Francesca Leithold of Epro: “Working from home is possible”

Focus on reliable news sources and limit screen time / social media intake. A large amount of news consumption these days is driven by smartphones and social media, and the well-known BBC app alert delivers the latest updates to you, ensuring you’re never far from the latest news. While the BBC is a reliable and […]

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Focus on reliable news sources and limit screen time / social media intake. A large amount of news consumption these days is driven by smartphones and social media, and the well-known BBC app alert delivers the latest updates to you, ensuring you’re never far from the latest news. While the BBC is a reliable and serious provider of journalism, I would argue that in high uncertainty situations as experienced last year, a little amount of news will keep you updated but a continuous amount of news is likely to make you anxious. Unless you are an ICU doctor, there is no benefit in keeping up hourly with hospital deaths in your local area, but you are highly likely to sleep more restlessly that night. In the case of social media, a lot of content is produced and published largely unmoderated, and so ideas that do not necessarily correspond to scientific facts gain traction and are re-posted or re-tweeted by social media communities — often not for a better outcome.

With the success of the vaccines, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this difficult period in our history. But before we jump back into the routine of the normal life that we lived in 2019, it would be a shame not to pause to reflect on what we have learned during this time. The social isolation caused by the pandemic really was an opportunity for a collective pause, and a global self-assessment about who we really are, and what we really want in life.

As a part of this series called “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic”, I had the pleasure to interview Francesca Leithold, Chief Operating Officer at Epro. Originally from Germany, Francesca has lived across Europe, came to the UK in 2014, and joined Epro, a clinically-led digital solution for healthcare professionals and organizations. Francesca looks after the operations team at Epro and manages the client delivery of the product suite from start to finish, to deliver safer patient care and a paperless NHS across the country.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I wasn’t one of those people who always wanted to work in health informatics. In fact, even when I was doing my master’s degree in Information Management, I was still focusing on a broad outlook. It wasn’t a degree that specializes in one thing: computer science, information processing, linguistics, management, and politics — not the typical masters!

After finishing up my Master’s degree I continued onto my Ph.D. at Munich School of Management. I was focusing on usability, software ergonomics, and performance factors of distributed teams using digital means. After my Ph.D., I knew that I wanted my career to have a purpose, and have a positive impact on the world, and I didn’t want to rush into something. That’s why I took a sabbatical after my Ph.D.

While I was traveling abroad, I met some Brits who encouraged me to hang out with them for a bit. It turned out that one of them worked at Epro, and introduced me to the founder. Before I knew it, I had packed up my life and moved across the Continent! The company’s mission statement — deliver benefits to patients and safer patient care — and the size of the company was exactly what I was looking for. I’ve worked my way up from usability expert/product specialist, project manager, Head of Professional Services, and now COO.

Are you currently working from home? If so, what has been the biggest adjustment from your previous workplace? Can you please share a story or example?

I’m currently working from home. The company started to move everyone out of the office pretty much immediately when the COVID-19 crisis hit and as a software company, we’re almost completely online anyway — no big change here! My personal setup is the kitchen table in the open-plan area of living and kitchen in my flat because that has a view into the backyard, and onto the bird feeder, which has been one of the great entertainments for the cats and myself this spring.

At Epro, we used to work in a Victorian building with small open-plan office spaces across four stories (five if you count the basement, which held the meeting room — a good opportunity for exercise and exploring the fitness of visitors coming to the office!), so one of the biggest changes is that I don’t move around so much. In fact, FitBit® released a report about 30 million users, who experienced a daily reduction in step counts up to 38% in European countries due to the pandemic.

Even the walk to the coffee machine has literally been reduced to two steps, and so I need to ensure to get enough movement throughout the day. I try to do phone calls standing by the window (poor signal in a ground floor flat helps with motivation here) and some conference meetings which don’t require a camera running, I do standing up. Meetings permitting, I try to go for a walk every day, either at lunch or after work, to get some daylight and to get away from the desk for a bit — quite a challenge in a one-bedroom flat!

I also make a conscious effort to clear the kitchen table from anything work-related on a Friday evening, this includes taking the monitor away and getting rid of the laptop, mouse, and keyboard. The conscious re-purposing of the kitchen helps me mentally switch off work and turns the room from office space into a leisure center (the kettlebells come out after the laptop has retired in the evenings!).

Jokes aside, I feel that keeping work and private life in two separate mental spaces has been an increasing challenge with everyone working from home. This is adding to the cognitive load everyone is under, and making an effort to keep the two apart will benefit your mental health significantly.

What do you miss most about your pre-COVID lifestyle?

Not much, to be honest. I’m in the extremely lucky position to live with two cats in a ground floor property that has access to a backyard (I won’t endeavor to call my attempts for greenery ‘garden’) so there is plenty of room to stretch out and I’m able to do my job from home without any impact. Many of my friends and all my family members live in Germany, so socializing for me, even pre-pandemic has often been via Skype or other teleconferencing facilities.

Friends in Britain have seamlessly adapted to meet for a drink and a chat online, rather than pubbing in town, and I like the slower lifestyle with less ‘fear of missing out. I recently learned from Guardian food critic Grace Dent that there is such a thing as ‘Joy of Missing Out’, AKA JOMO, and while it makes me feel a bit unadventurous, I really loved it. Finally, a term in the glossary for enjoying a couch evening! At work, I feel I’m able to fit more into my day and lose less time traveling (no such thing as a late train for an important 10 a.m. meeting). People are straight on time for meetings which are prepared more thoroughly, and that benefits everyone a great deal.

Some things you can’t complete from home though — we had one customer going live with a solution during the lockdown, and supporting new users on technology on busy wards in a hospital setting is a challenge. Floor walking and meeting people face to face would have eased users into a new software solution more gently, and so we had some bumps in the road there — but the hospital team made all efforts to streamline the process as best as possible and we got everyone there in the end. Meeting end users face to face is an invaluable experience, because they open up more to you than they would over a Microsoft Teams call, and I look forward to taking this back up after the restrictions are lifted.

The pandemic was really a time for collective self-reflection. What social changes would you like to see as a result of the COVID pandemic?

As a society and as individuals, we need to look out for each other better and take care of each other more. COVID-19 has shown amongst other things that loneliness is still very much prevalent in our society and many people were separated from loved ones and relatives, with limited means to reach out. The effort I’ve seen in my community, with local support networks being established pretty much straight away ensuring that people who were shielding or were vulnerable had access to basic supplies, was incredible.

Social support shouldn’t fall to the community alone though. We have seen through these times that there is an overwhelming need for a social security framework and that the current arrangements for statutory sick pay, unemployment benefits, and housing are not enough to keep people in need afloat. The furlough scheme was a first step in the right direction, and now would be the time for the government to review whether structural changes to the social system in Britain should be incorporated into the overall strategy.

COVID-19 has also shown that the NHS is at a breaking point, financially and from a staffing perspective, and that the brunt of the pandemic was born by BAME staff who are often paid wages which don’t reflect the importance of the jobs they deliver to the NHS and society as a whole.

Last but not least, now is the time to rethink the paradigm of presenteeism in the office, which was still very much embedded into everyone’s mind before the pandemic, despite technology and infrastructure clearly being in place to enable a different type of work. This is especially relevant for young parents (paternity leave in the UK is still set at a statutory minimum of 1- 2 weeks!) who often struggle to fit family needs and a career together. This usually results in one parent (predominantly woman as lower earners) staying at home or reducing working hours, therefore further widening the gender pay gap. If more flexible working arrangements can be kept up by companies, this would enable both young fathers to spend considerably more time at home with their kids, but more importantly, enable women to facilitate a career while not being forced to give up family life.

What if anything, do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response? We’d love to hear some stories or examples.

The workplace flexibility I just mentioned above is one of the biggest positive working place changes I think the pandemic has brought. There used to be this idea that people had to physically attend the office, meetings, and customers in person in order to appear productive and deliver successful projects. Quite the opposite seems to have happened — 71% of businesses reported recently that people working from home have increased or at least plateaued their productivity during the pandemic. An onsite presence can help people feel connected to the business but there is no need for them to be there in person continuously. In the same thought, working from home eliminates the need for commuting, freeing up time in the day, reducing environmental impact (pollution levels during the first lockdown dropped by a significant percentage), and improving mental wellbeing.

There is also increased awareness of people’s health and impact on others — many people across the industry used to come into the office if they were unwell or had clear symptoms of an infection, to appear productive, and to show presence. This is completely counterproductive, as nothing decreases output across a business as much as everyone coughing and sneezing at the same time. I was very lucky to not have caught COVID-19 knowingly, and also have not had a cold or infection since the beginning of last year — instead of the usual two or three spring and November cold and flu which someone brings to the office and everyone eventually gets it. Awareness that you should protect yourself and others if you’re not well was long overdue and I feel has settled in as a result of the pandemic.

How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?

One of the things I felt most keenly when everything was locked down was the closure of my gym, which is a place I used to go to every day. As a manager in a small IT company, my tasks are incredibly varied, but rarely very physical, so keeping up with a regular exercise routine helps me manage my week and keeps my wellbeing up. I subsequently re-purposed the living room into a gym floor and signed up to the LesMills online classes, which have an excellently varied set of courses online. Doing stretches in the living room came with the additional benefit of my cats keeping me company during the workout — no such thing for a good hamstring stretch as trying to reach the cats at the end of your feet!

On weekends and holidays, I’ve done quite a bit of DIY in the home. Physical work is a good balancing act to the more ‘brainy’ day job, and as I spent more time in my flat during the lockdown, I started to see more and more areas that were overdue a makeover (considerably more dust mites were observed as well!), and old carpets and floorboards were the first victims of my newly found passion for home improvement. Lo and behold, I am now, after some research, able to tell the difference between a plunge saw and a miter saw, and am the proud owner of both! Painting is also super-easy, with no prior experience necessary and an immediate reward-effect. Combine the two, and I’m now, post lockdown, the maker of a freshly painted apartment with new flooring.

Last, not least, and also because laying floorboards only stretch your mind so much (until you meet the first walls which don’t come together at a 90-degree angle, then it is definitely a mind-boggling task), I’ve taken up the habit of listening to podcasts and audiobooks while doing DIY and walking. There are some excellent science and history series out there and it is nice to take your mind off the contemporary newsfeed for a bit. I listen to audiobooks while walking after work, and try to mix different topics. An excellent podcast I’d recommend is a six-piece series about the British Empire, which was an eye-opener for me, and I’ve started to make a deliberate effort to include a greater diversity of speakers and authors into my content every day.

Aside from what we said above, what has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?

One of the things that have been very difficult for me is that the restrictions put in place prevented face-to-face contact with employees and the overwhelming majority of friends. People cope differently with the overwhelming crisis we all experienced in the last year, and where people were in distress, it was not always as easy to spot that in-between zoom calls and daily meetings. Where issues became visible, it isn’t possible to reach out other than by phone or online video call, which naturally limits interactions, and providing support and comfort to loved ones through a screen has been challenging. I had friends burst into tears on video calls, and there is absolutely nothing you can do other than talking reassuringly to an LED screen.

The discrepancy between physical distress and the inability to be present was not a great experience. I created what we jokingly call ‘The Schedule’ for the week with the people I am closest with, so we have planned interactions we can rely on and check in on each other. This takes on different forms for different people, ie early morning WhatsApp audio messages, scheduled Saturday 14.00 Zoom meetings, or a scheduled text message in the evening before bed. This form of structure has helped us to hang onto something tangible and reliable through these uncertain times.

The other main thing that I remember quite vividly was how people started to hoard goods and supplies in the beginning of the pandemic when it became apparent that shops would close and a lockdown was about to take place. A small number of people started bulk-buying basic goods, resulting in a wider spread of anxiety across the population, leading to large scale panic buying, and we saw the end of pasta, rice, bread, eggs, and toilet paper, despite there being no real shortage and no supply chain issues. My main concern and worry at the time was for people who couldn’t, or didn’t have the means to carry large quantities of groceries out of the supermarket, and were subsequently faced with empty shelves when shopping basic necessities.

A friend of mine runs a local supermarket and they deliberately set pasta, flour, toilet paper, and other shortage-items (not a word I would have expected to use in the year 2020!) aside for the elderly when it became apparent that supplies would run out, and put up signs to say so. While that story warms my heart, I feel it highlights bigger issues about equality in our society fundamentally, but more specifically how the psychological need of people to feel safe went largely unaddressed in the early days.

I always wonder whether more balanced media coverage and more proactive government communications throughout the pandemic could have mitigated the large scale spread of panic amongst people (think of a newspaper headline like ‘Supermarket Supplies Optimised For Impending Lockdown!’ as opposed to ‘Customers Face Empty Shelves Over Easter!). Hindsight is obviously a blessing and this continues to be a unique challenge for everyone involved, but we need to learn from the last year to be ready for these situations in the future. The government and the media have a clear responsibility to offer a clear and unambiguous communication strategy to provide reassurance and prevent panic born from uncertainty.

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Working from home is possible. We have experienced that a large proportion of the workforce can deliver their workload while not being located physically in the office. This opens the door for more flexible workplace arrangements, enables wider recruitment, and lifts local restrictions on hiring the best candidates. Businesses can cut utility bills and rent, and benefit from employees who did not get up at 5 a.m. to commute into the city, having avoided a number of car accidents, worked their way through at least one traffic jam just to find their office parking spot occupied by someone else.
    If we assume an average commute of 60 minutes each way, that’s 120 minutes of improved employee wellbeing, per person, per day, resulting in improved productivity and a better work-life balance. Here at Epro, we have moved everyone to remote working, and have kept the office as a temporary meeting space, so that people can come in if they’d like to. We asked our employees, and 95% of them prefer home working! Going forward, we will arrange biweekly meet and greets so that people have the time to catch up socially with their co-workers, but won’t open the office formally again.
  2. We can cut carbon emissions if we really want to. This ties in with the above. The COVID-19 lockdown restrictions worldwide resulted in a record low of carbon emissions (7% down in comparison to 2019, that’s a mind-boggling 2.4 GIGA-tonnes of CO2, and yes, that is a really large amount), and in the UK, emissions were down 13% (second largest drop worldwide after France with 15%, go UK!).
    To prevent a rebound to pre-pandemic levels structural changes are necessary, including remote working and improved infrastructure in cities for pedestrians, cyclists, and an electrified fleet of public transport. If fewer people commute to work and fewer people fluctuate in and out of cities using cars, carbon emissions can be reduced significantly going forward, leading to cleaner air, a reduced number of respiratory issues for people living in cities, and a slowdown in global warming.
  3. Everyone has a different story about the pandemic. Be more forgiving if someone is having a bad day. People have experienced the last year very differently from each other. There is a spectrum of experiences for people, ranging from NHS nurses working at breaking point, relatives grieving for loved ones, hospitality providers closing business, to media presenters broadcasting from their own living room with their kids on screen, parents juggling to home-school and work at the same time, to people who experienced not much of a change when working from home and potentially embracing the lockdown as an opportunity to reach out to friends and form stronger bonds with their families and loved ones. So whoever you speak to, whether they’re having a brilliant day or snapping at you for what you perceive as a minor issue, be conscious that these are extraordinary times and that everyone has their own way of dealing with the current situation. Add an extra dollop of tolerance to your plate every day!
  4. Focus on reliable news sources and limit screen time / social media intake. A large amount of news consumption these days is driven by smartphones and social media, and the well-known BBC app alert delivers the latest updates to you, ensuring you’re never far from the latest news. While the BBC is a reliable and serious provider of journalism, I would argue that in high uncertainty situations as experienced last year, a little amount of news will keep you updated but a continuous amount of news is likely to make you anxious. Unless you are an ICU doctor, there is no benefit in keeping up hourly with hospital deaths in your local area, but you are highly likely to sleep more restlessly that night. In the case of social media, a lot of content is produced and published largely unmoderated, and so ideas that do not necessarily correspond to scientific facts gain traction and are re-posted or re-tweeted by social media communities — often not for a better outcome. The widespread skepticism about the new mRNA approach to vaccination was a good example, and in the absence of a strong communication campaign by the government, vaccination hesitancy is still more prevalent than one would have hoped for. Putting a limit on screen time and being conscious about which source of news you consume is a double winner.
  5. Now is the time to make changes for a more reliable social system. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown like nothing else how vulnerable some parts of the workforce in Britain are, and highlighted the limitations of the current social security system which required a rapid response and emergency changes to the benefits system by the government in March and April 2020. Public Health England highlighted the disproportional economic effect of the pandemic on ethnic minority groups who are more often in low-paid jobs and on zero-hour contracts. Women are disproportionately affected, being more likely to leave work or care for relatives during the COVID-19 crisis, are as main carers for children affected more by caps to the benefits system, and are more often subject to domestic violence, which soared during the pandemic. An inadequate social security system makes this already disadvantaged part of the workforce even more vulnerable, and the end in early 2021of the temporary measures put in place will present millions of people with considerably less money or potential unemployment. The universal credit payments are significantly lower than the minimum income standard and the minimum wage for an employed earner. The measures put in place at the beginning of the pandemic ameliorated some of the shortcomings of the current benefits system, but are limited in time and not enough to provide a stable and secure framework for people in precarious and low-income situations. A re-work of the current system into a functioning safety net, which provides appropriate earnings replacement and support, is massively overdue.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?

I don’t think there’s a more challenging question in the whole interview! Because life is so complicated, I am unsure if all of it can be summed up in one quote — but if you’re pushing me, I would choose “vivamus atque amemus”. It’s a portion of the first line of Catullus’ poem 5, written 54–85BC in Rome. When translated, it means “let us live, and let us love”. Perhaps the more romantic translation is from Richard Crashaw when he translated it in 17th century England, changing it to “Come and let us live my Deare / Let us love and never fear.

It’s about love, it prompts you to live in the moment, and to make the most of the time you have together. So I’d say this was particularly relevant over the last year. Instead of just living from day to day, passing through the moments we are given, we should make real use of our time. So many people lost loved ones unexpectedly during the pandemic, having no time to say goodbye because they weren’t allowed into the hospital or the ward, and this experience will stay with them for a long time. I have lost a parent early in life, so my take on this is that you need to look after the people you’re with and tell them you love them, while they are there to hear you because life can take unexpected turns.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Although I think she’s pretty busy at the moment, I would choose the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Her leadership, both in Germany and in Europe, over a decade and more, is inspiring. No one else has been so clear, calm, and dedicated to her people, even though the most challenging times. Is there a more influential woman in the politics of our time?

I don’t think so. I look to her for inspiration, as she is clearly demonstrating that women in leadership positions are needed more than ever. Her inclusivity and clear global vision is a breath of fresh air with all the escalatory rhetoric of politics of these times.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can connect with me on LinkedIn, and follow Epro on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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