At the time of writing this blog post, many of us around the world are adapting to a new way of working – remotely, from home and for some of us in spaces that may not immediately be conducive to productivity. This working situation is likely to last several months at least, and we do this to help slow down the spread of COVID-19 so we can overcome this pandemic together. I, as a research engineer, am able to continue many of my projects from home, focussing more on writing (lots of papers!); I’m incredibly proud and thankful of the contributions that my clinical colleagues (many that are surgeons) are making to help overcome this pandemic.
For those within the academic research field who have had to make the move away from their university/lab spaces to now working from home, I offer the following tips and advice to help stay as productive as you can:
Define and Create your Workspace
Whether this is setting up a dedicated desk in a home office, a workstation on a dining table or a laptop in a corner of the living room, I think it’s important that you have a defined area within your home that you can call your workspace. If possible, it should be a space free of distractions (including other people!) where you can switch into ‘work mode’ (noise-cancelling headphones might be useful here….) and that you can separate from your relaxation time.
Have a Clear List of Daily Tasks
Do you remember that satisfying feeling of being able to finally close the 20+ tabs you had open in your browser as you were writing up a piece of coursework? That’s a feeling you can recreate every day by crossing things off the to-do-list you put together each evening to prepare for the next day! The secret here I think is to limit to a maximum of 2 ‘key’ things that you definitely want to have achieved in the day plus a handful of smaller tasks that would be good to get done. I prefer to get the 2 big things done first then focus on the smaller tasks but equally, it can be satisfying ticking off the ‘easy wins’ first to set the momentum for the day.
Be Consistent with your Work Times
This period of working from home may be a good opportunity for you to better understand when in the day (or night!) you’re most effective in your projects. Aside from any virtual team meetings you may have planned, you’ll now have the flexibility to start and end your work times based on what works best for you. This may mean waking up at 4am, getting in some exercise and then diving into a few hours of work before others you live with have even woken up! For some, sticking to a conventional 9-5 routine may be best whilst others may even want to start on a project at 5pm!
Whatever the approach you take to timing, the key is to be consistent with it. If you work best opening up the laptop at 6am then try, if you can, to stick to this time every day. Being disciplined in setting this routine and habit will not only help you shift into ‘work mode’ quicker but also help others you live to be clear on when you shouldn’t be disturbed.
Plan Regular Breaks
My general rule of thumb is to take a 10-minute break after roughly every 50 minutes of working. There are no rules here really – working at home means you more or less have control of when and how you work (factors such as children’s bedtimes and spending time with others in your household will need to be factored in). The key here is that you take a few breaks physically stepping away from your workspace – you could make a cup of tea, call a friend or even go for a brief walk. In my experience, when your work environment is also your home living environment, regular breaks are essential to stop things become very stale quickly!
Take Advantage of Technology
You’ll no doubt have come across the many technological solutions out there to stay in touch with others in your research team, as well as other friends and family. These include Apple FaceTime, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp and Google Hangouts, to name a few. Most of these options offer some level of free use which should be more than enough for most purposes; the common limitations that need payment are based around the duration of calls allowed for free (e.g. 40 minutes for Zoom) or the maximum number of participants possible in a single call.
I’d definitely recommend video calling with others in your team at least once or twice a week, especially under the current global circumstances. It’s a great way to check-in with everyone, catch up on work-related things but also just to chat on a personal level; many PhD students, in particular, will likely spend this lockdown period away from family and possibly on their own. Regular video calls can be one of many useful tools for a team to look out for each other from a mental wellbeing perspective.
Please use these tips to maintain some level of productivity in your research work, but remember that it’s also ok if there are days when you’re not productive. For many of us, this shift to working separately from our research teams will be an unwanted one and hopefully, we can return to lab and collaborative office work sooner rather than later. The primary focus under this pandemic should be maintaining your mental and physical health and ensuring those around you are safe and well.
About the Author
Dr Harry Hothi is the Implant Science Fellow of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) in Stanmore, UK and an honorary lecturer at University College London (UCL). He has a PhD in orthopaedic engineering and is currently supervising three UCL PhD students.