How to safeguard well-being in the virtual workplace

Written by hvale vale, Association for Progressive Communications (APC)

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the context in which your work has highlighted these learnings?

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is an international network of civil society organisations (CSOs) dedicated to empowering and supporting people working for peace, human rights, development and protecting the environment, through the strategic use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). APC functions almost entirely in ‘virtual space’, with no head office, and employees in many countries around the world. Their work over the past 30 years has focused on exploring the internet space with a view to equalities. When COVID-19 brought a sudden physical lockdown to the entire world, APC were well placed to assist other organisations struggling to adjust to online life, both professionally and personally.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

Many assumed that virtual working would require a straightforward transfer of existing work onto a digital platform. However, the digital world is not just a mode of communication, like a phone. It is another whole dimension in which we live, like the physical or the spiritual. As everyone had different levels of experience of the internet, we saw organisations struggling with a steep learning curve and digital fatigue, both professionally and personally. We wanted to use our experience to help others find their path productively and safely.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

Our online resource: Closer Than Ever: A Guide for Social Change Organisations Who Want to Work Online was relaunched and we shared other experience of working online. Some tips for managing well-being and productivity include:

Email – Agree formal working hours and make it clear no one is expected to reply or engage online outside these hours. Allow for those living in different time zones. Be aware too of the limitations of technology – some organisations and individuals will have limited WiFi or data allowances and will be unable to download large emails or access large files online.

Meetings – Digital meetings are more tiring than real-life meetings. Participants experience increased stress from: the brain focusing harder to process input without body language, fewer breaks, being constantly on show, feeling vulnerable in one’s home, and struggles with the technology itself. Keep meetings no longer than 60 minutes and always prepare an online agenda and agree on note-taking.  Convenors should set boundaries at the start and allow participants to turn off video at any time.

Timescales/productivity – Contrary to expectation, it can take 30 to 50% longer to do anything online than in person. Always build in an “online time overhead”. 

Information overload – This is especially a risk during COVID-19, where we are all regularly checking in and exchanging updates. Former face-to-face verbal exchange turns into emails, direct messages, chats and forwards. This can be overwhelming. Take steps to minimise overload, e.g. using weekly digests rather than immediate responses, put boundaries on chat use, write short emails for ease of processing. 

See the full Guide for more details – address below.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

Digitally inexperienced organisations were trying to compress years’ worth of learning about this way of working into a matter of days or weeks.

There is also a generational dimension to this – younger people made the shift to online life more easily than older people, as they are used to many of the platforms and communicating electronically.

Overwork and burnout is a challenge for organisations new to online working. Without the physical ‘closed’ office door after office hours many staff were fielding input and feeling obliged to respond around the clock.

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Look for advice on this new terrain, perhaps through our Guide as well as other resources by experienced organisations.
  • Be willing to be flexible – your work and ways of working will need to adapt to the online dimension.
  • Be patient and forgiving – virtual working is new to many, and there are varying levels of expertise and capability.
  • Care for yourself and protect your privacy; say no to invasive requests that pressure your sense of integrity.
  • Working online is not only real time work and video chat. Email, collaborative documents like pads or other documents can be done asynchronously, following everyone’s pace within an agreed timeline.

Would you like to tell us more about the challenges you saw advocates facing in this situation?

Remote working might be separate from many of the communities we interact with but also separate from our private self. Working from remote means working from home, the private space where relationships are mostly defined by the family’s traditional roles and power dynamics. The space activists, feminists and people of diverse sexualities and genders are trying to transform.

Our homes do not grant activists always the private room which their work needs. Siblings, parents, partners, daughters/sons, relatives: they all need something, and negotiation is tiring and sometimes not possible at all.

It poses the question of whose internet are we accessing, from whose devices and with what security, safety, privacy? We need to be aware of the exceptionality of these times and work towards enabling and building safe comfortable spaces in our homes for our activism, with the awareness that it might represent yet another – if not our prime – site of struggle.

Do you have any photos or documents that would help or inspire another organisation or group facing the same problems?

GenderIT series around Pandemic and the internet as a resource:

Did advocates use any external resources to help this solve this issue that you would recommend to other organisations?

Front Line Defenders: Guide to Secure Group Chat and Conferencing Tools.

Front Line Defenders: Physical, emotional and digital protection while using home as office in times of COVID-19: Ideas & tips for human rights defenders.

A personal account: The discipline of hope

hvale vale, Association for Progressive Communications (APC)

hvale vale leads the international EROTICS project (Exploratory Research on Sexuality and the Internet) for the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). She is an activist connecting women’s rights, sexual rights and the internet, politically and practically. In 2003 hvale led the establishment of One World Platform, which focuses on intersections between internet rights, women’s rights and the transformative power of technology. She is a feminist internet writer and speaker, and co-founder of the feminist portal

Expanding the EROTICS network in South Asia webpage