Have Laptop, Will Travel

Stephanie TaylorRemoteness is a big problem for us home workers. Stephanie Taylor, a fellow UKOLN remote worker, has written a great post for us on her efforts to combat isolation, encourage creativity and keep fit! Enjoy!

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It’s a sunny afternoon in early October. I’m sitting in the Cornerhouse bar in Manchester with a large Americano, enjoying the buzz of the city and the hum of the late-lunching crowds. And I’m working. I have my mobile phone, my laptop and a good wifi connection. What more do I need? Well, as it turns out, nothing. I’m quite busy and contented, living the roving remote worker dream.

It all started a few months ago, when I met up with my fellow remote workers at UKOLN. UKOLN, based at the University of Bath, supports the idea of remote working – where staff do not need to be based on site or even in the same county. I live on the edge of the Peak District, travelling down to Bath every couple of months for various project meetings. The rest of the time, I stay in touch with colleagues via Skype, phone and email for serious communication, and via various social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook for more frivolous chatter.

During our remote workers day, we remote workers discussed the ups and downs of being based away from our place of work. To many people, especially those who have a regular commute, I know I look like I’m living the working-from-home dream. Based in lovely countryside, able to see Kinder Scout from my windows (if you’re upstairs and crane your neck a bit), with a river flowing almost past my front door, just across the quiet lane. What’s not to like?

Kizzie at the train stationWell, ungrateful as it sounds, if it’s your every-day reality, quite a lot sometimes! I miss other people, I miss all the small pleasures of going out alone or with colleagues for a coffee or lunch or drinks after work. Sometimes, the splendid isolation gets a bit daunting. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m very lucky. Living where I do allows me to keep three dogs and to go out for walks where I can gaze at trees and watch curlews dipping over the moorland. But sometimes, when deadlines loom and tasks seem endless, I have times when I’d swap it all to be part of a bigger world for a little while.

And as we all talked, I found I wasn’t alone. The isolation of working remotely can be a real problem. Someone suggested that we should make an effort to get out more. I remembered that I live only thirty minutes from Manchester via a reasonable daytime train service. Why not go in to the city now and again to work for the day? The plans grew. Three of us could get into Manchester without too much trouble – maybe we could meet up? Then we started to embellish the day. Lack of motivation to exercise plus lack of the obvious benefits in the shape of the gym, the pool and various classes available to campus-based colleagues was another gripe. But if we went into the city, maybe we could find a class, join a gym, go for a swim?

And eventually, I got round to giving it a try. Although I had a map of free wifi hotspots, I wasn’t sure it would all work out. So I chose some project planning tasks to work on, figuring that if I couldn’t work online or my laptop blew up or some other technological disaster struck, I’d be able to work with a paper and pen. Providing I could remember how to write. I also chose work that didn’t immediately involve other people or tight deadlines. If I was too distracted by being out and found I couldn’t focus, I could make up the time later without inconveniencing anyone else. And I thought. For the first trip, I’d try an afternoon rather than a full day. Just in case.

Feeling I’d covered all possible disasters, I set off. My first stop was the Cornerhouse. I liked it so much I stayed there most of the afternoon. Waitress service meant I could set up at a quiet table and not have to risk leaving everything to order another coffee. The wifi connection was faster than at home. And the work – well, the work went very well. Spurred on by the lively environment, I found my brain went into another gear. I came up with more creative approaches to solve problems that had seemed insurmountable. I wizzed through my todo list and even managed to fit in getting a time sheet back to the admin staff at UKOLN ahead of the deadline – previously unheard of!!

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only person who set up a portable office as the lunchtime crowds thinned out. At one point, there were about five of us, talking into mobiles, tapping at our keyboards, but discreetly spaced so we weren’t bothering each other. Bliss! I also began to see how beneficial the free wifi was, and why the staff seemed so happy to have us taking up a whole table to work at. After lunch and before evening drinks, the café bar was very quiet. But we not only made the space look busy, we bought drinks, sandwiches, cakes, handing over money at a dead period. I’ll bet the five of us paid for the free wifi in one afternoon!

Tempted though I was to linger for a glass of wine or even a cocktail at the end of my working day, I had another experiment to try out. Searching online before my trip, I’d found that the Manchester Buddhist Centre offered a drop-in class in yoga at 6pm. A brisk work across town had me taking my last scheduled call of the day in their Earth Café before stowing my laptop and changing into yoga kit. I really enjoyed the class and was amazed and delighted at how flexible I was after well over a year of not really doing any yoga. Then I strolled back to the station and caught the train back home.

I’d spent a very productive afternoon, and I’m planning to do it again, soon. I also plan on chivvying colleagues into meeting up soon. On the downside, it did take me two days to be able to move freely after the yoga class. The flexibility I had when doing the class was a false dawn and I could hardly move the next morning! But with regular classes I’m sure that will change. 😉

Most important of all, I think I’m getting the balance right for me. Remote working is a very personal experience. It’s different for everyone, and you often only have yourself to rely on, so being motivated and knowing how to get the best out of yourself is crucial. Understanding that I need a change of pace now and again is very liberating, and I’m lucky that it’s easily within my reach, And that really is living the dream.

A Support Framework for Remote Workers

Last week Ariadne Web magazine published my article on A Support Framework for Remote Workers.

The article is the last in a series of three I’ve written on remote working for Ariadne. The first A Desk Too Far?: The Case for Remote Working was a look at the pros and cons of working off-site, the second Staying Connected: Technologies Supporting Remote Workers looked at technologies that can support you if you are working off-site and the third one takes a look at what we have done in the past, and are now doing, for UKOLN off-site workers. It is an attempt to show that if a commitment is made by an organisation to its remote workers then with some little changes the benefits can be huge (happy, motivated staff who stay with you!)

This article aims to discuss how we, here at UKOLN, have put this theory into practice by creating a support framework for remote workers. It is a case study of what can be done with enthusiastic staff, support from managers and faith in an iterative process. It is also a reality check. Remote working continues to be an aspiration for so many yet the reality is not always plain sailing. However what remote working does offer, if it can be realised, is choice and flexibility; two increasingly required job characteristics that let the best employees work to the best of their ability.

Some of the content of the article is based on posts I’ve written for this blog. I really have found the blog to be a very useful way to record what we are up to and a great way to get feedback from people.

If you do want some ideas on how to start supporting your remote workers more than please take a look.

Know Thyself: The UKOLN Remote Worker Workshop

Yesterday we had our second UKOLN remote worker workshop. This was an all-day workshop run by an external trainer for our internal remote workers only.

What can I say? I think we all had a fab day (despite feeling a bit ropey after all going out for a meal and a few drinks the night before!) The day, for me, was actually quite emotional. There was a lot of introspection and trying to understand yourself. I’m not a particularly huggy-feely person but I do believe some time spent trying to understand yourself will end up being be time well invested. As the ancient Greek aphorism states “know thyself”.

Sylvia Vacher from Objectives training does a great job of getting to the root of a problem and making sure you take a solutions based approach, so you are left with very practical advice that you can go away and apply.

UKOLN Remote Workers

UKOLN Remote Workers

The main themes for the day were time management and motivation. These were the two problem areas we’d identified as being the most significant to us as remote workers. We also looked at creativity quite a bit because much of our work at UKOLN involves innovation and ideas.

Our spec outline included:

Time management
How can we use our time more effectively?
How can we change ingrained patterns of behaviour?
How can we stop ourselves procrastinating?
What can be done to avoid distractions -both online and off?
How can we improve our concentration (given that when at home many stimulus (like people to chat to) are not there)?
What different time management systems apply for different personalities?
Motivation
What motivates us as individuals?
How can we encourage motivation when, at times, we are not getting this from the work we are carrying out?
How can we set our own goals when our work targets are sometimes unclear?
How can we stimulate creative thinking when alone?
Communication
How can we increase interaction with colleagues (be they UKOLN or external)?
How can we maintain momentum in this communication?

I think some of the key things that I took away from the day include:

The Importance of Feedback

The isolation of remote working means that you need feedback much more than an on-site worker. If you aren’t getting this feedback you need to ask for it. This feedback could take the form of peer support, a coach, mentor or any other support. Some of the other remote workers (who live near to Manchester) have agreed to meet up once a month for a coffee, a chat and a ‘bit of support’.

Taking a Risk is good.

Broadening your horizon can only be a good thing. As a working Mum I tend to want to keep things safe and stay at home as much as possible, yet I crave the stimulus of going to events and meeting people. Although getting out can be a pain it’s an essential part of making you a rounded person and a key factor in creativity. I need to do more of it.

Be positive

I’m just not, but it’s the only way to be. You need to fill your life with the things you want to do and then enjoy them.

Our trainer Sylvia Vacher

Our trainer Sylvia Vacher

A few of my favourite motivators were:

  • Know what makes you tick and try to get more of it
  • Think of the positives – deal with the negatives in a solution based way
  • Keep your stimulators (things/books etc. that get you thinking) in a folder and get them out when you’re stuck

As for time keeping I liked:

  • If in doubt throw it out – try having a “Phucket bucket” – I hope I won’t get in trouble for this one, it just really sticks!
  • Chunk stuff up
  • Turn everything off (technology wise), now and then
  • You don’t have to respond straight away to everything
  • Don’t let someone take all your pie (i.e. time) if you don’t want them to
  • Your best working time is between 10 – 12 so do something constructive then (i.e. don’t answer emails in it)

A few interesting resources from the day that I intend to follow up are:

All of this was great but probably the most exciting thing about the day was that we are really gelling as a team. Although we all work on different areas we have a lot of common ground. If we can support each other then we are going to be more motivated and ultimately work more effectively. It’s a win win situation….now I really am starting to sound like an American pop-psychologist!!
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Low Hanging Fruit: UKOLN Support for Remote Workers

Have I mentioned before that I’m the UKOLN Remote Worker Champion?
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In the last couple of months here at UKOLN we’ve been trying a out a few relatively easy to implement ideas that will hopefully make remote working a little easier. All these ideas are ‘low hanging fruit’ and something most organisations could quite easily have a go at.

Videoing Staff Seminars

We are lucky enough to have a good number of excellent speakers who come to visit UKOLN and give presentations on their work. In the past you had to physically attend a session to hear the talk, for remote workers this would mean a long trip for an hour-long seminar. Recently our systems team have invested in a High Definition HDD Camcorder and we are now able to video and share the talks after the event, presenter agreeing.

The camcorder is a Canon HG20 which was chosen by the systems team but I’m sure you could achieve a great deal without such a high specification camera. The HG20 is a very nice camera indeed, and we still have quite a long way to go to realising it’s full potential. During the initial trial we recorded the footage at very high quality, which couldn’t easily be converted to Web quality for sharing! At the moment only a few members of the systems team know how to use the camera, but once set up it just requires turning on. Usually someone is available to manipulate and move it during the session, but if not a reasonable quality can be achieved by just leaving it.

Staff Seminar

The video footage is released as soon as possible after the seminar along with the slides and any other multimedia used. All seminars are available for staff use indefinitely and stored in our staff Intranet. They are not currently available externally but this is something we may look at in the future. Obviously making seminars available in this way is great for all staff as many are out of the office or otherwise busy and unable to attend.

Support for Phoning in to meetings

UKOLN have recently purchased a new conference phone that has 6 microphones. This avoids the constant ‘phone shifting’ we used to have to suffer during staff meetings, it also means that people who are phoning in can hear questions and comments much better.

All UKOLN remote workers have Skype accounts and an appointed person usually connects to those phoning in to the meeting to monitor any problems with the sound, questions etc. We also try to follow the guidance I mentioned in a previous blog post on virtual meetings.

Anyone presenting at a meeting makes every effort to ensure their presentation slides are available in good time so remote workers can access them. We are toying with the idea of having a ‘remote worker’s deposit area’ that acts as an online storage facility for each meeting.

Staff Development Day

We have been lucky enough to secure a staff development day for Remote workers later this month. The day, which will be a follow up to our previous workshop and again be facilitated by Sylvia Vacher, will focus on time management and motivation. We intend to have a social night (for all staff) on the night before the workshop so hopefully it will be a good bonding opportunity generally.

Remote Workers List

I’ve recently set up a internal remote workers email list. This allows other UKOLN staff to address us directly as a group (for example for admin tasks) and also for us to share ideas, discuss things etc. I’ve also been sending out a email newsletter with a round up of current activities. We all have a common issue (dealing with working out of the office) so have much to discuss and the list has been useful without being overwhelming.

Quite a few of us also now have Twitter accounts, which has been another way to stay in touch.

Thanks to the Systems and management teams for all their help with implementing these ideas.

If you have any ideas on other easy to implement support techniques then please do comment.

Can’t be Bothered with Motivation?

I’ve mentioned before that I am the ‘Remote Worker Champion’ at UKOLN. (This doesn’t involve me winning medals or being good at anything, it’s just about me supporting the UKOLN remote workers). We are currently planning a one-day internal workshop tackling remote worker issues. After chatting to people it hasn’t been that surprising to discover that the number one issue they have as remote workers is motivation.

Sometimes it’s just difficult to get motivated. It’s even more difficult when:

  • You’re not sure what you are supposed to be doing at work
  • You’ve got other things that need doing and are quite straightforward (like the washing up)
  • There is no-one there to inspire you
  • There is no-one there to watch you and check you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing
  • You’re bored

no motivation
Although I don’t have the answers yet (the hope is that the workshop will help here) it is obvious that one of the main problems is not having a clear vision (sorry for the management speak).

The fact that much of my work (and other people’s, especially in academia) doesn’t have an obvious point, was initially a big shock to me. It’s taken me a while to realise that sometimes the things you do don’t make sense till later down the line, and sometimes they don’t make sense at all…. This doesn’t mean that they are pointless.

Unfortunately that doesn’t really help you feel motivated.
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What I’ve found helps is to make sure I have the point of what I’m doing (no matter how small or long term it is) clear in my mind. Just remember that we can’t all be doctors and nurses but what you do can make a small difference. Eight years in and I think I’m pretty good at setting my own goals and creating my own vision.

Of course if that doesn’t work…there’s always the fact that your job pays the bills. There’s no better motivator than money!
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I’ll get back to you with some tips on getting motivated!