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Coronavirus: How do top Northern Ireland business leaders cope with working from home?

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Clare Guinness (top l), Janice Gault (r) and Aodhan Connolly are working from home

Clare Guinness (top l), Janice Gault (r) and Aodhan Connolly are working from home

Clare Guinness (top l), Janice Gault (r) and Aodhan Connolly are working from home

Emma Deighan and Margaret Canning talk with seven prominent people who’re continuing to do their jobs while under enforced lockdown due to the pandemic.

‘The best thing about it is not having to sit in traffic every day’

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Ann McGregor

Ann McGregor

Ann McGregor

Ann McGregor (62), Belfast, chief executive at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Working from home has been a real learning curve for me and the rest of our team. We wouldn’t ordinarily work from home so there was a lot of time and money put into getting mobile phones, laptops and other IT solutions in place, and while it felt slow at the start it has really paid off.

As an individual, working from home is okay; I prefer the office but I am managing well with remote working. As the CEO of NI Chamber the challenge is greater, everything set out in our 2020 strategy has to be reviewed and as a business networking and connections company I have had to develop a new delivery model very quickly. Thankfully businesses have responded well to our new way of working so far.

I actually find myself less distracted working at home, as online meetings are briefer than face ones and I am more in control of my diary. My husband has worked from home for years and has a comfortable office, which he is very precious about.

As a result my daughter Amanda, who is a marketing and business development manager with Cleaver Fulton and Rankin, and I are sharing the kitchen and dining tables in an open plan house. When we are on Zoom or Microsoft Team meetings one of us ends up in the hallway for confidentiality or noise reasons, but being in close proximity to food means my eating habits have changed. I am having lunch which I often skip in the office. I think because of general anxiety regarding Covid-19, I am being less restrained when it comes to crisps and chocolate.

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The best thing about working from home is not having to sit in traffic every day, which has always been a challenge in Belfast. I am also enjoying seeing and being in my home in daylight, which is something that rarely happens.

I am guilty of working longer when the laptop is always on but recently, because of NI Chamber’s extensive staff wellbeing programme I have been doing digital detoxes more often.

I feel for people who are trying to balance home-schooling and work. The NI Chamber team has been advised to work flexibly rather than nine to five, which has helped our team to share the load with partners. I would also advise a chat with colleagues that is not work-related.

We are doing a quiz every week. Another piece of advice I have is to avoid putting on a load of washing when you are on a conference call — the spin cycle noise is embarrassing.

Would I change the way we work after this? I don’t know, I do think there is room for balance now but I wouldn’t completely replace working in an office for home.

‘One positive aspect is that my diet has improved massively’

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John Healy

John Healy

John Healy

John Healy (50), Belfast, managing director of Allstate NI

In the 1990s when I worked in telecommunications I worked from home. I thought those days were long gone but here I am again, in a new home office. I was always proud that in my current role I kept work and home life separate so it’s taken a while to get adjusted to this new set-up.

I think the big challenge for all of us is to stay connected but we have a good system in place for that and the majority of our workforce was already set up for working from home.

I, personally, have to be extra purposeful in connecting everyone, who in the normal course of business I would see around the office in person.

A bigger challenge for me is my coffee consumption, however, now I have the machine just beside my computer.

I was always a big coffee drinker but today it’s gone off the scale, it’s stratospheric.

Another thing that takes a lot of getting used to is not moving as much as I would in the office, calling to other’s desks.

Today I have to remind myself to get up every once in a while and move around and that’s because I don’t get distracted easily.

In fact, it is the lack of distractions that is a problem. I have found myself sitting in the chair going from call to call without a break. Some distractions to get me up and walking around would be good!

One positive aspect is that my diet has improved massively. In my role I would have been out at breakfast, lunch and dinner events a couple of times a week. At home I am lunching more healthily. I love cooking and I am eating a home-cooked dinner every evening. I might even come out of this a few kilogrammes lighter!

I am not a natural home worker so I am not sure that I am loving any of it. I live close to the office and I am not really even saving on commute time either but I am lucky in that I have space right at the top of the house where I have my desk set up, out of the way of the others at home where I can quite happily conduct my meetings in peace.

I think we are very fortunate to be able to continue our jobs safely from home and we’re not directly affected. My wife is a doctor and out on the front line of this crisis. We have four children, and the eldest is in England where she works in the NHS and is playing her part there, and the other three are in the house with me, doing their various uni and school work.

Coming on the back of this I think we will see a whole change in many areas of our lives. I believe people will evaluate things in a different way and make sure they have a better work/life balance now they’ve been forced to try it out and as a chief executive, I would be very supportive of that.

‘Work will get done when it needs done, we don’t want folk stressed’

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William Hamilton, chief exeuctive of Liberty IT

William Hamilton, chief exeuctive of Liberty IT

William Hamilton, chief exeuctive of Liberty IT

William Hamilton, managing director of Liberty IT

A lot of my staff have the option to work from home when they need a bit of quiet time but for me this is slightly different as I’m always office-based. I think this is going to be a purposeful experience, personally.

It’s great for getting that focus time and that’s only come about because it’s been enforced. My days are about meetings. I have kept the same schedule of meetings I have but they’re done differently over video as we’ve a great system now set in place.

My three sons are older and two have returned from university. The third is working in London and I believe he will try to get back soon so all of that has created a different set-up in terms of going through groceries. We are eating a lot more food! I think the biggest issue with working from home is the human challenge. We all need to work together and feed interaction. I know it may be different for me having older children but there are many of my employees who have young children and some have caring duties, so we prioritise the human connection aspect of working from home so everyone can feel connected.

Flexibility is also key to supporting those with extra duties at home so we are understanding that work hours won’t be as uniform. What we’re telling people is: do what you can but only after you look after yourself and your family. We are very much focused on putting people first, work will get done when it needs to get done, we don’t want people stressing about it and if they genuinely can’t find the time to work that’s okay too. We encourage our teams to take some time at the end of the week – whether that’s a team catch up, or finishing a little earlier.. We get a coffee and have a chat and that keeps the human connection going. I think we would sit here and think about how challenging everything is right now but during all of it, nothing compares to what the NHS are dealing with. You can’t not shout out to those who are bearing the brunt of this.

We have the luxury to work from home. They don’t.

‘Every Friday we do a showcase and talk about what we’ve done’

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Terry Canning, chief executive of CattleEye, with Lily

Terry Canning, chief executive of CattleEye, with Lily

Terry Canning, chief executive of CattleEye, with Lily

Terry Canning (47) is founder and chief executive of agri IT company CattleEye. It’s a video analytics platform for monitoring cattle welfare. He’s now working from home in south Belfast, where he lives with wife Jayne, also 47, an entrepreneurial expert at Oxford University, twin daughters Emily and Grace (13) and Daniel (11).

We decided the week of March 17 to work from home. There’s six of us, myself and a team of data scientists and application developers, and we’re usually based at Catalyst Inc in the Titanic Quarter. It’s all working out well as we can call each other and hold video conferences. Most of our work is around software development and data science. We have a daily stand-up meeting at 9.30am. We call it a stand-up but we do it sitting down.

I think everyone is pretty happy with things, everyone is still cheerful and productive, and we use programmes like Microsoft Teams and video conferencing to stay in touch. I use our garden room for working from home — basically it’s an outdoor room, like a garage, where we store our garden furniture normally. I was able to pull that out to get settled in, and my wife Jayne has a desk in it as well for her work. The kids know not to disturb me though the dog Lily does come in now and again. I do try and get up every morning at the same time and do a run on the tow path, then get the kids up and make sure they’re in a routine.

Before we would have had lunch in the Catalyst canteen, so we’ve never had really big business lunches out. Now, we’re having more family meals together, the kids might cook something like soup for lunch, for example. The kids take the dog out at lunchtime for a bit of exercise so there’s bit of a routine. They’re being assigned their school work on Microsoft Teams and enjoying it so far, though they are missing their friends. Overall, I am liking home working and have a really good set-up. It’s nice to have more family time. But we’re still sociable as a team in work.

Every Friday we do a showcase, where we talk about what we’ve done all week, and have a beer and pizza remotely. I do think what’s happened is going to bring major changes to how companies work. We’ll all travel less in future and do more work remotely.

‘There is less craic and banter and I miss that, as I’m a people person’

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Clare Guinness

Clare Guinness

Clare Guinness

Clare Guinness (44) is chief operating officer of property development company Montreaux Ltd, based in Staines-upon-Thames, and former chief executive of Warrenpoint Harbour Authority. She’s married to Gary (52), a stay-at-home dad, and they have two children, Anna (7) and James (6). They live in south Belfast.

I always worked one day a week from home, and always on a Friday. I used to take the red-eye to London on a Monday morning and came back on Thursday evening, so this is a big change. Last week was my third week working from home. We have a three-storey house and I’m right at the top in the attic.

It means you’re up and away and out of the day to day distractions and you’re not disrupted. It’s a bright and airy room and we have superfast broadband so there’s everything you need. There can be problems with working from home — one of my friends was having back trouble from behind over a laptop but you do need the bigger screen to prevent that. Airpods (earphones) have been really good as well. You just need to make sure you’re not bending over all the time and hurting your back, as well as making use of things like video conferencing.

My husband has always been at home with the children, James (6) and Anna (7). He’s now doing the home schooling and I think he’s more stressed with the home schooling than I am with the home working. And I can’t help because I’m home working, even though I am here in the house.

When I’m on conference calls at the minute, people’s kids are walking into the room during the call, and people are saying: “Here’s Florence, say hello to Florence”. But my kids haven’t done that once as they’re so disciplined and so used to me working from home one day a week. Lunchtimes have gotten a lot shorter — my lunch was just 20 minutes today, and I just had a sandwich. And there’s no sociable aspect to lunch any more, as you’re not lunching with clients or colleagues. You’re saving money and saving time but there’s a lot less personal interaction.

There’s no more corporate dressing so I can sit here in a pair of jeans and a shirt. But on the other hand, you’re less connected to the business community.

It’s a lot more hectic and intense with a lot more Zoom and phone calls. But the new arrangement means I’m always home for dinner and we’re all having a bit more family time. What’s happened now will definitely change things for business in the future.

And when you focus on people’s productivity, it is up when they are home working. There won’t be the same emphasis on physical offices going forward so long as you have good protocols, good equipment and you make sure you’re doing what you should be,

There’s nothing to be afraid of in home working, though I have realised that I’m more sedentary. You also have to make sure that you get up at a normal time and I’ve been going out for a walk on the towpath first thing. Some of our members of staff live on their own and I would feel concerned that home working could lead to isolation. So we now have some protocols around team meetings and video conferencing to make sure everyone still feels part of a team and part of the business. There is less craic and less banter with working from home. I do miss that, because I am a people person.

‘Have a routine and try and stick to it’

Janice Gault (56), Belfast, chief executive, Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF)

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Janice Gault

Janice Gault

Janice Gault

One of the biggest challenges of working from home is getting yourself into a work state of mind. It’s tempting to have the TV on in the background but in reality you need to create a home office environment. We’ve created a work area and leave laptops etc there at the end of the day.

One of the big things I’ve noticed while working at home is the level of birdsong! The birds seem to chirp away merrily and loudly, particularly when you’re on the phone. It’s also amazing the amount of things you see that need to be cleaned instantly. In some ways there are less distractions and it’s easier to concentrate.

My eating habits have been pretty good because I’ve been sticking to breakfast, lunch and dinner with the odd afternoon snack (generally deeply unhealthy. The snack cupboard is now running very low).

I think the challenge of cooking everything and planning what to eat is still pretty enjoyable. The constant flow of dirty dishes definitely less so!

A bonus is I get to wear my slippers all the time, which is definitely not a good look and never shared on any video calling. The experience has made me slightly more disciplined and I’ve found that listening to webinars have proved very useful in the current circumstances.

The temptation to overwork has been prevented by setting up ‘an office’ on our dining room table but it’s difficult especially when people may be looking for quick answers or some reassurance.

I’m very lucky as I really only have myself to manage. My partner Dan would argue on this point and say that I am constantly trying to manage him (I’m failing).

Normally we are not together during the week as he lives in the Isle of Man, or as he tenderly refers to it “The Isle of Dan”, so for us there’s possibly a bit of novelty to being together all the time. If you ask me in a week, this may have worn off!

We’re just off the Ormeau Road in Belfast sitting in the dining area of our house.

Next week we plan to move from the dining room table to a trestle table looking into the back courtyard where the daffodils have come out.

Strangely I’m looking forward to this on two fronts: one, a better view, and two, getting the table back to have dinner at!

The best advice I would give to people working from home is to have a routine and try and stick to it. Also try to differentiate between weekdays and weekends.

During the week, get up and be at your desk for the normal time. Go for your daily exercise at lunchtime and try and finish as normal in the evening.

‘I’m fortunate that it’s me alone and I don’t have distractions’

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Aodhan Connolly

Aodhan Connolly

Aodhan Connolly

Aodhan Connolly (43) south Belfast, director Northern Ireland Retail Consortium

My job is mostly about business rates and Brexit but now it’s about keeping the supply chain going and doing work that matters to me, my family, your family and our neighbours, and the challenge with that - working from home - means it’s hard to switch off.

I have always worked from home and I’ve always found it hard to put the top down on the laptop, so it’s about having discipline which sometimes is not about making sure you get to your desk but it’s also about knowing when to stop and when to turn off the phone and stop looking at the screen.

That discipline should also be used to take breaks, even if that’s five minutes every hour to walk in the garden or put a wash on.

I’m a big old comfort eater and if I get stressed I’ll nibble, so I make sure I have meal plans, right now that’s turkey burgers in a wrap. Sticking to those plans mean you are sticking to a budget too and you’ll spend less time shopping.

Usually lunch is last night’s dinner and it works well.

I’m fortunate in that it’s me all day alone so I don’t have a lot of distractions. I have my son at the weekends, who is 14 and rugby mad.

The most important aspect of working from home for those in this position is to take care of your mental health. I’m a sociable person and I love to get out to meet people so it’s important for me to make sure I have that social contact every day and I’m lucky we have a great team in England, Scotland and Wales who talk all the time.

I also do a lot of interviews over the phone now and last week I did one for BBC Wales, during which I wore a shirt, tie, waistcoat and pocket watch but I had my running bottoms and trainers on the bottom half, so style has taken a hit.

What we need to remember is that this is new and a scary time for everyone, from the First and Deputy First Ministers to those working on the tills and those sitting at home.

I think the main thing is that people need to realise that this is a really difficult situation. Follow the rules and look out for each other. My neighbour is a doctor and she left two scones on my doorstep and that meant the world to me.


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