Tips for Remote Work
—This is a guest post by Sarah Lin—
Working at home during a crisis is a lot different from working at home during normal times, but I’m grateful to have prior experience with one of those situations! I’m starting my 7th year of working at home as a professional librarian, so the process of working apart from my colleagues and users is something I’m used to. In 2016, I wrote an article for Spectrum (http://epubs.aallnet.org/i/695274-aall-spectrum-july-august-2016-volume-20-number-6/29) outlining my tips on running a technical services team remotely, and I think those points are useful for any other remote team. In this short post, I’ve tried to list out the more logistical habits, workflows and structures I’ve put in place over the years that are helping me cope in this new reality.
In terms of work-from-home structure, you want to think about the place you work, the equipment you use and the applications you need to do your job. My home situation has changed a few times since 2014, and I’ve worked in the dining room, the living room, my bedroom, my very own office, and now back to my bedroom again. Occasionally I’d work from a coffee shop or the library, or even my patio, but mostly in my home because I’m an introvert who likes to be at home. What has stayed constant is that I have a dedicated place where I work as well as a special bag where I would keep all my work stuff if I did need to either use my desk for something else or change location. The importance of this is to let my work disappear for a while, so that it doesn’t encroach into every aspect of my life. When I used our family desktop to log into Citrix, I wouldn’t turn it on at any other time, and I started to use the internet on my phone exclusively after work hours. Once I got my own work laptop, I would often tuck it in a drawer after work was over, or in my laptop bag. I’m still very much a paper person, so I have a special shelf where I can throw my notebook and paper detritus so I don’t have to see it on the weekends or evenings. I was initially resistant to having a second monitor, but have found it tremendously useful to reuse an old monitor we had lying around. I have noise-cancelling headphones for travel which I never used at home, but now that there are 4 other people at home with me all day, I’m finding them to be very useful. Earplugs work well, too.
Application usage is important to think through, because apps and software can make your life more complicated if they proliferate too much. Technically, all of the programs I use to help me get my job done, but I think there’s two categories: the software you use to actually do your job, and the software you use to make sure your job gets done. What you need to do your job is likely predetermined by your employer, but you might have some flexibility when it comes to other apps. I find that being able to do a modicum of work off of my phone is helpful, both over my morning cup of caffeine and during times (especially now) when I’m splitting my attention between actual work and my new “coworkers.” For me, having a way to chat with colleagues, either through Hangouts or Slack, is vital to attempt to replicate the social environment of the workplace. Then I also need tools to manage my to-do list and my time—Rachel Evans posted about Trello & Slack (http://blog.cssis.org/2020/03/19/taking-the-office-home-telework-place-spaces-with-trello-slack/) and I enjoy using Google Tasks and KanbanFlow for my personal to-dos.
With structures in place, I’ve created a number of habits over the years that have allowed me to be productive at home. I like quiet time in the morning, when I’ve got a cup of tea and can catch up on emails and reprioritize my day based on what I find. I’ve always had a time zone challenge to my workplaces, so meeting times were often a fairly regular block. At one employer that ended up being mornings and another was afternoons—these days I home-school in the mornings and work in the afternoons, so meetings have to fall then, with most in the 12-2 range to accommodate my boss in Ohio. Having those windows and a general feel for my day is something I have always communicated to my coworkers through another habit. These days it’s a Slack status, but at other times scheduling was something we covered in team meetings so that everyone knew what everyone else had going on. When spread across time zones, I created a chart showing overlap on days/times to help the team remember who was doing what, when. Those team meetings were a habit that I was sure to incorporate time to chat—when people work remotely, they don’t get the daily ‘watercooler’ interactions that those in the same space do and it’s important to incorporate relationship-building activities remotely, even if it takes up meeting time. The last habit that I created was boundaries; though each of my remote positions were slightly different in culture and norms, when I’m off work, I’m off. I log out, silence my phone, set my status to off, put away my papers and mentally switch off—even if I’m still in the same room as is happening more frequently these days. Boundaries are slightly more challenging of late, but over the years I’ve explained to my kids again and again what I do and how the money (and health insurance) I earn provides us with things we want. As a result, they are generally understanding when I remind them what I need to do, and that it has an end time. Meetings are a hard boundaries for me with my kids, and I try to accept small interruptions outside of meeting time to keep our relationships healthy.
With the framework of my habits and work structures established, it has been fairly easy for me to set up a few workflows so that work goes more smoothly. Documentation of everything has long been my go-to, especially meeting notes so there’s a communal record of decisions, ideas, and priorities. This is especially important because meetings—frequent ones, to both build support for initiatives and to share information—are hallmark of remote work and integral to actually getting things done. With priorities and schedules public and a solid routine at home, remote work has a better chance of success. This is so helpful now, when you might be interrupted by the emotional and physical needs of the people you live with multiple times a day (and maybe your own!). I’d always rather be doing work than writing about what work I’m going to do, but transparency is a key benefit of documentation and so essential when we’re not only all working remotely, but also doing it while our lives are in flux.
The last 3 weeks have brought with them a new mantra for my work-at-home life, echoing advice I received as a new mother: lower your expectations and then lower them some more. If you have others living with you, they will impinge on your plans. If you don’t, know that others do and you will assuredly run into challenges as their lives have changed and their work is impacted. Keeping your expectations in line with reality is important because it saves you any resentment when things don’t go the way you planned. It’s a hard thing to do, to look at the global situation and want things to go back to normal (I miss my home office a lot). Focusing on what you can do—reconfiguring your space, finding a new task app, catching up on professional reading—rather than how you wish life was takes a little bit of the stress away. Whenever you do have time in your new normal to turn to your work, I hope that refining your workflows, habits and the structures you use helps you be as productive as possible.