Working Remotely - a How-to Guide
Successfully tansitioning to remote work needs to be well planned. Millions of people across many industries have suddenly been forced to switch to remote work due to the current COVID-19 situation, without much time to plan or resources. This guide offers suggestions and insight to ‘flatten the learning curve’ of how to work remotely by filling the gaps that other guides miss - no home office, a swift transition, family at home, and more. Everyone has unique circumstances that need to be addressed resulting in no perfect solution.
Be supportive and flexible with each other and yourself in this challenging time. This guide was initially intended for those in academia (students, faculty, staff, and administrators), but can be useful for almost anyone.
A defined workspace makes all the difference. Some of us have desks at home. Most people haven’t needed a real home office and will have to repurpose another space as a work area. Sure, you can work from the couch with your laptop, but you won’t be as productive. The obvious candidate when a desk isn’t available is the dinner table, but many creative options exist as well such as a nightstand or ironing board. If you don’t have a separate room you can define a workspace by boxing it in with masking tape on the floor. If you must sit with a laptop on your lap consider getting a padded lap desk. For more inspiration on creative workspaces spurred by necessity just search Twitter.
Ergonomics and layout are important. When possible, make your workspace as ergonomic as possible to avoid creating aches and pains you don’t already have. You can use this ergonomics tool to guide your new setup.
Working from the light of a computer screen is fine for short periods. You need more light to work all day. The dim lights you have in your living room to watch TV is probably not enough. Let as much light in from the windows as possible. If that results in less than ideal results in glare on a video conference, it is still probably worth it. Change a few select light bulbs to the color of daylight (5600K) if possible.
Switching to online courses from in-person classes will significantly increase the amount of time you spend staring at a computer screen. Take regular breaks using the "20-20-20" rule : every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. You can find more tips to reduce eye strain from the AAO.
It can be difficult to focus when working remotely. People tend to do what is comfortable and routine. But, the normal routine at home is chores and relaxation. Distractions and opportunities to procrastinate are everywhere you look. Maintaining focus is key to making progress on your work.
Obviously you want to reduce distractions as much as possible. That will not always work. Some studies indicate it takes around 25 minutes to refocus after a distraction. Here are a few tips you can use to help you pick up where you left off more quickly. Some will be applicable to your workflow and others won’t.
Avoid distractions in the first place
Obviously it is best if distractions never happen in the first place. Make it easier for others in your home to know when you are busy and cannot be interrupted: try simple visual cues to let them know now is not the time to disturb you. Some examples include different colored binders set up like table tents to indicate if you are available or not. Do the same for your colleagues by sharing your calendar and block off time when you are unavailable.
Keep a log book
The point of a log for this purpose is to keep running notes of thoughts, ideas, or next steps. The log can be on paper or digital. It doesn’t have to be pretty and should not become a research paper on its own. Use it more like a middle memory (between short and long term memory) to help get you back on track. As a bonus it lets you look back and see how much progress you have made even when it doesn’t feel like you have made any progress.
Comment your work
This suggestion should already be second nature to those of us that write code. Commenting is a great practice for very short term recall as well. Put comments on your draft as soon as they come to mind. Let’s say you are writing a paper and something interrupts you suddenly: your cat jumps on the keyboard, your roommate walks in and asks for advice, anything. What were you about to type? What paper are you even working on now? As soon as you think someone is about to take your focus away write a brief comment on what you were just about to do, or when you get back to work you might not remember at all.
Keep a schedule
Try to keep the same general schedule you had before changing to working remotely. Theoretically you have more time in the day because you don’t have to commute. The lack of commute is one of the best parts of working remotely and might be best used for the extra organization or mindfulness needed in the current situation.
Make a plan and write it down. Studies indicate that simply writing down your intention to do something makes you significantly more likely to actually do it. Don’t let yourself build up anxiety over checking everything off of the list. You are making a plan that will take time to achieve, not a rigid schedule.
If your scheduled work (courses, video calls, meetings) allows it you can adjust your schedule to when you do your best work. Take a moment for self reflection. Are you a morning person? A night owl? Do you need a break in the afternoon?
Don’t let everything blend together. Don’t try to wash dishes while on Zoom for a course while making lunch. Breaks should be a part of your schedule. If you are doing academic work, chances are you need to do deep work. Try a workflow method, such as those in the workflow management section, to maintain focus and then define breaks.
Add physical fitness into your routine as part of your regular schedule. While many people prefer to work out in the morning or after work in the evening, it can also be a much needed respite during the day. You can also do simple [stretches at your desk](You can also do simple stretches at your desk.).
You might not be able to maintain your normal schedule due to workspace limits. See the co-working section for more tips.
Dress the part
Pretend like you are going into the office. Seriously. It is well documented that you will be more productive if you aren’t dressed to relax. That doesn’t mean you need to wear your best outfit.
Mute is your friend.
Most people are not prepared to work remotely full time and home life will continue in the background even if you are on a video call. If you are really concerned you can add a custom background to Zoom or some other apps.
In stressful times every pet is an emotional support animal. Feel free to share yours with everyone, or encourage those that apologize for their pet being on camera. Be supportive if a parent needs to have their child with them during a video call or you hear them in the background.
Plan your breaks for meal time. You will probably find yourself snacking more while working at home. It’s just too convenient and a great way to procrastinate. Prep semi-healthy snacks ahead of time to make the healthy option the path of least resistance.
Be accommodating and flexible. There is a wide range of work habits and what works well for you might be incompatible with your co-workers.
For more isolation and concentration:
If you have roommates and do not have separate areas there are a few strategies you can try.
- Consider working on staggered schedules. This strategy also helps if there isn’t enough workspace available.
- Headphones are very helpful to block out some distractions. Instrumental music is usually best, but you can also try white/brown/pink noise if music is distracting to you. Check the Tools section for a few suggestions.
- Set up ground rules on when you can interrupt someone while working.
- If you love the isolation the office cubicle provides, you can make a cardboard cubicle with a poster tri-fold.
See the Tools section for useful apps.
For less isolation:
For some people it is difficult to work without other people around, or just isolated in general. In the upcoming weeks it is likely that even the most introverted will feel isolated at times. If that sounds like you, here are a few tips to try.
- Keep the TV on in the background on a non-distracting channel. (cooking shows, history, etc. NOT your favorite show)
- Try virtual co-working as a way to stay connected like you are in the office. Use Zoom or Skype to set up a video call. Most people leave the call open in the background and check in occasionally.
- You can schedule virtual co-working in many ways. The easiest way is to create a shared calendar and add your availability. Place the zoom meeting information in the calendar details. If you want to co-work just join the meeting on the calendar!
- If you want to find a convenient time for several specific people, when2meet is often useful.
- If you can’t schedule a co-working session when you want to, or prefer a random co-worker, try Focusmate.
With a family:
When your coworkers are children it is a very different situation. If that describes you, read the How-to Work Remotely with a Partner or Family.
Helping each other
Suddenly going from 30 people in the office / classroom to just a few (or none) can be as difficult to adapt to as changing the workspace. The biggest complaint of employees that are shifted to working remotely has consistently been loneliness. Connect to others in a Slack workspace or elsewhere. Astronauts are experts at working in confined spaces for long periods of time and have offered some tips on how you can too.
In times of stress like this it can be hard for some people to reach out for help even when they need it. Don’t limit yourself to just your existing friends, and don’t worry - others want (or need) to talk too. Someone is always awake; we are spread around the world and many just work late.
Tools and Resources
This section provides a curated list of tools for working remotely. A more extensive and updated list of resources can be found here: Working Remotely - Resource Guide
Remember - the major problem for most remote workers is loneliness. Stay connected with others!
- Video call a friend or someone you normally work with.
- Headspace - Free meditation app for CMU students, faculty & staff
- Ten Percent - (app available to us in the longer term by request)
- Free online fitness classes - by CMU alumni
- FitnessBlender - More free online fitness videos
- Yoga Hive - Pittsburgh yoga studio offering free videos
- DownDog - Free yoga with a .edu address
- Focusmate for virtual co-working
- Forest app - reduce phone distractions
- Cold Turkey - block any or every distraction on your computer
- Freedom app - block a specified list of websites across all your devices during set hours
These tools may be helpful for keeping projects on track if you don't have a whiteboard in your remote workspace.
- Asana - Basic is free
- Basecamp - Personal is free
- Microsoft Onenote - free
If you need a whiteboard-like space for yourself or collaborate with a group
Emailing word documents between collaborators doesn't provide version control or real-time editing. Here are some
- CamScanner - Android
- Microsoft OfficeLens - Android
- Notes - iPhone
There are too many music options to list (Spotify, Pandora, etc). These options are not the most common and/or fit a specific need.
- Music for Programming
- Code Radio
- Chilled Cow YouTube Channel (which offers Lofi Hip Hop Radio)
- Morning Coffee Jazz (YouTube)
- Film Scores
VERY useful for blocking out external noise without being distracting
- MyNoise.net (try brown or pink noise instead of white noise)
- Coffitivity - background noise to blur out distractions
Other remote work articles
There are many resources online related to working from home or the road. Most do not match the current situation or the nuances of academic work. However, multiple perspectives are always useful.
Before starting to work on a PhD in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Adam gained almost a decade of remote working experience across several industries, three years of which included children. Since the initial version many others have generously contributed their thoughts and input to this guide.