Emily Ansell Elfer of Elfan Media: “Feelings of isolation”

Feelings of isolation: If you’re working remotely, especially if you work from home, you are likely to spend most of your working days alone. This is a big adaptation to get used to if you’ve previously worked in an office with colleagues. As a part of our series about the things you need to successfully […]

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Feelings of isolation: If you’re working remotely, especially if you work from home, you are likely to spend most of your working days alone. This is a big adaptation to get used to if you’ve previously worked in an office with colleagues.

As a part of our series about the things you need to successfully work remotely, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Ansell Elfer, BA (Hons), Dip.

Emily is an NCTJ-qualified journalist who set up her own business, Elfan Media Ltd, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since setting up remotely, Emily has landed contracts for international clients and took on the role of Editor for Autism Parenting Magazine. In this position, she commissions hundreds of doctors, therapists and psychologists for articles — all from her home office in the UK countryside!

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I’m a journalist, editor and content creator who has been working remotely for two years. After working in traditional in-house roles for newspapers and magazines for almost a decade, I became Director of my own company, Elfan Media Ltd, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since setting up remotely I’ve been lucky enough to take on contract work for organizations such as International Women’s Day, Amazon, McDonald’s and Avon. My main client is Autism Parenting Magazine where I serve as Editor for the magazine and blog.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There are so many stories I could tell. As a journalist, I’ve had the privilege of visiting different countries and reporting on some really wide-ranging news. Right now though, I’d say setting up under my own steam is the most interesting thing that has happened to me. Going freelance during a pandemic was no easy task but, with a lot of hard work and determination, I’ve managed content for some great clients and secured the role of Editor for a magazine that’s making a difference to families worldwide.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This is such a tough question… I can’t actually think of any funny mistakes! I’ve certainly made some mistakes, especially early on in my journalism career, but they were mostly typo-related and, thankfully, pretty minor.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout?

It’s vital to see your team members as people with personal lives, not just cogs in a business machine. If employees feel supported emotionally and believe their bosses are genuinely interested in them, they are more likely to thrive in the organization. I also suggest implementing regular breaks and scheduling social time for your team to interact. Recognizing good work is also vital: you should ensure your team is praised for their successes, not just critiqued on things which aren’t going so well. I heard somewhere that “people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses” — so be a good boss and your team will feel invigorated through your management approach.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits and opportunities of working remotely?

I’ve found there are multiple benefits to working remotely. Regardless of whether you work for yourself or you’re a company’s employee, you have more freedom to self-manage. By this, I mean you can create your own comfortable workspace in an environment that inspires you rather than being forced to perform in an office building. Depending on how your role is structured, you can also take breaks at times which suit you and you can utilize your breaks efficiently. For example, I often put laundry in the machine or tidy the house during my lunch period (this was never possible when I was commuting into an office) or I go walking in the beautiful countryside I’m lucky to have near my home. I always return from these walks full of ideas and refreshed for the afternoon’s projects.

As a writer and editor, I also find it easier to focus when working from home. I can really get into the zone and work on content without the sounds of office phones ringing, general chatter, and people disturbing me with the customary tea-round! I can also dress in clothes I feel comfortable wearing (as long as I look presentable for Zoom calls) and, as I’m a UK freelancer, I can establish my own working hours and set boundaries to suit me and my lifestyle.

Of course, another benefit is that remote working means you can work from almost anywhere. You can set up in a coffee shop, go traveling and operate nomadically, or work from the comfort of your own home.

Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding working remotely?

1. Lack of structure and routine: depending on the “rules” of the company you work for, remote working can often mean you have no enforced hours, no designated workspace and no set break periods during the day.

2. Distractions from family members or pets: If you’re a parent, working from home often means juggling childcare and nap time alongside your work projects. Or, if you’re a pet owner, you can have attention-seeking (but adorable) animals trying to break your flow! Sometimes extended family members or friends also struggle to understand that remote working is “real working” and you find yourself with unexpected visitors or phone calls when you’re in the middle of a task.

3. Feelings of isolation: If you’re working remotely, especially if you work from home, you are likely to spend most of your working days alone. This is a big adaptation to get used to if you’ve previously worked in an office with colleagues.

4. Burnout: Due to a potential lack of structure, remote working can actually lead to overworking, spending evenings and weekends on projects, and can eventually cause feelings of burnout.

5. Technology issues: Working remotely often means relying on your own tech devices and your own internet connection. There is rarely an in-house ICT department available to support you like there would be in an office environment.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? Can you give a story or example for each?

1. Addressing/redressing unenforced structure and routine: The solution is simple — create your own routine! I try to set my own working hours and follow them as a guide most of the time. I consider 9am-5pm Monday to Friday as my “core” hours, although I do sometimes start earlier or finish quite a bit later. These hours emulate traditional office hours and prevent work from bleeding into my nights and weekends. I also ensure I start my day with a shower, get dressed (usually into comfortable, casual clothes) and walk my dog before sitting at my desk with breakfast and a cup of tea. I’ve also turned a spare bedroom into a home office so I have a dedicated workspace. This is something that almost anyone can do; if you don’t have a spare room just find yourself a cosy corner for a small desk and your office essentials.

2. Addressing/redressing distractions: If you’re a parent and you’re able to afford childcare I highly recommend arranging some. Alternatively, you could ask friends or family to help you with the kids. If this isn’t possible, explain to your child that work time is quiet time and find some peaceful activities you can get them involved in while you’re working (like painting, drawing or crafts). If you have pets, especially dogs, it’s key to train them to understand that when you’re working it’s time for them to curl up and rest! I walk/feed my dog before I start work as it means he is ready to chill when I sit at my desk. If he gets hyper during a virtual meeting, it’s time for him to play in the garden!

3. Addressing/redressing feelings of isolation: If you’re part of a remote team, scheduling regular meetings can help you feel more connected and help develop relationships. I have a weekly team meeting as well as two one-on-ones each week. This means I don’t feel alone in the projects I’m tackling. However, if you’re more of a sole trader you might want to consider hiring a desk at a coworking space. This allows you to see, and interact with, familiar faces most days just like you would at a regular office, even though they aren’t part of your team.

4. Addressing/redressing burnout: As well as taking onboard the tips above, I highly recommend making time for movement breaks. Ideally every hour, get up and move around the room. Also, try to go outside and get some fresh air at lunchtime if weather permits or just ensure you take a moment away from your computer screen. I find walking in nature is the most beneficial thing I can do when I start to feel overwhelmed but, for others it might be yoga, meditation, reading a book or watching TV. Also, try to stick to some structured working hours most of the time and then switch-off your devices. If you’re checking your emails on your phone 24/7 you’re going to overload your brain!

5. Addressing/redressing technology issues: This is a tricky one as sometimes technology issues are out of our hands. Try to work with a boss/clients who is/are understanding and make sure you can contact them in a different way (such as telephone) if your computer or internet are failing. Find yourself a reliable ICT support person locally and make sure you’re using a decent internet service provider. If the internet is unreliable in your own home it might be time to consider a coworking space elsewhere.

Do you have any suggestions specifically for people who work at home? What are a few ways to be most productive when you work at home?

Remember that working, living and resting all in one space isn’t easy. It’s completely natural for this to feel stressful at times and for fatigue to set in.

The main advice I have for people who work from home is to create a dedicated workspace, whether it’s a spare bedroom, a garden shed, or a corner of your kitchen/bedroom. Find yourself a desk, utilize some storage options, and make this little nook your place of work. This is important because, if you use your whole home as an office, it’s difficult to relax and switch-off when work is done for the day.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic? Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

My main suggestion is to make use of video calls. Schedule a regular meeting where ideas can be discussed face-to-face just like they would in a boardroom. Better still would be to arrange some virtual social events such as an office quiz night over Zoom. This way people are able to interact with their colleagues and keep each other’s spirits up.

I would also recommend using an app such as Slack where you can instant message each other and create specific “channels”. In my team, we have a channel called “watercooler” which is used for general social chat.

What do you suggest can be done to create an empowering work culture and team culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

More of the above! Video meetings, virtual social events, and an interactive Slack channel can all work really well. Basically, it’s about creating platforms and spaces where your team can share their ideas just like they would in an office. For some people though, a remote working environment is naturally more empowering as they feel more confident sharing their ideas through a screen or via email than in person in an intense boardroom.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In the context of remote working, I love this quote from journalist Stephanie Ruhle: “Work-life balance is not just a buzzy, self-help term that real business people laugh at. You need it.”

I know from a previous in-office role I worked in that, when your job starts to take over your personal life, your whole life can start to feel like it’s unravelling around you. If you feel that starting to happen, it’s time to make a change: I did exactly that and I’ve never looked back.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

LinkedIn is the platform I tend to use most professionally: https://www.linkedin.com/in/emilyelfer/. I can also occasionally be found tweeting @EmilyElfer.

Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.

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