April has been a crazy month for many of us. While Ripple Effect has remained open for business and able to support our country’s public health communications, staffing, policy, and evaluation needs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our physical office has remained closed. The pandemic has uprooted our normal work paradigm and forced us to adopt remote work arrangements. Fortunately, our people are equipped to adapt.
Throughout April’s Mindfulness Month, we’ve highlighted different ways to #BeMindful and continue producing quality work outside of office settings. To close out the month, we thought it was appropriate to ask our in-house experts how they do that. For our latest roundtable, we rounded up some of our remote-based Ripplers to share their thoughts on staying motivated, the biggest misconceptions about working from home, and tips for surviving cabin fever.
Meet Our Roundtable
Kristen Adams, Business Systems Analyst
Amanda Barczyk, Senior Research and Evaluation Associate
Asher Beckwitt, Research and Evaluation Project Director
Robin Flanagan, Senior Healthcare Analyst
Esther Lau, Analyst
Tierra Terrell-Johnson, Senior Human Resources Manager
Elyssa Warner, Writer/Editor
Welcome to the Roundtable! First question: What strategies do you use to stay motivated and on track when working remotely? Any specific techniques and hacks?
Amanda Barczyk: I am a BIG list maker! I use the lists for small tasks. For example, if I have a report due, I don’t put “Complete Report” on my list, but rather put things like: Edit table numbers for consistency, Remove due dates from text, and Complete timeline. As each small task I complete get crossed off, I’m able to see how much I am accomplishing, which motivates me more.
Elyssa Warner: I set small goals for myself. I’ve worked on a few large documents (200+ pages) over the last few years, and when I find myself losing concentration, I look for a good break point. Maybe I’m currently on page 42 and I see a section break ahead on page 46. So I’ll tell myself “I’ll take a small break when I get to page 46.” And the important thing is to really honor that promise you’ve made yourself. Even when I get to page 46 and feel I can push through, it’s important for me not to.
RIPPLE EFFECT: How about motivational tactics?
Robin Flanagan: My work motivation is tied to the perceived value of what I’m working on. At Ripple Effect, that’s been comment processing for data projects for federal clients. I’ll ask myself, “What’s the big impact of this, and why does it matter?” This helps me to visualize how the high-quality data we’re providing can be used to determine appropriate regulations for the important programs we’re analyzing.
Tierra Terrell-Johnson: I use the Ivy Lee Method to set daily goals. The night before, I make a list of things I need to accomplish the next day, in order of importance. It feels good to check things off my list! I also add “focus” holds to my calendar so that I can have dedicated time to work on tasks.
Kristen Adams: That’s great. I’m big on controlling my calendar, too. If I have longer stretches without calls, I block out my schedule in 30-60 minute slots with a goal of finishing something specific during each block.
Esther Lau: I start each day wrapped in my favorite blanket with my favorite caffeinated beverage next to me. Sounds simple, but it’s comforting to me and keeps me going uninterrupted.
Do you ever get ‘cabin fever’ when working remotely, outside an office setting? How do you overcome that?
Robin: Yes! When that happens, I recognize that it’s time to move my body around a little, so I’ll do some quick exercises in place or go for a walk. Also, since I work part-time and balance with childcare duties, I’m motivated to get as much work done as I can when I have the chance!
Kristen: I usually prefer home to an office setting, so luckily I don’t get much cabin fever, but I do try to be sure I get up and stretch my legs often, even if it’s to go upstairs to the coffee pot. And I make sure I go outside, even if I take my phone and check email as I walk around the block.
Asher Beckwitt: Same here. I go for walks, or take my boat out on the lake in the park behind my house.
Tierra: I take informal check-in calls outside, to get a little fresh air and light exercise.
RIPPLE EFFECT: We’re sensing some movement here…
Tierra: (Laughs) I’ll add to that, then. When I can’t step away from my computer, I’m usually in chats and channel discussions via Microsoft Teams. Conversation makes me feel more connected, and it sounds silly, but funny GIFs and emojis do help me shift to a more positive mood.
Elyssa: When I first started, I would plan my day so that I would work for a few hours, then exercise, then come back to work. It really helps break up the day for me and prevent cabin fever if I don’t expect myself to work in a long, solid chunk of time. Building up the discipline to return to work after exercise or grocery shopping took some getting used to, but now it’s easy. Like any habit, it takes some time for it to be easy, but for me, it was so worth it to build up those habits at the beginning.
What advice would you give to a person working remotely for the first time—specifically, to someone who wants to improve their productivity/efficiency?
Kristen: I think everyone is different, but for me, I have one dedicated workspace and I keep very regular hours. It keeps me focused and on track.
Elyssa: Agreed! If you can, have a dedicated spot to work—preferably, not the same space that you sleep in. And when you’re done with work for the day, be DONE. Resist the temptation to “just check email” or “just do one more small task.”
Amanda: To get scientific for a minute…one part of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is stimulus control therapy: conditioning your brain to see your bed as a cue for sleep. I use this technique for work and have a designated workspace that when I “enter,” I know I’m getting into my work zone.
RIPPLE EFFECT: In short: Get out of bed!
Robin: For me, it’s important to get ready for work as if I were going into an office. I don’t dress up for work at home, but make sure that I look professional enough that I wouldn’t be embarrassed in an impromptu video call. These things help to set the mindset for work, and establish my own sense of accountability.
Esther: Treat yourself to a nice lunch once in a while! It can do wonders.
Tierra: And it’s okay to take a break. When I first started working remotely, I found myself sitting in the same place for almost 8 hours straight. Not good.
Robin: Totally. I try to keep to the same schedule each day I’m working, and plan my breaks in advance.
Tell us about a time when working remotely did not go as well as you had hoped (technical difficulties, etc.) What did you to do fix it?
Esther: It’s always hard when tech breaks on you—glitchy computer or software, microphones not working, etc. I try to use other devices as workarounds, like using my phone to call into a meeting instead of joining via laptop, and I’ll contact IT if I can’t fix the issue.
Asher: I’ve had difficulties with losing power and technical problems with slow internet. When the power cuts out, I have a small pile of tasks that I can work on offline. And when the internet slows, well, it’s a patience game—usually, it magically fixes itself!
Amanda: At my previous job, I once lost my voice ahead of a big meeting that we couldn’t reschedule. It was a Teams meeting, and you couldn’t hear me at all. I quickly pivoted and let everyone know we’d need to use the chat feature, which our group rarely did. It felt awkward at first, but we quickly got into a flow and the meeting didn’t suffer.
Elyssa: My Ripple laptop completely crashed once—couldn’t be started or turned on, and I was two days away from a huge deadline. I contacted Forrest Hoffman, Ripple’s IT guru, via phone and we worked through setting up my personal laptop for work. Life saver!
Kristen: That’s why, when I’m joining a virtual meeting, I always keep my cell phone at the ready. Computer audio can get weird, and I need to be able to call in at a moment’s notice.
What are your favorite tools, technologies, platforms, and apps that boost your productivity and keep you connected to coworkers?
Robin: I love the flexibility of chat features in Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business. Knowing that I’m working alongside my team, even if we’re not interacting regularly, improves my focus and sense of teamwork.
Asher: Teams has been effective for communicating with coworkers throughout the day, through instant messages and virtual meetings. It’s a great platform.
Elyssa: I think you can make any platform work, really. I’ve been remote for six years, so keeping myself connected through Teams is really my only option—I can’t just pop in or walk up to someone for a quick chat. So get comfortable with tech!
Kristen: A little bit of a different answer, but remembering to acknowledge and reward coworkers is even more important when we’re all working remotely. We have a great internal bonus system that we use, Bonus.ly, to give fun little rewards and some social shine when people do great work.
Tierra: Microsoft Teams for chats and file-sharing, Microsoft Sticky Notes for those quick ideas that I need to jot down, and Asana for project planning and task tracking.
What’s the biggest misconception, or misunderstood idea, about remote work?
Tierra: That people can’t be productive when working remotely.
Asher: Yes, and that “remote work” means you’re not working. Not true. In fact, I find that when I work remotely, I’m often able to get more done and work longer hours.
Elyssa: That working remotely is just like working from an office. It’s not. Especially now, when kids and spouses may also be home with you. Home has all sorts of distractions: the fridge, television, social media, your phone, movies, even cleaning! It really takes a lot of mental discipline to transition to working from home successfully.
Esther: That productivity is lower because there are more temptations for distractions. I think it depends on the person, but I agree with what Elyssa said. I’m task-oriented, so for me, working at night after my kids are asleep can be therapeutic.
Kristen: I think there’s a misconception (though I think it’s changing) that if people are left to their own devices, they will most certainly eat cheese puffs, watch TV, play with their dog, and do anything but work. That’s really not the case.
Robin: Right, and we’re NOT all wearing pajamas on our lower halves!
Kristen: (Laughs) Agreed. At the end of the day, regardless of whether you’re in the office or remote, you are still responsible for the quality of the work you produce and whether you complete it on time. That ownership and accountability is what keeps me on track.
RIPPLE EFFECT: Amanda, what’s your take on this?
Amanda: I love what Tierra, Asher, and Esther got at. The truth is, some people are flat-out more productive when working remotely. And that’s great!
RIPPLE EFFECT: How can others get to that level?
Amanda: Let your work speak for itself. And remember that while many people are transitioning to remote work right now, we’re living through unprecedented circumstances. Stress, fear, health concerns, and many other factors are impacting our lives right now, making work itself more challenging. So cut yourself some slack, take three deep breaths, practice self-care, and we will get through this together.
Tierra: Perfectly said!
That’s all! Thanks so much for sitting down with us (virtually, of course) and sharing your thoughts and advice. We wish everyone good health and productivity throughout this challenging time.
We hope you found this Roundtable fun, engaging, and helpful. Please comment with any questions you have, and if you see yourself as a future Rippler, please visit our Careers page and apply for an open position. We’ll see you next time!