Working from Home
Some advice for PhD students and researchers working from home during COVID19.
Last updated March 18th 2020.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of my colleagues have reached out to me for advice on how to work from home effectively. In part, this is because my PhD has been punctuated by multiple departures from my university residence, and working remotely became my norm by my second year. I've worked from my parents' home for two summers while my Mom was fighting cervical cancer. I also had to leave campus abruptly twice to be with my Mom and family throughout her treatment. Sadly she passed away in December of 2018.
While COVID-19 presents a different challenge to our communities, I've found a lot of similarities between this and my past experience. Leaving campus with no set return date? Done that. Working remotely during the regular semester? Check. Dreadful uncertainty about the state of the world and financial stress? You bet. While, I've been here before, I suspect more than a few of you have been as well. We'll get through this.
If you're a graduate student working from home for the first time, you'll undoubtedly find out quickly what does and doesn't work for you. If you're working from a residence that's less familiar to you because you're staying with family or friends, welcome! My dog Luna and I are riding out the next few months with my Dad and his dog Bella, staying in the house I lived in when I went to high school (ten years ago already ugh..). Below are some tips that have worked for me so far. I like to think of myself as an extroverted introvert, so I'm naturally a bit of a homebody. Hopefully you find utility in these tips!
Tip 1: Don't expect to be as productive at home as you were in the office overnight.
This is crucial, foundational advice to anyone in this period, but also applies during any big life transition.
Adjusting to working from home is exactly that: an adjustment. It will take time to feel settled, especially if you had to leave your personal apartment or dorm. There will be hiccups: from things left behind (I left my dog's bowls on campus, oops); technology woes (who really knows how to use zoom yet?); to the emotional weight of the world (I have no idea where we'll be in 3 months...). For some, there is also the real stress of adjusting to working from home while balancing kids who are out of school or daycare for the next 2-3 weeks, or caregiving needs for those with aging parents or family with special needs. It will be stressful, and hard, and frustrating. For some it may also be extremely isolating if you're in quarantine at home alone when you're used to working in a social environment, or living with friends.
Recognize your stress, and acknowledge it. A lot of people think that expressing stress, or grief about this time only serves to provoke anxiety and depression in others. Yet, fear-mongering on Facebook or hoarding toilet paper is very different from acknowledging that you as an individual are tired and afraid of what's happening. Megan Devine, author of "It's OK that you're not OK" notes that "telling the truth about what hurts let's others know that it's okay to tell their truth." Acknowledging your grief or anxiety during this time "means you're giving an accurate representation of what it feels like to be you right now." Don't think you need to portray that everything is excellent, and that working from home is as easy as showing up to the office on an ordinary day. It's not.
I'm lucky to have advisors who have tempered my own expectations of myself during this period. If yours is being difficult know that your directors of graduate studies, department chairs, and university deans are very likely on your side. Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself. There are allies willing to help you, myself included.
Tip 2: Separate your home office from your personal space.
This includes your bedroom, your kitchen, or your living room.
It took me a long time to realize that having my desk in my bedroom wasn't working for me. I used to think it was preferable, because my childhood bedroom was my own personal space and I could close the door when I was working. Problem was that when I woke up, I immediately rolled over to look at my desk. If I'd left my computer on, my emails were waiting for me. Over time, I had a hard time sleeping because my mind associated my bedroom with working, not resting. I finally moved my desk out of my room last weekend (yes it took COVID-19 for me to realize this need friends) and it's already changed my work flow drastically.
If you don't have a spare room that can serve as an office, and you're left deciding where to locate your work space in a dorm or studio apartment, prioritize a space that is ergonomic (i.e. not your couch), and one that can be separated from where you sleep and cook. The key is to associate this desk/table/nook/whatever you like to write on space as "where you work", not where you socialize, game, nap, or eat. This is harder for those who are setting up shop at their kitchen table of course, but there are ways around it. If you're prone to falling back on habits (like me), or associating certain spaces in your home with certain activities (also like me), this is a really important way to avoid procrastinating, or disrupting other essential activities (like sleeping and eating). If I set up shop in the kitchen, I snack all day. If I work in my bedroom, let's face it I get almost no work done because I'm usually sleeping, or watching tv instead.
Set up a "work space" that follows your style and needs. Keep your books and work materials close at hand. I'm also the type that needs a lot of natural, or at the minimum warm lighting. If you haven't already, think through what the ideal set up is for you and take the time to set that up even if it means sacrificing a day to do it. It took me all of a Sunday to set up a home office for my Dad and myself. This is a worthwhile investment. Many of us, especially students, will be working in this space for the next 3 months minimum as so many universities have moved to online instruction for the remainder of the semester.
Tip 3: Develop a schedule, or routine that makes time for work, as well as play.
When on campus, we have a class schedule that informs us about when and where we need to be, and what we should to be doing. Emulate that at home as best you can.
A lot of people think that working from home offers more flexibility. I think it does, but only in that people don't have to commute, or can schedule their days more freely if classes are being pre-recorded. However, being home also means people tend to pick up additional responsibilities, such as childcare or house chores. Many of us are also trying to find ways to socialize online, workout, or find ways to take care of our mental health from home. Set time aside to review your schedule, or make one for the first time. Go through your email, be sure to evaluate what meetings will be held via zoom and what needs to be done at your own pace. Build in time to read and study, or prep for your lectures if you're teaching. Next, think about building a schedule with time set aside for the following, in no particular order:
Cooking and meal prep: If you love to cook, make time for it - it's a great way to destress and know you have food on hand for days you have less time to make a meal!
Being active: If you don't have access to a home gym, or traditionally rely on group fitness classes to be active, some ideas include using the Sweat app (they have a no equipment home workout program), following a yoga or pilates class series on youtube, or where allowed going for long walks or running. A friend and I plan to follow the Yoga with Adriene series on youtube for the next while. Another group of friends and I plan to follow the Couch to 10k app and track our runs on Strava together - a digital running group if you will!
Mental health self-care: If you traditionally meet with a therapist in person, don't stop your sessions because of self-isolation! Many therapists are offering telehealth or phone sessions to clients they cannot see face-to-face (mine included thankfully). If you are not currently seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, there are many digital groups coming on line that can serve as a place to voice your fears. Other forms of mental health self care include meditation, journaling, or regular conversations with friends and family about how you're feeling (maybe online, or on the phone). Some people have also started pen-pals and letter chains. Building time for this ex ante allows you to be proactive about taking care of your emotional wellbeing. Check with your university about available counselling assistance.
Being social: While we can't meet in groups in person, there is a time and place for meeting up with friends digitally. Google Chrome has a great extension called Netflix Party. If you're a gamer, multiplayer options online remain available. Group chats on Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger remain available to keep in touch with your friends. My highschool friends and I have been sending each other voice notes on the regular in a group chat which is great - feels much more like a regular conversation. Scheduling group chats or digital movie viewings is a great way to build in time for play. You can also talk to your neighbours from the end of the driveway or across the fence!
Sleeping: Head to bed at a normal hour, and try to avoid sleeping in. This can really help with your work from home routine, instead of thinking that you can start and end your work day whenever. Whenever I do the latter, all of a sudden it's dinner time and I haven't done any work.
House chores: Build in time to do the dishes, laundry, take out the trash, and vacuum. Working from home means that a lot more mess will accumulate quickly. Build in time around meals to clean up as you go to keep things from getting out of control. Set aside time on the weekend to wash your bedding. All of these things will help you feel comfortable at home, whether working or socializing.
Doing nothing: Even with all this talk about scheduling be sure to not overcommit yourself and leave some free time to do whatever you want.
Caring for others: If you're a pet owner, build in their needs. If you have children or other caregiving responsibilities, build those into your schedule as well. Cooking for my Dad and I helps me check in on him. I also have a reminder in my calendar to check in on a few neighbours who are less able to get to the grocery store.
Tip 4: Check in with your advisors, and if possible create a digital research group.
Stay connected to your research community, or for undergraduates to your peers.
One of the most important things I've learned in my time working remotely is the benefit of staying up on the field, and remaining connected with my academic community. I'm a first generation college student. As a result, I rarely talk about my work with my family, and when I do it's in a non-technical sense. Yet research, and writing by extension, is a social enterprise: we think through our work in really efficient ways when we present a working paper, or talk through feedback from an advisor. If you're used to meeting with your advisors on the regular to talk through updates, be sure to continue to do so online. Some faculty have created digital research groups, whereas others are keeping skype office hours. Make sure of them, or ask for them. On the other hand, if you have a hands off advisor, I highly recommend creating a writing group, or a research group with your peers. After meeting peers working on similar topics at other universities during a summer institute in 2018, a few friends and I banded together to create a 5 person research group that met via skype every week to review someone's work, and to talk through updates. We've kept this group up and running over the last year and a half, and will continue meeting through the quarantine which has proven immensely helpful.
The most effective research groups are small, so that people can hold others accountable when they fail to submit comments, or don't show up. In political science parlance, you may need a benevolent hegemon (i.e. a faculty member) to coerce people to show up to larger meetings. But overall, research groups can serve as a space to review a working paper without judgment, while collecting feedback from peers working directly in your field. One thing I love about my research group is how technical and nitty gritty our comments can be because we're all operating with a common knowledge base. At the same time, someone can easily preface a document review with "hey I need to market this to a wider audience" and we can adapt our comments in kind.
In general, Paul Niehaus has a great write up on medium detailing the importance of structure when moving to writing during your PhD.
Tip 5: Check in with yourself about what's working, and what's not working regularly.
You might follow this advice and find it's garbage: don't view is as a sunk cost. Evaluate, and adapt.
After a few days, you might find your home office set up is inconvenient. You might find that you have over committed yourself, or under committed yourself. Taking the time to check in with yourself will allow you to figure out what's working (and what's not) leaves you in a position to triage your situation. Check in with yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. What's comfortable? What's causing trouble? I personally use my Friday afternoon to evaluate what worked and what didn't on a normal work-week. Presently I'm doing that kind of evaluation every few days since the home set-up is still fresh. If it's not evident to you what the root cause of a problem is, I recommend talking it out. If it's research related, talk to your peers, a research group, or an advisor. If it's personal, perhaps a friend or family member. Mind maps or doodling can also help those who are more kinesthetic or visually oriented.
Given this is a period of high stress and change for many, programs like Danielle LaPorte's Desire Map, or free worksheets from Passion Planner can help people with deeper introspection about their goals.
I personally find this kind of thinking helps me feel more in control of what I'm doing, and less "stuck" because I'm able to be reactive to problems, and constructively address them before they're truly overwhelming. At the same time, I often need to be reminded that it's okay to change things that aren't working.
If you've read this far, congrats! I hope you're not procrastinating. I also hope you feel like you have a plan when it comes to working from home effectively and taking care of yourself during this period. This advice comes from someone who is a 4th year political science PhD student. As I'm post-coursework, and am not teaching this term, this advice is perhaps most applicable to those seeking to work from home on social science research. That said, I think a lot of undergraduates completing semesters from home will face similar challenges, to which a lot of the above may be useful.
Things are certainly different for those working as teaching assistants to prep tutorials over zoom. Coordination and regular communication with faculty instructors on this front will be key, but many of the same advice above applies: the adjustment will be hard; try to find structure that works for you when it comes to prep and delivery; constantly evaluate what is and isn't working for you, or through student feedback. If I were teaching, my preference would be to prep and pre-record more lecture oriented content for students to work through at their own pace knowing how many are outside of my local time zone. For those doing live sessions, zoom remains my preferred low bandwidth video conferencing software. Many universities will be relying on it to keep seminars up and running, as up to 300 people can join a call. Google docs can also serve as a more permanent chat record for comments and questions that can be revisited after the fact. Whereby.com is also great for smaller work related chats, as is facebook's video chat through messenger or voice notes through Whatsapp.
Best of luck friends! Feel free to email me if you have any questions or suggestions.