SAGE Musings: Working from Home

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College

published Apr 2, 2020 1:41pm

As much of the world makes a rather sudden shift to working from home, one of my colleagues recently asked for my advice on how to work from home effectively. She expressed some difficulty in focusing on work, and she knows I've been teleworking for years. As I told her, I don't think that her struggles to focus on work right now stem from working from home; I suspect that she, like so many of us, is simply struggling to focus on work in the midst of a pandemic. That said, here are some thoughts about what might help if you are experiencing that struggle, too.

Go easy on yourself

Seriously. It will take you some time to adjust to new conditions. This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Why you should ignore all that Coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure, does a good job of explaining why. As author Aisha S. Ahmad writes, "No sane person feels good during a global disaster, so be grateful for the discomfort of your sanity."

Minimize distractions

The first bit of advice that everyone has about teleworking is to minimize distractions. It's great advice, but / and it also sheds some light on why so many people are struggling to focus on work right now. A global pandemic and the associated economic upheaval rank pretty high on my list of distracting situations -- particularly if it comes with sudden changes to job responsibilities, home life, and working conditions.

So, given that it's going to be non-trivial to accomplish, what can we do to minimize distractions right now?

  1. If it's at all possible, carve out an "office" space that is away from everyone else, preferably with a door that closes. This may take some work to set up. Consider re-purposing a room or part of a room that you usually use for something else. (Do you have a guest room? Do you expect to have guests any time soon?) We're going to be teleworking for a while, folks.
  2. Establish some guidelines with everyone who shares your home. In our house, when the door to the office is closed it means that I am in a meeting. You could also make a "do not disturb" sign, or find other ways to convey the same information. You may have to communicate explicitly about when or under what circumstances it's okay to interrupt you at work.
  3. If you are coping with background noises, consider listening to music or even wearing noise-cancelling headphones.
  4. Pay attention to what is distracting you, and figure out how to turn your attention back to your work. For example:
    • Do you find yourself obsessing about the latest news? Limit yourself to checking for updates once or twice a day, for a short time span. Set a timer if you need to.
    • Turn off any electronic notifications you have turned on. You don't need your email program, chat window, or anything else telling you when you have a new message, and the constant interruptions make it almost impossible to accomplish anything.

Establish a routine

You're not "going to the office" anymore, so you might find yourself not going to work, either. Being at home provides me with an almost infinite number of possible distractions. Having a routine makes it possible for me to ignore those distractions. I set a schedule for my work hours, and I do my best to keep to it. I do allow myself the luxury of taking breaks, including meals and walks with my spouse -- these are part of my regular schedule. In addition, my schedule includes both a start and an end time.

Take advantage of the flexibility (and set boundaries)

You might be finding that you need to work different hours than you would if you were at your regular office. One of the advantages of having a home office is that the commute is almost instantaneous. If it's easier for you to work early in the morning or late at night, so that you can attend to other tasks during your normal work day hours, go ahead. But do remember to make it part of a regular schedule; don't fall into the trap of working every moment you can, just because your office is in your house.

Keep your expectations realistic

Almost every faculty member I know is suddenly converting face-to-face course offerings into online courses, with almost no prep time and no training in online teaching. The exceptions are faculty members who were already teaching online courses. Entire colleges and universities are making this transition together, meaning that the staff who would normally support educators in learning to teach online are trying to support the entire faculty at once. To the extent that it's possible, focusing on just the things you absolutely have to do in the immediate future -- the tasks that are both urgent and important -- will allow you to get through this transition. As one of my friends likes to say, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."

Hint: This might require scaling back on what you expect from both yourself and your students. You are going to need some time to adjust to new content delivery methods, new means of communicating with your students, new ways to engage your students in the learning process, and new ways to assess student learning. Your students are going to need some time to make the same adjustments. If you're feeling overwhelmed, your students are likely feeling the same way, and that's not conducive to learning. Consider the possibility that less is more.

Share what's working for you

Have you recently shifted to working from home? Have you found some strategies that help you focus on work? Share them with us!

SAGE Musings: Working from Home -- Discussion  

While a home office with no visitors can seem more relaxed, I've found how I dress helps me stay on task. Some may feel like birks/chacos/barefoot, shorts, and t-shirts work, I've found that dressing like I was going into my for realz office has been important in getting in to the right mindset. Nothing special, as geosciences professional casual still means jeans and collared shirt and whatever shoes work properly - isn't that one perk to being geoscientists?


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