Thoughts for the Newly Remote Worker

Don’t expect to get a good routine down in the current conditions.

About three years ago I wrote up some of my thinking on what you need to succeed in remote work and I still stand by most of that advice. But right now many of those suggestions may need to be goals you are working towards.

A few days ago my friend Johanna, who like me routinely works from home, learned she’ll be working from home while she and her partner try their hand at homeschooling and offered this tweet:

She’s both absolutely right (and smart, so if you’re on Twitter you should follow her), but also a little wrong. This is not what work from home normally is like, but this is what work from home is like in this moment.

Right now a huge number of people are suddenly working remote for the first time. Some of you probably wanted to this for a long time and are suddenly getting the chance, and some didn’t really want a remote job but now are forced to try it.

While some companies already have the tools and habits in place to make remote work successful, most probably don’t. What’s more, many people are now also doing childcare/homeschooling at the same time. So let’s be clear this is a terrible way to start working remotely. But here we are, so let’s talk about ways to use enough duct tape to make it work.

Your Boss

Lots of people probably have bosses that are deeply uncomfortable with this whole thing. They may have fought allowing remote work for long time because they worry about monitoring remote work and have no experience with remote management–those fears are likely still there and will put them off their game. Managers who are uncertain about basic working conditions can make bad choices that make a bad situation worse – like trying to monitor everyone on video conference all day. I’ve worked remote for bosses that didn’t trust me if they couldn’t see me, it’s hard and makes it hard to be successful. Long-term if they don’t learn to adjust you should probably find someone better to work for, but in the short run that’s probably not an option (and hopefully they will adjust) so let’s talk about strategies you can use to get through.

Check in early in the day so they know you’re up and running.

This should be something informal like a quick email to verify a meeting or other detail, a chat message just greeting them warmly, or something similar. Basically give them a sense that you are around and active before they ping you to find out if you remembered to wake up. You don’t want to sound needy or like you’re asking their permission to do work, as that can encourage micromanagement instincts.

Check in again at the end of the day, letting them know you’re leaving.

Again this should be something informal and simple that gives them, and you, a sense of closure to your work day. This helps avoid them feeling like you just disappeared while they adjust to the routine.

Leave a documented work trail with timestamps.

Think emails, notes from meetings, hours tracking and billing systems, Word documents with update timestamps, version control systems, and other things that you can point to that will remind them you really were working even though they didn’t see you (and if things get ugly something you can show others to prove you were working).

Start early or work late a few times early on.

Again this is about helping them see that you really are working hard even though they can’t see you. You still need to maintain work/life balance so don’t do this every day, or even most days, just enough that they are able to notice the effort in a crisis.

Suggest new or better tools to help support the sudden remote culture.

They probably know things aren’t working super well, and a chance to blame tools may be welcome. So research and suggest tools that make things better. Try to spot the things that have them uneasy about the situation and offer tools that might help with those challenges.

Your Tools

On the topic of tools, if your team just went fully remote you probably are lacking some tools to do all the things a great remote team has in place. You aren’t going to fix that overnight, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here – a tool that your team uses is better than the perfect tool that no one adopts.

So if you need to pick a chat client try the low hanging fruit first. You’re a Microsoft shop with 365 setup? Use Teams. You a Google apps shop? Use Hangouts. Salesforce? Chatter. Use Zoom a lot? Well their chat is terrible so use Slack (everyone else should probably default to Slack too). Some of those tools are far better than others but each has a niche they serve very well, and maybe your team will switch one day but get started now and worry about using it really well later.

Your Family

Don’t sweat the kids and pets interrupting. My current team was nearly 100% remote before all this started. We’re professional, have a strong team work ethic, and work hard to make sure our clients see that. And you know what, people’s kids and pets get in the way sometimes. Rarely does it matter for more than a minute or two. Right now, we’re running into a lot more of that than is normal. So are our clients. It’s going to be just fine.

Normally we try to limit interruptions, but honestly pets and kids are welcome cute distraction more often than not. My dogs wander my office and often end up on camera. My boss’s cat frequently strolls across his desk during check ins. Other people’s children come in and wave to all the people on their parent’s computer screen. Sure there are times we need to focus and someone’s dog really really needs to bark at that cat outside the window. Or a child needs their parent’s attention the very minute we’re trying to solve a hard problem. It’s just part of how things flow, and within my team we understand it as a part of work from home since it gives us all more time with the people that matter most to us all (hint: not our colleagues). Family, in whatever form they come, are part of what makes us who we are and allows us to see each other as a more complete person.

Yes, in this moment when kids are suddenly off from school with few places having formed any reasonable plan for education continuity, even for experienced teams we are expecting it will be disruptive. The entire American workforce is going to have to learn to deal with either their kids, or their colleagues kids, suddenly being around. Do your best to maintain focus and professionalism, but expect cracks, and let those imperfections help you get to know your colleagues better.

The next few weeks or months will be a lot of remote work duct taping even for experienced teams. You, your team, and your families, will learn to get better at this over time. Embrace that you’re learning, expect mistakes, and just plain do the best you can at the moment.

Crash Teaching Online

This is a guest post by my wife Elizabeth Georgian. She’s a professor at a local university and is one of many scrambling to move all her courses online.

This has been an interesting week for academics as we move to online instruction, perhaps for the first time.

At my university, we heard on Monday that we’re going online next week. Needless to say, this has been a pretty chaotic few days. Here’s what I’ve learned and the order in which I found it helpful to tackle the problem. For context, I’m a history professor at a regional public university, teaching four classes, with a lot of general education students. I mostly teach face-to-face, but I’m online in the summers.

Email your students right away

Contact them even if it’s just to let them know that you’re working on a plan. Give them a time frame of when you expect to be able to share more information. If you’re planning on taking your course in the Learning Management System (aka an LMS such as Blackboard or Moodle) offline while you work (more on that in a minute), tell them that, otherwise they’ll panic. Most importantly, let them know that you care about them and that you know it’s a stressful time for everyone. If your counseling center is offering remote help, tell them how to access it.

Let go of trying to be perfect and forget about best practices.

We aren’t teaching online—that takes a lot of time to do well—we’re teaching remotely in an emergency. The most helpful article I’ve read so far was “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.

Figure out what’s most important for the rest of the semester.

Here are some things that might be your top priority:

  • Delivering content
  • Helping them complete a particular project
  • Supporting students with limited technology
  • Making sure you set up your classes in a way that allows you to care for your own health needs or for your loved ones.

You can’t do it all and now’s not the time to try, so decide what matters most right now.

Ask what technology your students can access where they are.

Depending on your student body and location, maybe all of them will have laptops and high speed internet, but some of us teach at institutions where students may need to finish classes on their smartphone or are returning to rural areas with limited internet access.

Decide if you want to teach synchronously, asynchronously, or both?

Asynchronous instruction is easier for students who have to share computers with partners, who are switching to remote work or learning, it accommodates parents who are suddenly home schooling, and it helps students with limited internet access. But there’s a benefit to real time options too. For some of our students, we are the adult in their life they feel connected to and it’s important to preserve that connection. Optional video office hours or reading discussions can help them stay connected to the class and the university without hurting their grades if they can’t participate.

Plan ahead and minimize changes.

The more of the class structure and assignments you can preserve, the less confusing it will be for your students and the easier it will be on you. Free response assignments will take longer to grade but are faster and easier to set up in most LMSs. If you’re concerned about your students’ access to high-speed internet, keep new work based in printed resources your students already have whenever possible. Avoid timed tests or quizzes or ones that require remote proctoring. Planning assignments you can send by email or snail mail if needed will save you time and effort later.

Find or become a mentor.

If you haven’t taught online, try to find a mentor in your discipline who is comfortable with your LMS. If you have, help out your less experienced colleagues. Distance learning experts are over loaded and they may not understand the needs in your particular discipline.

Hide your course from your students temporarily (warn them first).

Students tend to get nervous when they see you making changes in the LMS. Particularly if you’re making substantial changes or creating new assignments, you will set something up wrong, screw up a deadline, or rethink an assignment, and you want to be able to fix that stuff and make changes before you take the course live. Just don’t forget to reopen access.

Communicate regularly with your students.

It’s a lot easier for them to disconnect from online class than it is in a face-to-face class, particularly right now when they’re stressed, suffering from vacation syndrome, or both. Since they may not be used to online learning, they will need more routine reminders about deadlines, particularly if you’ve adjusted them due to an extended spring break.

Don’t forget to be human.

It’s fine, even helpful, to let your students know you’re stressed too or that you don’t have all the answers. If you’re doing video lectures or office hours, go ahead and introduce them to the people or pets in your home that may wander on camera—I always let my students meet my two greyhounds before they show up uninvited. Now is the time to set some boundaries between work and life, maybe that means not checking your email after dinnertime or taking a walk at lunchtime. Taking care of yourself will help you be a better teacher.

Two greyhounds laying on beds on a hardwood floor.
Henry and Petey.