mental space and productivity because of that. So, it’s even moved on, apart from the safety angle of COVID and making our spaces safe for people returning to any type of office space or shared space. There’s been acknowledgement of what those coworking and community hopes provide. There’s more of an appreciation of where they fit in our model going forward. And that’s what I’m hoping both on an individual and on a company level. This dialogue and this conversation and awareness, it all progresses as we go forward. 

Bernie J Mitchell 24:34  

If you were standing, because you probably are, like millions of people listening to this podcast, Rowena, if you were standing there saying: look, coworking space owners, this is what I want you to do in the next couple of months… What can we do? Because I feel like people are drinking from the firehose about the future of work at the moment and there’s a few simple little things. Child care is a big one and the mental well-being, what can we do as a coworking community to help and support remote workers? Or the new breed of remote workers? 

Rowena Hennigan 25:15  

It’s a two pronged answer. Listen to your community, you already have listened to the community around you, the people that are making inquiries, what you listen to the discussions that are happening in the neighbourhood in your network, and experiments. So what do we mean by experiments? So, for example, I’ve given this a simple example myself, my husband share our coworking spot and Tarragona because we’re doing a tag-team on childcare. We do have luckily, a summer camp our daughter is attending but we were able to balance where we do a couple of days on a couple of days off between us in our coworking space. But also our coworking owner has been so helpful on all, because we’ve come into the area for the summer on all things to do with, do you need help with sort of sourcing this, getting packages, public transport all the things we needed to know so that experimentation… services is the word I kind of add on to that. So I was even thinking for example, Bernie, that maybe coworking spaces to look at temporary accommodation that they could maybe link in with locally or other services? Like even just knowing what childcare camps? Is there a babysitter agency? Anything to support or linking in through these different groups on WhatsApp or other social media or other instant messaging systems, explicitly saying to the rest of your community with these new people joining; here’s what we may need help with for them and reaching out. So, start listening to how you can help and then be open to experimenting with different things within that, so that you can meet the market needs because it just keeps changing as well. Just keeps changing.

Bernie J Mitchell 27:02  

That is a great place to end and solid advice. I didn’t really think of that. So I’m glad you brought that up because I’m going to quickly write that down before we publish this. 

Zeljko Crnjaković 27:11  

I knew you were going to say that I was listening to the pause and I’m thinking, Bernie’s writing this down…

Rowena Hennigan 27:23  

There are a lot of people needing breaks, needing to get out of regions. That’s just my personal experience. I just went through it when we moved to get out of Zaragoza the three months that we could to Tarragona. And yeah, as I said already to Bernie, my coworking manager here has been amazing and he just came in with that support for me and my husband and answers questions, and I actually said to my husband the other day, would we move again next summer back here or go somewhere, again, provide the extra support as well provide the extra services. 

Bernie J Mitchell 28:02  

Thank you very much. So any closing any closing remarks, my colleagues?

Zeljko Crnjaković 28:07  

No, I think that the whole podcast for this episode was a great lesson in how we are rethinking remote work so and what we need to pay attention to and be mindful about when we’re still talking about remote work as sort of the picture of a digital nomad on the beach instead of the harsh reality. Even though all of the points are not that dark in that sense, and people can get accustomed to of course, depending on the job position and stuff like that, but it really needs more people to talk about it. 

Rowena Hennigan 28:47  

Exactly that and that’s actually because we can’t be in person, we need to be more intentional, but I have to share that for someone who did this for years – I had a head melt moment. And I turned off the computer and said, take that away for 12 hours or whatever, when I was in the midst of the stress. And I stood on the terrace and that was my outside space or whatever, but the acknowledgement that what I needed was away from screen time. In terms of digital health, that’s also the thing that we’re missing at the moment, that when we travel to the coworking, to our shared office, when we go out for lunch with our colleagues, when we go and grab a coffee, when we take a walk in the park, all of that was taken away from us in full confinement. So, I think that’s really interesting because people until they’re listed, don’t actually realize what they’re missing.

Zeljko Crnjaković 29:42  

Yeah, we don’t. And we’re going to close on this. Bernie, you can remind people where they can find us.

Bernie J Mitchell 29:54  

If you rush to your nearest internet browser, and type in coworkingassembly.eu and sign up to our weekly newsletter… And why I particularly want you to do that is because we publish this podcast and the other blog content we have there and have little announcements. And then you can always hit reply to that email and it comes back to Jax, Jannine and me, and we will answer. We’ll answer you personally. And over the past few weeks, we’ve been saying anyone got a story here and people have been emailing back. So, it’s a great place to have direct contact with us because there’s a lot of human beings all over Europe interested in coworking. The other thing I’d like to bring to your attention is, in September about mid-September because I didn’t have the bit of paper with the date on here. But mid-September, we’re running a webinar as a European Coworking Assembly, and that will be with the Letitia and Antonin and we’ll be talking about the 15 Minutes City, which is basically why now in simple terms is we don’t commute anymore so we can all stay in our local area and that is where I think coworking spaces can become part of the community, part of where people meet up and work, connect, work on projects together. And there’s a lot of people already talking about this. If you have a 15 Minute City story, get in touch with us because we’d love to hear it. And Rowena, thank you very much of your valuable time here today. And it was great to bump into you on Edge Rider’s webinar about coworking. And we’ll link to that in the next one in the show notes, to this too. So, everyone stay safe and be excellent to each other. Thanks for spending time with us today.




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