The corona measures have introduced much of the Netherlands to working at home. And it works better for one person than the other. With her 19 years of working at home, Management Assistant Ilse Hoekstein-Philips (3mE) of the J.M. Burgerscentrum can easily be called a working at home expert. We spoke to her in her kitchen while the bread machine was baking a loaf in the background. “I’m baking in between. Breaks are just as important as the work you are doing,” she says.
Working at home was not common 19 years ago. How did you manage to work at home?
“At first I worked full-time on campus. Then I had three children in four years’ time and thought that I could do one of two things: stop working and stay at home for the children, or keep working and bring the children to the daycare centre every day. The second option meant that almost my whole salary would go to the daycare centre. At a certain point I hit upon the idea of working at home one day a week. Luckily I could do so.”
Did it take a lot of effort to get that agreed?
“It wasn’t that hard, actually. My supervisor at the time, Professor Gijs Ooms, agreed quickly. As Ooms thought it was a good idea, the HR Department agreed. We agreed that I would try it for a year and if it didn’t work, I would return to campus full-time. I was an interesting test case for HR. What makes TU Delft a special place to work is that, to my mind, it supports its staff and thinks about solutions with them.”
What do you actually do? Are they things that you can do at home?
“So I work for the J.M. Burgerscentrum which is a collaboration between several Dutch universities in the field of fluid dynamics. My work is very diverse. In short, I do everything that has to do with the overheads. I coordinate the annual report, help organise courses and the Burgers Symposium, update the website, check the mailbox and so on. I make sure that I do the jobs which I need to concentrate on fully – such as compiling the annual report – on my working at home day.”
A lot of people are now struggling with combining young children and working at home. How did you do that when your children were young?
“Right from the start I taught them that Mama doesn’t want to be disturbed when she’s working. If you teach them that when they’re little, it works. I collected them from school in the afternoon and we sat together with a cup of tea and a cookie and talked about their day at school. My mother did that too. It’s such a treasure that I could do this with them. It’s much tougher for the parents who are now having to work from home unexpectedly because of the corona measures as their children aren’t used to it.”
Did the combination of little children and working at home always go so smoothly?
“No, not always. One afternoon when I was working on the annual report, I heard one of the boys upstairs suddenly start crying loudly. My oldest boy, he was then five, came straight to me to say that he would comfort his little brother. I thought that that was really sweet until I heard my younger boy cry even more loudly. I went upstairs and found him in his bed covered in Nivea cream and talcum powder. My oldest son said, ‘Mama also always applies a salve if we hurt somewhere’. Not much happened to that annual report that afternoon.”
Did you have to change anything at home?
“Not really. The first few years I simply worked at the kitchen table. When it was dinner time I closed the laptop and pushed it aside. We moved a couple of years ago and converted the garage into an office. It also has noise insulation made from a special sort of felt. It was a great move.”
And did your colleagues have to adjust?
“I don’t have many direct colleagues and my contact is mostly with my supervisor. That makes working at home easier. Even then we consulted a lot via email and telephone.”
Can anyone work at home? How can you make sure that you stay productive at home?
“I don’t think everyone is suited to working at home, whatever your job. You need discipline to be productive. You need to be able to plan well and at the same time, be flexible. If my work day is interrupted by something, I catch up in the evening or in the weekend. You also need to plan breaks. At the office you chat with colleagues at the coffee machine or go for a walk at lunchtime. The most important thing is to strike the right balance.”
It’s very tempting to just quickly open your laptop and check your emails at home. How do you maintain a good work-life balance?
“Yes, that is tricky. In my case, the first half of the academic year is always extremely busy and I work many extra hours. What I do is try to do ‘home things’ during the day, for example baking bread, in between.”
The corona crisis is forcing you and lots of other people to work from home full-time. How has your work changed because of this?
“If I work at TU Delft, I share an office with my supervisor, Professor GertJan van Heijst and my previous supervisor Professor Ooms. I mostly miss chatting about the children, the garden or Netflix series. We phone at least once a week to catch up. For the rest it’s a question of mutual trust, good consultation and, in particular, keeping contact about how working from home is going.”
Ilse Hoekstein’s working at home tips
- Make sure you have a good place to work. It can be hard to be really productive with just a small IKEA desk and an old office chair. Some employers have a budget for this. If yours does not, maybe your partner’s employer does. We bought design furniture ourselves for the office.
- Make sure you have a pleasant and attractive work space instead of a cold corner. I don’t mean you should fill up your desk with all sorts of things. In our office we have some nice paintings on the wall which I enjoy looking at. It gives you a little distraction, but not too much.
- Get ready for the day. Put on nice clothes and brush up. It’s good for your self-confidence.
- Make sure you move enough to compensate for all that sitting. I do 30 minutes of gym training every day to keep my muscles and body strong.
- Rest is just as important as the work. Take a walk at lunchtime, fold the laundry in between, or grab another moment of rest. See what works best for you.