Remote working for researchers and developers

This post was compiled by Mark Woodbridge, Jeremy Cohen and Tony Yang of the Imperial College Research Software Community. We are re-publishing an updated version of the original article modified by the authors for a more general audience. Content not accessible to readers outside their local community has been removed or replaced appropriately.

A new slack channel on the UK RSE slack has been created to discuss remote working: #remote-working. If you wish to join the UK RSE Slack workspace and you don’t have an email address from a pre-approved institution you can request access via this form.

As COVID-19 drives us into uncharted territory, many of us will be having our first ever experience of working away from our offices and our institutions’ campuses for an extended period of time. It, of course, depends on our role, but many members of the research and RSE community will be no stranger to mobile working – pitching up at one of our campus cafés, breakout spaces or a local coffee shop, getting out our laptop or mobile device and switching very quickly into a state of focused work. Maybe finishing those next couple of paragraphs of a paper or report, fixing that annoying bug in our scientific code that someone just reported, or responding to an urgent technical query from a collaborator. Sometimes a change of space or environment provides just that little shift in perspective that you need to help solve that challenging technical problem, or get the right wording for that difficult section of the paper much more quickly than if you’d sat in your office staring at your screen for hours!

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be facing a rather different reality of remote working which is likely to involve spending a significant amount of time working in one space, without the flexibility that comes from being on a university campus or in a busy office. While our primary concern is going to be for the health and safety of our family, friends and colleagues, many of us will also have concerns about how we’ll manage to work effectively in these difficult times. We may have worries about feeling isolated, about maintaining our research efficiency and quality, about meeting deadlines, or more generally about how things will change in our day-to-day working lives as our routines are uprooted completely!

Many readers of this article are likely to be Research Software Engineers or academics/researchers who spend a significant amount of time writing software. The software developer community has embraced remote working over recent years and there are now many examples of companies that operate an entirely remote model with individuals distributed around the world (e.g. GitLab). If you’re a developer with a laptop and a good internet connection, location is no longer a barrier. In the research community, things are a little different and while many of us will be aware of cases where individuals spend the bulk of their time working remotely, discussion, collaboration and the opportunities posed by ad hoc meetings in the common room can make working in a campus environment important and beneficial. Nonetheless, one huge benefit of the wide-ranging use of remote working in the software community is the wealth of tools, advice and examples now out there that make lone, remote working much easier.

A few members of Imperial College London’s research software community have come together (remotely!) to provide some tips, examples and advice that we hope might be helpful if you’re working remotely. There are many similar articles online but here we’ve tried to provide some thoughts and examples from our own experiences and we hope that these will be particularly relevant to members of the research software community.

1) Communicating with colleagues

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be the most outgoing person, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of communication with colleagues or collaborators when you’re working alone. If we’re on campus or in an office-based environment most of the time, we probably have many informal chats with others based within our own office, people we bump into in the corridor or coffee room, etc.

Think about perhaps scheduling at least one 30 minute catch up with one or two colleagues each day. It doesn’t need to be time wasted through unstructured chat, although even this sort of meeting can be really valuable in helping you to feel connected and ultimately helping to improve your wellbeing. There are, of course, many different solutions available to support this. Perhaps you already have experience of using some of them in recent days. For example, you may have access to a Microsoft Teams setup, Zoom provides a free tier for one-to-one meetings or short group meetings, and many of us will already be familiar with other services such as Skype and Google Hangouts.

Some other suggestions:

  • Deliberately check in with others and ask how they are – especially if you know they are isolated.
  • Video calling, however uncomfortable to start with, can go some way towards replicating the interactions we’re used to in the campus environment.
  • Celebrate and share achievements, however large or small – from bug-fixes to new releases of your code!
  • Try remote pair programming or debugging: e.g. Live Share
  • Take part in an online community. The UK RSE community has a very active Slack workspace*. There are also many Meetup groups in the Tech space and other events (e.g. CW20) are now going online.
  • Reach out to others: whether housemates, or your local community via Facebook or other virtual groups. Consider volunteering where it is appropriate to do so.
  • Contribute to an open source project. Open source projects (such as The Turing Way) tend to have an established and inviting online community. If it is complementary to your work, and you have the capacity to do so, then making a contribution – even fixing a typo – can be a very fulfilling experience and introduce you to a broader community.

2) Maximising focus

Some people will be used to working from home for at least one day a week – perhaps in an environment that enables us to concentrate at least as well as in the office. But many of us won’t have anything resembling a home-office (or even a desk!) and may have caring or other responsibilities that are difficult to combine with sustained focused work. Generic advice is therefore almost impossible to provide, but here are some ideas:

  • When working in isolation without scheduled meetings or other engagements it can be easy to confuse time spent working with actual productive hours. Try setting alarms or using a timer for focused periods.
  • Messaging apps are great for keeping in touch but can also provide a stream of interruptions. Decide when you’ll be online and offline and set/indicate your status appropriately. And conversely, be mindful about how and when you contact others.
  • If you’re able to control your hours and environment then take advantage: work when you’re most productive, listen to music for programming, ambient sounds… or simply concentrate in potentially unfamiliar (but welcome!) peace and quiet.
  • Delineate your working day (and your workspace) – consciously decide when you’re working and when you’re not, and somehow communicate this to those around you.
  • You may need to be especially creative if you do have caring responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to adopt a working pattern or shifts different to those of your colleagues – as long everyone is aware and can continue to communicate effectively. You may find these Parent Scheme resources helpful.
  • Take breaks, rehydrate, try to eat healthily (especially considering the reduced physical activity you may be getting), and try to get some fresh air. If you’re looking for some motivation, you could even think about setting up or, if your team/group/employer already has one, joining a virtual running club!
  • Take advantage of the time saved by not commuting: perhaps by taking up a new hobby – ideally something that exercises a different part of your brain! For example, perhaps consider trying meditation, there are many resources and apps out there that can help. You could also think about using any additional time that you find you have available to improve your technical skills or learn something new. Killian Murphy and colleagues at the University of York are building up an excellent list of online training resources which is under ongoing development.

3) Working comfortably

Without a home office and the availability of the usual alternatives such as libraries, shared workspaces or even coffee shops it can be difficult to find a comfortable place to work for prolonged periods. Ideally find more than one place where you can work and then alternate – even if one is the sofa! Experiment: improvise a standing desk (maybe putting your stockpile to good use…). Take breaks to relieve any tension and give your body a break by stretching or trying some beginner’s yoga. However, if you feel that your health and/or productivity is affected then don’t hesitate to talk to your supervisor or see if your organisation’s Occupational Health team can provide assistance.

A new way of working

We hope that some of these ideas can ease the transition that will undoubtedly be challenging for some of us. But it’s also an opportunity to reassess how we work and how it fits around the rest of our lives. So try to establish clear boundaries between work and relaxation time and spaces, make yourself comfortable, and connect with colleagues, friends and family where you can. Also remember to take enough time off and do not work for prolonged periods without breaks in order to avoid burnout. Transitioning into remote working is a process and a reduction in productivity initially can be expected to happen. Aim to develop a routine, but in the meantime be patient and experiment. Don’t worry, you will soon learn how you work most productively, and hopefully pick up some good habits for the longer term! But if you do struggle then be sure to communicate, take advantage of the many resources out there that can provide help, and ask for advice and assistance if necessary.

Keep safe and we wish you lots of productive (remote) coding, paper writing or research!

Further reading

Did we miss any useful resources? Let the authors know @ImperialRSE and join the UK RSE Slack to contribute to the new channel #remote-working.

The content of this blog post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence. It was originally posted here).

Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

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