Lockdown Life: Home and work life with Zuhlke's Eadred Birchenough

Screenshot 2020-06-19 at 17.04.05

With the internet full of accounts of how businesses have accommodated and adapted with the lockdown, it feels like it missed the account of the employee; the person who now has more concerns and now working from a bedroom, kitchen table or even couch while life in the family still carries on around them.

Manchester Digital spoke to Eadred Birchenough from Zuhlke Engineering (normally working in the city centre) about his experience of how life both home and work has changed, but most importantly how it affected his family's life.

What do you do and for how long?

I am currently a Principal Consultant, who joined Zuhlke Engineering over 5 years ago. In practice this means the bulk of my time is spent working on client projects, and as was the case when the lockdown was announced, working at the client’s site. In between I can get involved in several activities, such as mentoring, internal team-led training activities, recruitment and providing technical advice for sales.

When did work life change?

Things first changed on the Tuesday just prior to the lockdown being announced. At the time my daughter, 6, had had a lingering bad cough and I received a phone call from the school indicating that both her and her younger brother, 3, would have to be kept off school as a precaution. This meant that my wife and I had to quickly come up with a plan about how we could share the childcare between us whilst still working our full-time jobs.

We agreed to do alternate days Tuesday to Friday, with Monday split between the two of us. What was originally supposed to be for two weeks was soon overtaken by events, and we’ve been trying to keep to the same routine ever since.

I am very fortunate that Zuhlke have been very flexible as the work I was doing with the client mainly involved either solo development work, or one on one meetings with people who were off site anyway. In terms of work activities, it has not been too much of a stretch to adapt. Standard video conferencing and screen sharing facilities has made collaboration with clients very smooth. Sometimes though I do miss being able to ask a quick question (or make a joke) across a desk – instant messaging is not a complete substitute for this, no matter what gifs and emojis I have at my disposal.

Zuhlke have understood my situation and although I am not quite making up my proper hours due to the childcare situation, they have been kind enough to take this hit themselves. Really, I can’t ask anything more.

We have also been offered regular sessions on mental health and wellbeing to support us all when dealing with the strains of lockdown. 

Our weekly short catchup with everyone in the Manchester office just to check in, with little or no work discussions, have really helped to see how everyone is doing. The team has grown very rapidly since lockdown began, so it has also been my opportunity to meet new colleagues.

Zuhlke UK have also increased the frequency of the regular all hands meetings (connecting us to our London teams), which has been good for keeping us all up to date on a rapidly changing situation. The management have been transparent about how the company has been dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and the steps they are taking to prioritise both the safety and job security of employees. It has been reassuring to see that Zuhlke have been coping well and still growing.

How has it affected family life?

On the positive side I do see much more of my kids than I would normally do, and it has given me the opportunity to do some fun activities with them. Before all this, in particular because of the commute, I wasn’t usually able to spend much time with them outside their teatime/bedtime/bathtime routine. We are spending more mealtimes with them, and it’s been good to see them during the day.

It’s sometimes difficult to find activities that will keep them both entertained due to the age difference. Physical activities have been the most successful, so with the good weather we’ve been going out for walks or rides a lot, going on the trampoline or kicking a football about, which is something I’d never be able to do in a normal working week.

What have you enjoyed the most?

The fact that the weather has been (mainly) so good has helped. Being able to work with the window open and music playing makes for a nice working environment.

The lockdown has also made it easier for me to exercise more, which was something I was very bad at doing previously, since it is an opportunity to get out of the house for a change of scenery. I’ve dug my bike out of the cellar and have been using it to explore my surroundings a couple of times a week. Where I live there is a network of old looplines that are now foot and cycle paths, and the Bridgewater Canal is close by, so it’s easy to go quite far without dealing with road traffic. 

Getting out on my own is a good way to clear my head and get back some space that you miss when being confined in the house with a lot of people.

What has been hard? How have you adapted?

Because of the additional need to provide childcare whilst still trying to deliver on projects as usual, life got a lot busier. Although I am supposed to be looking after the kids for 2 and a half days a week,  I still try and cram a couple of hours in every day, even on ‘non-working’ days. It is also too easy to be responding to emails and messages on my phone when I’m not supposed to be, but I try as far as possible to stick to particular hours. I’m also firm on not doing work in the evening as that is the only real down time in the day.

 The other thing I’ve noticed is not having any downtime that would normally be provided by the daily commute and my lunch break, where now instead I am shifting between work and childcare, sometimes several times a day. These would be the times where I’d normally read, learn, reflect or just zone out. This is the gap the cycling has filled.

 What has been especially difficult is trying to home school the children. Our primary school post daily lesson materials each day, which at least means there’s a structure you can try to follow. However, it is impossible to simultaneously engage both a 3 and a 6-year-old with schoolwork. My focus has been on my daughter, but even then, it is difficult to keep her attention on work when her brother is playing (or misbehaving) nearby. There is an element of guilt in that I’m not giving them the education they need.

 Overall, the general effect has been to blur the boundaries between work and home life. Although my working day is no longer than normal, it feels harder. A good cycling analogy I read recently is that the lockdown is like a false flat, a stretch of road that looks level but in fact has a slight incline. You feel like you should be able to cope, nothing much is too different, but something’s not quite right – things feel like a bit more of a struggle than they ought to and it’s not clear why.

What will you take away from this time?

I certainly won’t be taking the commute for granted anymore and will appreciate the time it gives me to context switch and decompress.

I’ll be glad of the time I’ve been able to spend with the family.

I’m a lot fitter than I was before the lockdown. Being confined to my locality, and walking and cycling more, has meant I’ve become more familiar with my environment. It’s made me explore more of the backroads and pathways in a way you just never do when you usually travel by bus or car. In some way, it feels a lot like being a child again, when the only places you could get to independently were those you could get to under your own steam, and you become intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of your neighbourhood.

Want to share your lockdown life?

Get in touch with michael@manchesterdigital.com, we'd love to hear more about your experiences.

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