My first four days working from home brought me to the end of the week and I should now be looking forward to some downtime. The problem is, without a commute for most of the week and no change of scenery from office to flat, just how down will this time be? That is, will it be much different? Do I even want to be much more relaxed physically? I certainly don’t want my mood to go down through thinking too much or becoming aimless. I have been working, of course, but that was already pretty sedentary. What do I want of this downtime now that I can’t go anywhere? My regular park runs are cancelled, gyms are closing, theatres and restaurants too. As of Monday evening, instructions to stay at home have only intensified.

If this is to continue for months potentially, I need to nail down some new routines and methods for staying sane, ideas which might in some way reflect some observations I already shared in this blog for home working.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t get far with hatching a plan on Friday evening. My partner and I just made dinner, read and watched TV. We would have done that anyway of course.

Then, at 6am on Saturday morning, someone’s alarm went off. I don’t mean a bedside clock, it was a very loud fire or burglar alarm. It was piercing, persistent and went on for hours. This happens everywhere obviously, but something like this really makes you think about how stuck in one place you are.

OK, so there were loads of things I could do at home of a Saturday. I have audio books, music and podcasts and, more importantly, a phone on which to consume the lot. But after a while, well, my ears got sore as much as anything. I switched to bigger headphones, but then I couldn’t hear the outside world, and this made household tasks harder.

The saving grace was catching up with friends and family. I can’t take credit for this, other people started contacting me first, but these new conditions obviously made a lot of people see a chance to get in touch with people as more important than usual. Faced with the prospect of weeks or months physically cut off from friends and family, it seems many of us decided to really get to grips with the technology available for conference calling and spent virtual time together.

The thing which became clear over this weekend is that there really are a lot of different ways of doing this, on computer or phone. Some are clearly more accessible than others. It was also clear that, while voice calling is fine, people with vision really will appreciate seeing faces.

By the end of the weekend I’d had contact with people in various ways.

(1) by Zoom, perfectly good and can handle lots of people, but a bit of a long-winded set up if you aren’t a confident phone user.

(2) WhatsApp voice and video calling. Well, the voice calls are fine but only support four people max. Try to add a fifth and one of the first four drops off. Group videos seem a complete disaster. It seemed like only two callers can do this at once. I’ll amend this entry if I figure it out.

(3) Google Hangouts. I’ve now learned these can cope with 25 different devices at once, but that sounds like chaos. Three devices worked well for me though. That was six adults and a baby in our case. It is a little easier if you already have a Gmail or Google mail email address and, as of June this year, it looks like you’ll have to have one.

The point I’m making though is that this really turned the weekend round. I didn’t think I’d be talking about a simple family chat being quite uplifting, but it did make quite a difference. Maybe I’m just new to this, but I soon forgot I was on a video link and it just felt like people from three households were catching up in the same room. Clearly there’s no substitute for the real thing, but again I felt better and all the others actually made a point of texting round afterwards to say they enjoyed it more than they expected and that we should do it again. We even got quite a response from the one-year-old at the party.

Maybe we were all feeling the current situation more than we realised. I might have done this on any other weekend and not been remotely sentimental about it. We are where we are, however, and it did help us all. It certainly gave my ears a rest. By the end of the weekend, I’d got through three more video calls. I even reached the point where I wasn’t forever showing friends and family a jerky picture of my lounge ceiling! By Sunday evening, I video called my mother, on WhatsApp this time, to check on the health of a couple of swedes rolling around in the bottom of our fridge, the vegetable you understand. I dislike current comparisons to war efforts, but hacking up swede on a Sunday afternoon did have the ring of rationing about it. This I don’t recommend.

But wherever you are and whatever you do, I would urge people to visit this page for step by step tips on how to get a Google Hangouts meeting started. It all looks accessible to me and a usable app called Hangouts also exists for Apple, Android and Chrome phones. I use Apple myself and the app is both easy to set up and learn. You can fix on the spot video chats or prearrange them by invite. I recommend invitations as it clearly gives people the chance to make themselves available.

People with older PCs or laptops may not have sufficiently good cameras or microphones. Others may be prompted to download a plug-in, but I suggest you just follow the simple instructions. If I can do it, you definitely can. The app might be better for most though as your phone will already have a camera and microphone good enough to cope.

I’m no tech expert, but do try it. If nothing else, it’ll give you a break from thinking about what you should do next to pass the time. We are social animals, so use the available technology to stay that way.

Andy Law, Development Manager, 24 March 2020

Andy has written several blogs for our COVID-19 resources page, covering: staying active, shopping, and cabin fever