While the tentacles of Covid-19 are everywhere, those of us working in computational research seem to have thankfully been mostly shielded from unemployment due to social distancing expectations. (There is definitely more than one joke about an enrichment of the anti-social phenotype enrichment amongst computational scientists!) But seriously, intermittent remote working is actually a part of normal routine in our field as we work with coworkers and collaborators to design studies, debug code, draft grants, and finalize papers. And yet, the mandate to indefinitely discontinue travel and to work exclusively from home has been, to put it mildly, quite jarring. And I say that even as someone who has worked exclusively remotely for the last five years.
My own remote position began in 2014, long before the start of this pandemic. While I would say I have remained quite integrated with our group and have even moved into a leadership position (Associate Director for Operations) using many technologies such as Google Hangouts, Google Docs, and even a robot (yes, you read that right), I am also familiar with all the many parts of teamwork that I inherently miss out on. As we emailed our team on March 16th to start working remotely, I started thinking through my personal insights into working from home and how I could help our lab transition by both sharing tips and implementing a remote workers’ wishlist!
Strategies for Remote Work and “The New Normal”
There are many challenges remote employees must overcome to feeling effective, integrated and valued. We had a group wide meeting the first day “home” where I shared some of my basic strategies for staying motivated to work at home: get dressed every morning, follow a morning routine, set a specific spot to work, etc. But the largest problem foremost in my mind, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, was that of helping everyone to feel connected to others in our group. Closing of the office and social distancing would mean a loss of usual morning chats, walks to lunch, or afternoon coffee breaks. So, I started a “Daily Roll Call” email where I would ask a daily question to start the day. Some example questions were, “What did you culturally consume this weekend and would you recommend it?”, “Share your favorite Coronavirus meme, so far.”, “Send a picture of what you look at all day while working from home and tell us how it has changed over the last week.”, “What is your morning go-to beverage? And has it changed with staying at home more?” (Surprise, there were strong opinions here!)
Participation definitely wasn’t mandatory, but was high for at least the first month as it gave a space for us all to connect and start feeling out this new normal together. I also scheduled a scattering of Zoom lab lunches and coffee breaks during the week and we instituted a weekly virtual happy hour. After two or three months, routines settled in, people fell into more of a groove, and participation waned. But one has stuck: virtual happy hour. (Thirsty Thursday! Zoom bar opens at 8 CT!)
New Tools for the “New Normal”
Another issue I know remote employees struggle with is being “seen” (both in figurative and literal senses). In an active lab, spontaneous thoughts lead to impromptu conversations which lead to potential projects which are all primarily accessible to those within ear or eye shot at the time. At other times, a meeting will randomly be cancelled and only those in the office are alerted. Or there will be discussion before a meeting and the remote employee will inevitably miss key information. And the list goes on. To help combat this, we really had to up our communication and project management game! As the world was already going topsy-turvy, we were not very keen on adding additional software programs to our workflow. So, we found more intentional ways to use what we were already using. Our team has been using the project management software Asana, and we have leaned on that software even more during this time. Our usual task-based discussions on Asana became more encompassing and we suggested people use it to track their personal weekly progress. We continued to have our weekly lab meetings for at least one touch point a week where we would possibly see everyone. One person would also present each week, keeping us all in-tune with what research was happening in our group. We have also created more specific sub-group chats in Hangouts and text messaging for easier broad communication. We have also been very insistent on having internal tri-weekly project-based meetings and monthly individual meetings with everyone on our team. The task tracking and weekly progress reports in Asana helped greatly in facilitating all these meetings with appropriate agendas filling out themselves. We do have a lot of projects and a lot of team members, however, so this has meant a lot of meetings, but they have been very effective! In fact, since March 16 (when we started working exclusively remotely), we have submitted 11 papers and 12 grant proposals, numbers higher than our usual 6 month count!
Reading this, you may think we have been rocking this pandemic! (We have been!) But, obviously, there are still a lot of frustrations with working exclusively from home. Remote working has brought an ironic rigidity to our days with every conversation needing to be scheduled on a calendar. And conversations with more than 1 or 2 people are much slower and frustrating due to microphones and video-conference etiquette. I laugh when I say this, but in some ways, it is easier for me to work from home when everyone else is in the office! So even I, with years of remote experience under my belt, am ready for everyone to go back to the office!
Return to the Office?
As this era of necessary caution continues, it is important to remember that everyone has different needs professionally, medically, and mentally. With this in mind, and in order to offer a bit of individual control to everyone, we did officially start letting people voluntarily go back to work in the office last week. We still have mask requirements and social distancing expectations, and, in fact, most of our team still worked from home this last week. I suspect it will be a very slow transition back to our usual team working in the office. The technologies helping us thrive today (Zoom, Asana, Google Docs, etc) will clearly have a spot in our workflow for the foreseeable future, but we believe other creative technologies will enable this transition.
Enter the Robots.
One unique technology we already implemented prior to 2020 was a robot! That’s right, a fun fact of our group is that we have an office avatar robot (think iPad on a segway)! Prior to the pandemic, I was using this robot daily to roam around the lab and talk with team members (you can read more about my pre-Covid robot life here https://tinyurl.com/y3rzddzk
). However, the robot is only effective when at least part of the team is together in an office. Thus, ironically, it has remained parked since we started working from home. But as a mix of team members choose to work in the lab, I expect the robot will offer a fun, effective way for anyone in our group that chooses to work remotely to stay integrated!
2020 hasn’t really been what anyone expected. While there isn’t a clear end in sight, working remotely or in the office or a bit of both can clearly still be effective! As the situation continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see all the new solutions to integrating remote and local employees. In the meantime, keep washing your hands and maybe think about some robots!