NOTE: This article was originally published on EdSurge, a media outlet that covers the future of learning through news and research.
By Dr. Cali Morrison
Associate Dean of Alternative Learning at American Public University System.
This article is part of the guide Navigating Uncertain Times: How Schools Can Cope With Coronavirus.
In the shadows of a potential COVID-19 pandemic, many schools, businesses and other organizations are preparing to keep the lights on by allowing, encouraging or requiring their employees to work remotely.
In some cases, this will be an abrupt switch from a culture that required butts-in-seats from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to a distributed workforce where no one is in the same physical location. In other situations, it will amount to an increase in telework from the occasional day or two to full time.
Either way, adjusting to this new modus operandi, for a brief period or forever, is a shift that cannot be taken lightly. In order to remain a productive member of any distributed team, each person must find his or her footing in this new way of working.
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I have been a full-time remote professional for nearly 12 years, ever since I went from working at home a day or two a week to doing so full time in 2008. The landscape has changed a lot since then, according to Flexjobs analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows the number of people working remotely in the U.S. at least half-time grew 115 percent between 2005 and 2017.
With a greater number of people putting in hours outside of a shared central office, the systems and personnel procedures are slowly catching up and may be hastened by threats such as pandemics or natural disasters.
Here’s how individuals can successfully operate as remote professionals:
- Understand the ground rules
- Carve out space
- Establish boundaries for friends, family and neighbors
- Use your tools
- Maintain a professional mindset
- Network online
Understand the Ground Rules
First and foremost, you are still a professional. No matter where your work gets done, you have been hired to do a job in exchange for a wage.
Whether you are entering a remote position, or are being asked to work remotely as part of a continuity plan, the first things you need to understand are the expectations from your organization. Is it requiring a set schedule? Can you adjust for your home time zone if you work remotely and far from headquarters? How do leaders expect you to be available—ready for a video call at all moments of your assigned workday or only an occasional pre-scheduled phone call? Do dress code rules apply? Are you required to provide your own internet access? Your own phone line?
Understanding the ground rules by which your organization wishes you to operate is the most basic level of preparation for this opportunity. If your organization does not have set rules, work with your supervisor to set shared expectations for your work as a remote professional.
If you lead an organization embarking on the remote work route, either as a new operating model or as part of an emergency plan, be prepared with policies related to all issues of importance for how you wish your professionals to operate.
Carve Out Space
I am personally spoiled in working remotely, as I have an office on my property that is completely separate from my house. It allows me the opportunity to physically separate my work time and my home time. However, it hasn’t always been this way—I have been in the guest room, the great room and the rec room at various points in my remote tenure.
Before building my office, I used several tactics to carve out space for my work. During times when I was in shared space but had the room for a desk, I would work at the desk and then cover it, and my computer, with a sheet at the end of my workday. This signal was twofold: to close out my workday and also to remind those sharing the space that my desk was not a good place to set a full glass or pile up mail.
If you are not able to carve out space for a desk and are working at a kitchen table, on the couch or on a countertop, my recommendation is to have a designated work bag. Keep your computer and any necessary materials in this bag. This allows you to be flexible in your workspace but also have everything you need in one place. Reloading the bag at the end of your shift is a signal of the workday ending, even if you never physically move from the same location on the couch.
Establish Boundaries for Friends, Family and Neighbors
“Can you just run this one errand for me?” That’s a slippery slope.
When you are physically around all day, friends, family and neighbors who have never had a remote working experience may have a hard time understanding that you have a job to do. Depending on the expectations of your organization, you may be required to be “on” during set hours, or you could have the flexibility to complete your projects or otherwise satisfy your workload anytime. Whatever your situation, share those expectations with your friends, family and neighbors so they know you’re not available to meet the water-softener guy at their house in the middle of the day (or the favor du jour).
Additionally, if you are in a shared space where others are working, learning or living, use physical signals that you are working and not available to chat. Put on headphones. Place a sticky note on the back of your computer indicating your status (busy, working but can chat, etc.).
As with understanding and setting expectations with your employer, doing so with your friends, family and neighbors can help them avoid disappointment and promote healthy boundaries.
Use Your Tools
When you can’t see your colleagues, building team connections is an intentional act, rather than a passive one. Take advantage of any communication tools you have to stay in the loop.
If your employer provides instant messaging, aside from times you are in meetings or need to concentrate, keep your green light on to allow colleagues to informally connect. Reach out and have a water cooler conversation with a colleague each day. If you have video conference capability, use it. You will find it’s a more engaged conversation when you do. If your team is split—some in a physical location, some remote—make it a policy to have everyone use the video conference from their computer, even if you’re physically sitting in the same room. This puts everyone on level playing ground and avoids isolating those “on the line,” therefore making sure they still feel like true members of the team.
Use your calendar to communicate your work schedule—and don’t forget to schedule yourself a lunch period and time to take a stretch break. One of the hardest parts of being a full-time remote employee, at least for me, is knowing when to listen to my body and take a break. If you struggle with that as well, make a calendar date with yourself to get up and make a salad.
Maintain a Professional Mindset
This is perhaps the most difficult guideline for people to understand when I say I work remotely. I often hear “I could never do that, I’d be doing dishes, washing laundry or constantly distracted.” This is where your professional mindset comes in. You are a remote professional, hired to fill a professional role. Therefore, regardless of where you are—on the couch, on the beach, in a cubicle—you need to maintain that mindset.
For me, a primary signal of my professional position is getting up and getting dressed every day. Unless I have a reason, like a physical therapy appointment midday, I get up and get dressed to my minimum standard of “Montana business casual” (i.e. no T-shirts or pajamas). I am presentable if my president, provost or a student wants to have an impromptu video conversation.
I also work to make the space I am in conducive to a professional operation by limiting distractions. Again, I have the luxury of a separate space. If you do not, establishing boundaries with whomever you share your space with will be quite important. Decide what it is about going into the office that conjures your professional mindset and recreate that in your remote situation.
Finally, working remotely can be isolating. Building a community of practice with other professionals is important. Find where your people gather online (mine are on Twitter— @calimorrison) and make those connections a part of your day. Start a virtual book club, a Twitter chat, a hangout like #SquadGoalsNetwork or just message the work pal you used to see at the coffee pot each morning and have a virtual coffee chat. Humanizing remote work is just as important as humanizing online learning, but more on that later!
Dr. Cali M.K. Morrison, CPC is associate dean, alternative learning at American Public University System. She earned her Ed.D. in higher education administration at Montana State University. Previously Cali was assistant director, communications and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) and project director of Transparency by Design at WCET, where she studied adult learners and accountability. Current research interests include competency-based education and the future of credentials. Cali lives near Bozeman, MT with her husband, two daughters, and dogs where she is active in the community, especially with Bozeman Area Community Foundation, Montana Science Center, & Thrive.