Productivity in our new not so normal

You are probably hearing this too: “I never thought I would see something like this in my lifetime!” It was never on my radar, either. Considering “stay-at-home” orders, moving all forms of education to an online environment, and trying to maintain social connections while physically distancing yourself from others can be overwhelming.  And it is okay to be overwhelmed as you try to figure out what tomorrow might bring.

I have an advantage in all of this. In my current role, if I am not traveling, I spend 80% of my time in a work-at-home environment.  Working from home today is not a stretch. It is how I get my job done on most days. I am also not faced with the challenge of now being a primary or secondary school teacher on top of parenting in what must be a very unsettling environment for children. Our family consists of my husband, me, and our five cats.  My greatest challenge on that front is that one of the five has discovered the cursor on the multiple monitors I’m using and considers it her greatest plaything. My salvation? Videos made just for cats on YouTube. She sits and watches birds flit in and out of the screen until she’s ready for a nap. I may lose the use of a monitor during that time, but I get my keyboard back.

So what makes me qualified to speak on the subject of productivity in this crazy world, then? Well, I figured out how to work from home, manage a team, and stay connected to my organization’s partner colleges and universities long before it became the requirement it is today. And given my background as a higher education administrator and my current role as Chief Academic Officer for Helix, I am also keenly aware of the nature of online education and understand the challenges facing everyone from my neighbor’s first grader to the students attending the universities I work with.

Here are five tips I offer for those of you who are finding this transition challenging, especially when you have families to care for and are sharing the same physical space 24/7. 

Tip #1:  Set a schedule.  Be willing to take the time to create a meaningful schedule that integrates the demands of everyone in your household.  If you live in a more remote area as I do, one of those considerations might be internet bandwidth. My husband and I regularly coordinate schedules for particularly important meetings.  If I’m on a call with a partner, he avoids listening to Pandora and visa versa.  

In many households, there might not be enough hardware to meet the demands of every student and worker under the roof.  Developing a schedule that coordinates synchronous demands with asynchronous opportunities will assist with the challenges of sharing computers. 

Within that schedule, include opportunities for exercise, consistent sleep and wake patterns, and make your Monday to Friday schedule distinctly different from your weekend schedule.  It’s challenging to keep track of days in the “stay-at-home” environment. Making the weekend a celebration or a fun “not work or school time” will help the weeks pass and provide some balance.

There are a number of great resources for those juggling the new work-at-home environment with kids of all ages. One from TulsaKids provides a number of suggestions for making the transition, including some sample schedules to follow.

Tip #2: Carve out a space to call your own for work or school. In many cases, this may be a true luxury.  Even if you are, like one of my colleagues, sharing a small space with multiple people, you will find the greatest level of effectiveness and comfort if you can carve out a space that is designated for work.  Whenever possible, it should be different from those non-work times, even if that means that you set up your dining room table as a workspace each morning and transition it back to an area for eating at the end of the workday. If you’re living with your laptop and email open all day and night, it will be exceptionally challenging to create space for your non-work/non-student activities.  Give yourself the ability to get up and walk away when needed, even if that means tucking work stuff in the corner and calling it a day.

It is also helpful to think of ways to make that workspace yours in a way that gives yourself and others in your home a sense of privacy.  Consider using a curtain to give yourself some space, using headphones, or selecting one of the Zoom virtual backgrounds so you can meet with others without fully inviting them into your home or to meet the family.

Most importantly, make sure your space allows you to sit or stand in ways that are ergonomically correct to avoid unnecessary injuries to your back, neck, and shoulders.  A recent article from CNN provides tips to set up a decent office space. Even if you, like me, have been working from home for a while, the article has some great ideas.

Tip #3:  Get up and move on a regular basis.  If you’re anything like me, you may find yourself working with such single-minded purpose that hours will go by before you realize it.  When I was working on campus, it was guaranteed that I would need to walk at least every hour or so as I transitioned from meeting to meeting.  Not so in the work-at-home environment. So how do you ensure that you’re moving regularly? Find a tool that will help you keep track of how long it has been since you’ve been up and about. Even if the day’s schedule doesn’t allow for longer breaks and walks, I’ve been known to take a lap around the house, use my stand up desk, or go up and down the stairs a few times.  Just move! Your hips, knees, and back will thank you!

Tip #4: Avoid COVID fatigue. While others will suggest that you minimize your exposure to social media and the news during this time (a practice I fully endorse), I also would suggest that you take care to avoid some of the busywork that seems to have bubbled up during this time.  I’m not talking about the important activities directly connected to your work, your colleagues, or your children’s school activities. I’m talking about filling up your calendars just to make sure you’re always doing something. Some of these activities are certainly worthwhile (working on your hobbies, checking in with every group and person you know, etc.), but a full schedule is not always a productive schedule. Flexibility in how we plan our own days and the ways we schedule with others will go a long way toward ensuring the highest quality of our work and effort. Rather than filling your schedule just to stay busy, focus on the things that are truly important, and if you are challenged by all that is going on, talk with your colleagues, your students, your family, and give them the opportunity to talk with you. 

To that end, if you are a leader or educator, think about the value add of any additional meeting or scheduled activity that you plan. Does the meeting/activity have a specific purpose? Will it be meaningful to the participants, or are you meeting just for the sake of meeting? The transition to working (and learning) from home is already challenging enough. Avoid overwhelming your employees and students with more expectations. There’s already a steep learning curve involved in working and learning from home!  

Those of you who are educators have another consideration: That student who was able to attend your 8 am lecture when you were all in the Eastern Time Zone will most likely have a difficult time attending when they’ve returned to home on the West Coast. Are you planning and scheduling things in a way that facilitates learning for those students who are now in different time zones?

Tip #5: Practice grace and gratitude. At the end of the day, this is a new experience for all of us.  I may have working from home down pat and be a great extroverted-introvert, but the concerns about my family and friends during this time of uncertainty have put a pall over my day-to-day existence. During this time, it’s more important than ever to focus on the things that we can be grateful for – big and small.  And to forgive ourselves and one another when we may not react or respond in the best way. 

Productivity and learning are as critical as they ever were; this will be what will get us through this crisis. But so is making space for virtual celebrations, quiet times, engaging in activities that we might not otherwise do, doing a little binge-watching of a guilty pleasure, or even doing absolutely nothing at all.  

 

Owen, K. R. (2020, March 17). Creating your COVID school cancellation schedule. TulsaKids. https://www.tulsakids.com/creating-your-covid-school-cancellation-schedule/

Zoom. (n.d). Virtual background. https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/210707503-Virtual-Background

Vasel, K. (2020, March 30). It’s not too late to set up a decent home office. CNN Business. https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/30/success/work-from-home-office-set-up/index.html

Cherron Hoppes

Cherron is the Chief Academic Officer at Helix Education. She holds a doctorate of education (Ed.D.) from The University of Alabama with a specialization in higher education administration.