A Change Of Scenery
Changing your workspace can have wide-ranging benefits—from enhanced mental and social stimulation to improved productivity, focus, and creativity.
Gone are the days where an employee had to be confined to a desk to fulfill their duties. We live in a digital, connected age where we can Zoom in to department meetings, collaborate in real-time with fellow researchers via Slack or intranet chat platforms, and access files with the click of a button.
In line with this, many workplaces (universities included) have flexible arrangements allowing for remote work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 24 percent of employed people worked from home at least some of the time in 2018.
What’s the reality of working remotely?
There’s no doubt that there is a certain romance to the idea of working from home or setting up at a cozy café or co-working space with your laptop and a coffee. But does the reality match up to the ideal?
- A (much!) shorter commute: According to the Census Bureau, 8.1% of Americans spend 60 or more minutes commuting to work each way, each day, adding up to almost 22 days a year of commuting. When your commute only involves walking from the kitchen to the home office, or down to the corner café, you’re saving days of valuable time each year.
- Greater focus: Although said to promote greater cross-pollination of ideas and teamwork, the open-plan office space isn’t kind to those who tend towards introversion or need a calm environment to be productive. Working from home means you can dive deep into those tasks that require sustained focus, such as writing grant applications or journal papers, without interruption.
- More control over your environment: Working from home also means you can control your environment to enhance your comfort and productivity—whether that’s with greater access to natural light, choosing your preferred air temperature, or filling the space with mood (and brain) boosting greenery.
- Increased idea generation: If you prefer cafes or co-working spaces over your home office, then good news. Researchers have found that working in co-working spaces can be beneficial for stimulation and new ideas. The spaces allow you to interact with different kinds of people who can provide new perspectives, networks, and resources.
Researchers As Collaborators
While having the option to work from home or the corner café is a great bonus, remote work is often a necessity, not just a choice. Researchers frequently find themselves collaborating as a globally distributed team, stationed in various locations around the world, and often collaborate when working on publications, collecting data for a project or coding.
The benefits of having a wide range of international knowledge and experience on a team are endless – from the variety of fresh perspectives on offer to the enhanced problem-solving and creative capacity afforded by bringing diverse minds and experiences together.
Indeed, the number of authors per research paper is continually increasing. In social sciences, the percentage of papers authored by more than one person increased from 12% in 1960 to 66% in 2013. In the same period, the percentage of science and engineering papers authored by more than one person increased from 57% to 90%.
In 2008, Jones, Wuchty, and Uzzi discovered this growth was due to research publications from more than one institution, crossing institutional, as well as geographic, boundaries.
But this kind of collaboration also means you may find yourself working in unfamiliar settings, such as hotels, co-working spaces, or airports while in transit, or from home at odd hours to accommodate for time zone differences. This can make for disjointed communication, and, when not managed correctly, gaps in productivity and workflow.
So, how do we ensure we make the most of the innovation and creative power afforded by collaboration and remote working, without sacrificing on workplace productivity and culture?
- Make time for face time: Use Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, FaceTime or other video platforms for meetings whenever possible. The ability to see someone’s expression while they talk can add a lot of value to the conversation – talking “in person” through video chat helps to minimize potential miscommunication and enhances team bonding.
- Have a centralized document hub: Staying organized and keeping everyone in the loop about where to locate essential documents are key to working remotely in collaborative teams. Use Google Drive, Dropbox or similar tools for non-sensitive data. Keep your files in a place where they are easily accessible, no matter your location. As a bonus, online documents and spreadsheets allow for immediate and transparent commentary and/or feedback and real-time collaboration.
- Stay chatty: Encourage the use of real-time chat tools. When you can’t just swing by someone’s desk, a quick chat is the next best thing. Chatting gets quicker responses and keeps people more engaged than emailing back and forth, and helps to strengthen team culture.
- Transparency is key: If you’re traveling, block off your travel time so the rest of your research team knows when you’ll be unavailable. This enables them to plan for when you are away and avoids any frustration around delayed responses.
- Respect time differences: It’s also thoughtful to consider other offices’ time zones or international holidays when scheduling meetings with those in different states or countries. Collaborating with global teams often means working outside of your standard 9–5 hours to connect over a conference call. Being mindful of these time differences and country-specific holidays means you can try to aim for the most convenient times for everyone involved.
Whether home, airport, hotel lobby, café, or co-working space is your venue of choice, the key to optimizing remote workplaces and collaborative teams is clear and timely communication… And ensuring that the internet connection is reliable!