Professor Jo Smedley, from the University of South Wales, UK, provides some thoughts on preparing for successful online working.

Autumn is a time of mists, mellow fruitfulness and, in preparation for winter, moving life slowly back indoors. As such it’s a great time for healthy rejuvenation, to reflect on ‘what works’ and to plan new activities.

With the extensive engagement of technology on work and play - with some notables now even moving away from day-to-day online activity, such reflection could include physical and virtual perspectives.

There are some testing questions to consider. What is the impact of online engagement? Are we healthy enough - physically and mentally to engage? Do we have the appropriate online skills? How can we prepare effectively?

What is the impact of online engagement?

Online engagement means different things to different people. It’s helpful from a personal and organisational viewpoint to consider some sustainability perspectives. With more of us using computers at work, involving considerable use of a mouse, a relatively heavy load is being placed on the small muscles of the lower arm and hand.

This also leads to movement of the nerves in the arm and shoulder. In addition, as people are travelling to and from work, instead of their hands and fingers being relatively rested, they are being used on smartphones, with associated posture issues.

Repetitive strain injuries are more common in older adults - a quarter (24%) of 41 - 63-year olds have had RSI, compared to one in six (16%) of those aged 18-30 (Strain, 2018). Wrists are the most common trouble spots (69%), followed by fingers (29%), forearms (23%) and thumbs (20%). Even knees and feet can suffer if a job involves a lot of kneeling, or operating foot pedals on equipment.

To avoid any physical limitations in future activities, it’s crucial that an effective balance of activity and rest is pursued.

Demonstrating the life-wide impact of modern technologies, a survey on adult mobile habits (Deloitte, 2017) showed that 38 per cent of adults admitted they used their smartphone too much. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, that was more than half. 79 per cent of us check our phones before we go to sleep and 55 per cent access within 15 minutes of waking up – a worrying on-the-go statistic on mental health.

So, it might be time to think about reducing our screen time. Some steps could include turning off notifications, finding out how much you’re using your phone, setting up phone-free periods every day, not using your phone as an alarm clock and training yourself with ‘tech breaks.’

How is your physical and mental health?

Some of us are gym lovers and some prefer to spectate. Studies have shown that exercise participation does wonders for our overall heart health, immune system, and aging - even if it’s hard. No matter what age you are, proper nutrition is important.

Eating healthily when you are younger can prepare you to sustain your future. Some will run 5k while others will lift weights. Whatever your level, age, capability and motivation, the fitter you are, the more likely you will be to enjoy and get the most out of the enjoyment of physical health and maintain an active lifestyle.

Mental and physical health are equally important to assuring a quality health and life style. Good mental health enables you to think, feel and react to effectively and efficiently live your life. It’s important to keep in good mental shape to avoid feeling overloaded, getting ‘burnt out’ or overwhelmed.

Mental health problems affect around one in four people in any given year. Whereas physical health often generates visible symptoms, mental health issues can often be invisible while being upsetting, confusing and frightening.

Most people know someone who has been there. It can happen to people from all walks of life.

Do you have the appropriate skills?

Online working provides flexibility and convenience but it can be a lot more challenging than it may seem. Some online skills are persistence, effective time management, technical skills, reading and writing competence, motivation and independence.

The five senses are crucial for learning, memory and engagement and are used differently in online working. For example, as touch is limited, then this needs to be substituted by increased use of another sense to substitute and maintain the overall communication.

The more our senses are used in information sharing, individually and in combination, the greater our brains are engaged, and memories remembered. The more vividly the memory of sense impression is created, the greater the impact on memory (Smedley, 2018).

Leaving familiar ways of working and branching out to alternative approaches is exciting, but it also involves a host of considerations that have nothing to do with why it’s being done.

Understanding how you work and learn is an important part of taking care of yourself - both in mind and body. Researching what’s available beforehand is crucial, as is the courage to access the support that will be there for you. The worst thing you can do is to isolate yourself.

There are often workshops available to encourage and support reflection and develop new skills. It all helps the maintenance of good mind and body health and to maintain links with the wider learning and work community. And it’s definitely worth it!

Often forgotten ‘bonus’ skills resulting from online working are time management, personal organisation, research skills, social networking, presenting ideas, reasoning, decision making, persuasion, problem-solving, commitment, self-motivation, confidence, listening and budgeting.

How can we collaborative effectively online?

In a 24/7 world – for that’s what online is - participants need to be nurtured with focused and timely response times. You may have seen online retail sites offering in-the-moment assistive chat facilities in a quest to maintain customer interest and finalise a purchase. We live in a ‘now’ world - the impact of initiatives needs to be quickly seen as relevant to individual engagers with visible benefits.

In assuring and maintaining a good quality of health, moderation is the key. As has become evident in today’s use of technology, addictive elements prevail. Some will succumb while others are successful in maintaining a healthy balance.

Providing a safe working environment that supports wellbeing and promotes good physical and mental health will sustain a culture of change. It will also nurture a responsive workforce who, being confident and healthy as individuals and as a group, are able to adapt positively, creatively and enthusiastically, demonstrating ‘We need to remember that we are the masters of technology, it is not the master of us’ (Branson, 2018).