Working remotely: Criminology in a time of Covid-19

Pace yourself and prioritise. It is too easy to work beyond healthy work limits. Begin to create daily rituals that include breaks.

Dr Charlotte Harris and Dr Helen Jones

How is the BSC – a Society of members with shared interests but geographically disparate –  working during the COVID-19 pandemic? Like you, our sense of normality has changed enormously over the past week. Our sense of ontological security has been rocked.

Many of you will have experience of working from home. It has been part of a working pattern for academics almost since time began. But for most, shared experience was grounded in being present with students through teaching and with colleagues through research activities.  Now, this has  become a more distant set of activities.  And working from home may be even less routine for those who work as criminologists outside academia.   Life has changed perhaps less for us, the paid staff of the BSC, as we routinely work from home and, we wanted to share our experiences – and those of other criminologists – to suggest ideas that might help as we negotiate this isolated and potentially isolating landscape.

Creating a Workspace

As an academic, you might have lots of experience of working from home, or you might have done this infrequently. You might need long-term or short-term ‘fixes’ to help you work remotely. Try to get clarity from your institution of what they are providing. Will your employer pay for your internet costs, pay for an ergonomically suitable workstation (including desk, chair, lighting, webcam, headset). If you need these things immediately, it might be worth buying them now, keeping the receipts and trying to claim the cost back later. But ask first if possible.

You may not have a separate room at home that you can work in. A room divider might be useful to not only give you a blank space behind you when you are on the webcam, but also to pin things to and to screen off your workspace when you are done for the day. Creating a sense of work/home separation is vital to your mental health.

Pace yourself and prioritise. It is too easy to work beyond healthy work limits. Begin to create daily rituals that include breaks. You might be self-isolating but you can still do some stretches in front of a window, brew some tea, set a timer for regular breaks

Sharing a workspace

One thing has changed even for some of us at the BSC office – you will probably not be the only person working from home.  You may have to share workspace with family members, some of them children.  And it won’t be just the children who might struggle to differentiate work and leisure time and contact.  Have set times to take a break, make coffee, establish  a timetable for the ‘oncall’ parent but try and be flexible to spontaneity and the joyous interruption.

Keep a work journal

You might already do this: many people who work remotely do. It is easy to lose track of what you have been doing. At work our day is punctuated by teaching, visiting the library, having a meeting (that is likely to be minuted), or having a coffee with colleague. You do not get this at home, so make a note for yourself of what you have done, what you need to do (and tick those things off your list as you do them) and document decisions taken. Do this and your work doesn’t become invisible.


Communication is central of effective remote working. You will need ways of clarifying immediate questions, coupled with regular scheduled meetings.  There are a range of tools and your university is responsible for organising this. It might be Slack, Hangout Chats, Skype, Teams or some other communication tool but you shouldn’t have to figure this out for yourself. There has to be an organisational strategy underpinning communication, even in these quickly evolving times.

Your institutional IT protocols should allow you to access all necessary resources remotely.  However, this might take time to arrange and can seem insurmountable if you are not very technologically-minded, and have never had to be.   Don’t panic, most will be sortable.

It might help you (and other people) feel less isolated if you have webcam on. We are visual creatures and it helps to visually connect with others. But if a camera does not work for you, do not feel pressurised to have the camera on. Don’t give in to pressure.

Managing emails

How can we avoid the perils of endless emails? In the era of ‘reply all’ it can feel that every email needs to be responded to, and now. Well they do not. Practice what you want other people to do. If an email is for information only, put those recipients into the C.C. panel and make it clear that they do not have to reply. Just check emails twice a day and also let people know. This allows more reflection time, and you will notice that some of the ‘Urgent’ emails have already been answered. It is about managing expectations, so be clear about what you can and cannot do.

Being human

Even in these pressured and quickly changing (and challenging) days, being present to your colleagues is a good thing. A quick message (entitled ‘Good Morning’), that people know is non-urgent and they do not have to reply to can go a long way to creating a sense of camaraderie. A paragraph of what you did yesterday and what you plan to do today would suffice. Maybe something funny or a small win (‘I got what I needed from the supermarket!’): it doesn’t have to be work related.

Your message may be as small as ‘I’m here’ when you start work, but it helps to create a sense of presence and awareness that we are still here and we still matter. If you feel isolated reach out, to a colleague, to your Faculty head, to us here at the BSC (because we are human too and we have been working remotely for many, many years).

Words of Wisdom from our colleagues

Emma Milne, University of Plymouth – As much as is possible, separate work and home – don’t work on your sofa or bed, work at a table and (ideally) in a spare room. So work stays work and home stays home.

Tim Newburn, LSE – On the issue of extended periods at home trying to write etc, I think the greatest dangers of remote working relate to the absence of (a) structure, and (b) human contact. I try (and often fail, but still try) to have a sense of the shape of the day. It is easier to keep going, ironically, if one has regular breaks. So, dividing the day into chunks tends to help. Then, regular checking in with others is crucial (another thing I’m only too good at letting slide). I think in the coming weeks and months we’ll discover that Skype/Zoom/FaceTime etc and going to be essential tools for keeping in touch with colleagues as well as friends and for looking after our own, and others, mental health. Other than that, I recommend both listening to lots of music and reading lots of fiction. Both are extraordinarily good for the soul.

Vicky Canning, University of Bristol – Time: the amount of time which goes into effective – quality – online teaching should not be underestimated and will shift the current workload model. Online teaching also opens up issues on both the delivery of sensitive materials and copyright with regard to use of online materials and images. Online institutions generally have legal teams to consider potentially libellous claims (such as when discussing corporate crime). This puts individuals at serious risk (I have 3 colleagues taken through court for this) so this should be considered. Also, from a worker rights perspective, we differ from other countries in that our institution owns copyright to our work. Whilst replay actually legally requires our permission to be reused under performance rights (so universities can own it, but not play it without our explicit permission) however this is not the case for lecture slides. As such, it would be good to have a formal agreement in kind from the University that we can delete our materials at the end of term so we are not at risk of writing ourselves out of jobs.

James Treadwell, Staffordshire University –  Firstly, this is not something to fear, and my big lesson is, regardless of your mode of delivery, that a real passion for subject of criminology and a love of debate and teaching cuts across all forms of delivery. I really do believe that. Secondly in the early days it is easy to get concerned about how people react to you when you can’t see them, and that for me is often the big change between in person and online. In my experience many engage with webcams off in live sessions. Do not be too phased by it. Also, do not let recorded sessions make you try and adopt a style that is not you. After a while it becomes second nature. I really like the live online forum because it can actually help to be even more topical, post articles, news stories and things in the message board and be contemporary and you will not have too much to fear about the shift to online.  But as you spend more time delivering in these new ways, find time to do the simple things too, stretch your muscles, do some exercise, spend half hour with a book in the sun in the garden to make up for the time you would walking to and from lectures. It is still important you enjoy your job, but it is a job and it is now coming into a different part of your world. But it is a job. Now more than ever it is vital you do not let it take over that home world.

Emma Williams, Canterbury Christchurch University – Make a call to a colleague every day and talk.

Marian Duggan, University of Kent – Make a (realistic) schedule of the day / week where possible. I have this on a whiteboard, broken into hourly chunks. It is a helpful frame of reference for what I should be doing and when. I also use the Pomodoro Technique (time allocation system) to keep tasks to their allocated time. Info about this is available online. For people (like me) who are unable to keep their working space separate from their general living space, try to get in a routine of setting up and packing away your work stuff to mentally break between ‘work’ and ‘home’.

Lizzie Seal, University of Sussex – Don’t have a 5 year old.

Do you have any other tip that you can share?   Tweet us @BritSocCrim and use the hashtag #WorkingFromHome


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