Working from Home: Adjusting to the new normal

It’s been nothing short of inspiring to see the heroic efforts of learning technologists all over the country to help their colleagues move their teaching online over the last week.  Special shout out to my colleagues in LTW who have calmly and patiently trained over six hundred academic staff to use our core tools and move their teaching online under difficult and stressful circumstances.

Thanks also to Martin Weller and the fabulously talented Bryan Mathers for this hilarious and slightly disturbing image.

 

And of course learning technologists have been doing all this while trying to rapidly adjust to radically different working conditions and the prospect of working from home being the new normal for the foreseeable future.  I’ve worked remotely most of my career, often as part of a widely distributed team, and once you get used to it, it’s easy to forget how difficult and disruptive it can be for those who have little or no experience of home working.  Luckily there are lots of great tips and resources for remote workers available online, some of which I’ve linked below, and more remote workers are sharing their experience every day.  Wikimedia UK’s Scotland Programme Coordinator and experienced home worker, Sara Thomas, has written an excellent blog post that I would highly recommend to anyone who is new to home working: Remote working the Wikimedia UK way.  Here’s a few additional suggestions based on my experience of remote working.

The new normal isn’t normal

The first thing to be aware of is that this is not a normal home working scenario. Everyone is trying to adapt very quickly to a uniquely stressful and uncertain situation. We’re all trying to cope with caring for loved ones, covering childcare and home schooling, dealing with shortages, while being mindful of our own mental health and wellbeing.  Bearing that in mind, some of the advice I would normally recommend for remote working just doesn’t apply right now.  Usually I would stress that it’s important to communicate to your family, children, housemates, that when you’re working from home, you are actually working, and you shouldn’t be interrupted.  I don’t think that applies right now.  If your kid wants to show you their drawing in the middle of a conference call that’s fine, share it with your colleagues too! Or your partner just wants to sit down and talk to you for a few minutes, make time for them. Being there for each other is the most important thing we can do right now.

Routine is good

Do try to get into a routine and to keep normal working hours as much as possible, but don’t get too stressed if you need to take time out to take a breather.  When we work in an office we benefit from all kinds of little social interactions that we may not really be aware of.  Working from home, it’s easy to worry that we’re not doing enough, or that we’re wasting time if we browse social media, read the news for a few minutes, or clear up the dishes.  However, it’s almost impossible to stay focused for hours on end without social interaction so I try to see these small breaks as being equivalent to all the little interactions you would normally have when you’re working with others.

Set up your workspace

Tempting as it may be to work from the couch, I would highly recommend setting up a dedicated workspace, even if it’s just a corner of the kitchen table.  This will help you to get into the right frame of mind for working and it also means that it’s easier for you to “leave work” at the end of the day.  

Knowing when to stop

After over a decade of remote working, one thing I still struggle with is stopping at the end of the day.  It’s very easy to let your working day stretch on way beyond your contracted work hours when you’re working from home.  Sometimes it takes discipline to shut your laptop and step away from work.

Get out!

Bearing in mind the current social distancing restrictions, do try to get out of the house at least once a day.  If you’ve got a park nearby, make the most of it. On days I work from home I always go for a walk round the park before sitting down to start working.

Online meetings are tiring

Online meetings are much more exhausting that face to face meetings, even when the technology works.  I don’t know why, they just are.  So try to be realistic about how much time you can expect your colleagues to spend in remote meetings.  Don’t let a Teams meeting drag on for an hour if you can get it over and done with in half that time. 

Virtual presence

Virtual presence is a good thing.  It’s a great way to let your colleagues know you’re there, and it can help you feel connected to your team. There are lots of different ways to manage remote presence, I tend to use twitter, but it can be as simple as setting your online status at the beginning of the day.  Turning off virtual presence at the end of the day is also a good way to remind everyone, yourself included, that you are no longer working.  Remember that you don’t have to be available 24/7. 

Social media

Social media really comes into its own when you’re working remotely. It’s a great way to stay connected to colleagues at an informal social level.  I’ve used twitter as my main work social media channel for over a decade now, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I’d be lost without the fabulous community of learning technologists and open educators who hang out there.  Having said that, I would never pressure anyone to use social media tools that they are not comfortable with.  Twitter is great if you’ve got a community of friends and colleagues there, but it can also be hostile and stressful for many people.  Let folk use what ever channels they are most comfortable with and always remember to respect people’s boundaries.

Silly gifs and cat pics

It’s really important to encourage informal social interaction, otherwise people can begin to feel stressed and isolated.  Never underestimate the therapeutic value of stupid gifs and cat pics.  One day into remote working and we already had an impromptu #ISGpets tag on twitter to share pictures of our four-legged co-workers.  It’s still going strong and it’s been a joy to get acquainted with colleagues’ talented cats, dogs, guinea pigs and …um… robots.

There are lots of ways to encourage social interaction across remote teams. Post a picture of your work space, your favourite coffee mug, your pet, the view from your window.  Set up a shared playlist on Spotify or youtube.   I’ve known some teams to have dress up days where everyone wears a specific colour or item of clothing and then shares a picture.  Get creative and don’t afraid to be a bit silly.  A word of caution though, some people will be more comfortable with the silliness that others, so don’t expect everyone to engage in the same way.  If you’re already stressed, being pushed out of your comfort zone to participate in daft activities isn’t going to help. 

Ultimately the most important thing to bear in mind at this point in time is that we need to be kind, patient and caring.  That’s really all that matters right now. 

ETA….

Resources

Remote Working the Wikimedia Way.  Sound advice from Wikimedia UK’s Sara Thomas.

Ramblings of a Remote Worker Marieke Guys, ex UKOLN and Open Knowledge Foundation, maintained this blog about remote working until 2015, and it’s still one of the best around. 

Virtual Teams The Association for Learning Technology operates as an entirely distributed organisation. CEO Maren Deepwell and Chief Innovation, Community and Technology Officer Martin Hawksey have shared their experience of managing remote teams. 

Homeworking – a guide for employers and employees. Guidance from ACAS. 

23 Things: Thing 9 Google Hangouts / Collaborate Ultra

I am woefully behind with 23 Things owing to work and annual leave so I’m going to try and catch up with a few quick and dirty posts.

Thing 9 is Google Hangouts and Collaborate Ultra and I did actually manage to dial into the live sessions Charlie ran a couple of weeks ago which were a lot of fun. I’ve worked remotely in one way or another for most of my career in ed tech, either working from home, working for distributed organisations, or working on projects with multiple international parters, so I’ve lost count of the number of remote collaboration tools I’ve used over the years.  Here’s a brief run down of the way I use some of the current crop of tools.

Skype

Still my favourite for one to one calls and personal conversations. I use Skype routinely on both my laptop and my phone and would be lost without it. I tend to use Skype for audio calls, text chat and transferring documents and images, it’s not often I make video calls.  The downside of Skype is that it’s still flakey with more than a few people, so I tend not to rely on it if there are more than about four people on a call. Also the way Skype updates its interface and randomly hides features is annoying as hell.

Google Hangouts

I can’t say I was impressed with Google hangouts in the early days.  I remember having a call with a Google project manager in the US not long after hangouts were launched and they insisted on using a telephone conference line rather than a hangout, which kinda spoke volumes. Initially I found them really flakey and in my experience there are often problems with scheduling and people getting into hangouts.   Having said that, things have improved, the interface is nice and clean, and once you’re in I find that hangouts are pretty robust. You can only have up to 10 people actively participating in a video hangout which is an obvious limiting factor, though you can have a much larger number listening in.  One nice feature is that you can stream hangouts directly on to Youtube which makes them a useful broadcasting tool. Here’s a link to an ALT Community Call which essentially involved Martin Hawksey interviewing me in a hangout and streaming it directly on to Youtube. So I tend to find hangouts are useful for project meetings, small committees, and broadcast interviews.  Also filters and ponies.

Google Hangout interface

Susan Greig channelling her inner Elsa in a Google Hangout

Google Hangouts with ponies

Not many collaboration tools offer ponies as standard

Collaborate Ultra

I’ve been using various incarnations of this tool since the dawn of time and it’s never been exactly user friendly.  Anyone else remember the days of having to install Java before you could run the damn thing? No, not that version of Java, this version of Java. *sigh*  However there’s no denying that Collaborate is very useful indeed for more formal online collaboration, particularly webinars and online lectures, which may have a large audience.  In my experience you need at least two people to run a successful Collaborate webinar, one doing the talking and one watching the chat window, and if you’ve got someone else acting as administrator then that’s even better. Of course to use Collaborate Ultra you need a subscription, but if you have access, it’s a very useful tool indeed.

Collaborate Ultra interface

Collaborate Ultra – no ponies