I’ve been working from home for most of the past 15 years… with small kids in the house much of the time. (My children, Clark and Finn are 12 and 10 now, and on Emergency Distance Learning like many students around the world.) So in hopes that I might be able to help some of the millions of teachers around the world now facing similar circumstances, I thought it might be valuable to share the routines, productivity hacks, and collaboration tools that have worked well for me. If you’ve been “working from home” and feeling like you’re “living at work” – I hope this can help.
Work From Home Tip #1: Routines
In retrospect, the routines I’ve adopted wind up looking quite a bit like the advice you might find elsewhere, but now I’ve lived the benefits of establishing a space for work at home, keeping regular working hours, taking frequent breaks, and getting plenty of exercise.
I’m lucky to have had a home office (or shared home office) most of this time, but when I haven’t, I set one up in the garage, so I could still close the door. If you’re working at home with kids (or other family or roommates), prioritize a door you can close if you can, even if it’s a bedroom, garage, or a walk-in closet. I usually keep the setup simple and uncluttered; most recently I grabbed a simple 2 foot by 4 foot table (originally from Ikea), raised my external monitor up on a box (for ergonomic reasons), and did away with a keyboard and mouse (using just my laptop to type). But really, a laptop and a clean non-distracting table are all that’s really needed – and the kitchen counter or backyard table make a good change of pace sometimes, especially if others aren’t around for a bit. In my dedicated space, I like a high backed chair, so I can lean my head back and keep from hunching over, which causes strain in my neck and lower back. If you’re going to be on a screen for hours at a time for the first time in your career, don’t underestimate the importance of treating your body right.
From the beginning, I knew it would be important to still keep regular work hours, both for productivity – and for life balance. It’s easy to be distracted by the demands of home or family and to lose your focus on work – and conversely, it can be easy to just keep working well beyond the number of hours that are effective or healthy. When the boys were younger, I had to be more flexible (sleep when the baby sleeps, right?) and I worked more at night to catch up, but even then I kept regular work hours as much as I could, and kept the weekends sacred. By “regular” work hours, I mean “structured and recurring” not “the same as everyone else.” When I had to watch the boys Mondays and Fridays as babies, I did very little work on those days and I worked longer the other days of the week when Eva, my wife, was around to watch the boys. (I know this was a luxury for us to trade off, but working out a shared schedule like that can be one of the benefits of working from home, especially if your partner is too… which is the case for many people right now.)
Even with regular work hours, taking frequent breaks is an important part of treating your body well, especially over the long haul. It took me a long time to get in the habit, but now I know that I need to get up every hour or so (or whenever I notice myself dropping out of flow) to go for a walk around the block. When I’m at an actual office, normal interactions and trips to get coffee and snacks suffice, but at home, I don’t move enough if I don’t make myself get outside and walk. I’ve also done my share of office yoga – I keep a meditation pillow by my desk and even frequently push aside my chair so I can drop down to one knee on the pillow and stretch my hip flexors instead – sitting in a chair all day is brutal on them.
After work hours, it’s important to still get plenty of exercise. If you’re going to be sedentary much of the day (teaching online is WAY more sedentary than teaching in a classroom or leading PD face-to-face), then you have to offset that with vigorous exercise later. For me, I try to workout an hour a day, whether it’s hockey, martial arts, the gym, or just yoga if I need an easy day. Also, I got a reasonably priced Fit Desk a few years ago, and I can now knock out an hour of biking while I work. If I really get in the zone I can go longer and wind up good and sore – happy with my productivity and my fitness. 🙂
Work From Home Tip #2: Productivity
Perhaps the most important way to cut down on your sedentary screen time when working at home is to be more effective with the time you are spending online. I’ve found great tools to help me with notes, checklists, and email, all with reminders… and an overarching outliner. (What’s an outliner? Read on.)
As any productivity guru will tell you, the key to taking on something daunting is to break it down into more manageable tasks. Also, the key to not feeling overwhelmed and constantly afraid you’ll forget something is to get it into your system pronto. For the most part, I use Google Keep to capture quick notes, checklists, important websites, and even pictures or screenshots of things that require action. Keep allows me to set reminders and then archive notes so they are out of the way. So when I’m ready to work, I visit Keep and see just what needs doing on that day. I also color code the notes so I can prioritize (red, orange, yellow) and batch tasks (like green for financial, purple for anything requiring paper, grey for random) and so on. It’s great to sit down, start with the right color and dig in.
For email, of course I use Gmail, where I use a similar color scheme with Stars and the Boomerang Extension, so I can practice Inbox Zero. When I check incoming messages I skim them, star them if they require follow up (setting the right color if I’m at my desktop or saving that step for later if I’m mobile) and then archiving them. Then, when I sit down to my starred email, I can prioritize and batch tasks for efficiency. If there’s anything I shouldn’t be working on that day, I use Boomerang to make sure it comes back at a timely point. (Boomerang also allows you to bring a message back to your inbox if others don’t respond to it… just because someone else drops a ball doesn’t mean you have to.)
Though many people don’t know they exist, I’m also a huge fan of outliners and of Workflowy in particular. It’s my top level organization tool where I keep track of all these others… plus longer term ideas, or article and book outlines. I have a personal system where in my outliner I keep the day’s count of Keep Notes and Email (plus voicemail and pinned tabs that require follow up) so I can calculate how many hours I’ll need. (I’ve learned from experience that on average I can act on 10 notes or emails an hour, though of course some take much longer and others are quick.)
Work From Home Tip #3: Collaboration
In 2020, it’s highly unlikely you’re working alone, even if you’re working from home. Even teachers who are often alone “behind the classroom door” can have access to their grade level teams, subject area departments, and a global network of peers and experts. I’ve a developed a toolset with a variety of collaborative apps… for text chats, video calls, shared documents, multimedia editing, and connecting with a personal learning network.
At EdTechTeam we use Slack for our internal chat, and I’m increasingly able to use it with others as well. Unlike Google Hangouts Chat (or most messaging systems), it has the valuable feature of allowing you to star messages for follow up. This is SO valuable that I’ve developed a habit for doing this even if someone just texts me on my phone… I take a quick screenshot and save it to Keep. In Slack though, there are also features such as channels for specific teams or projects, DMs (group or individual) for private conversations, and LOTS of integrations – with Google Calendar and Google Drive for instance.
When we’re ready to move to an audio or video call, we typically use Google Meet for its tight integration with Calendar. And, for teachers who are now engaged in Emergency Distance Learning, recording is currently free, and new features such as the ability to stop students from muting each other and the ability for a teacher to end a (nicknamed) Meet have shored up some of the tool’s weaknesses. We now use Meet for much of our virtual professional development as well… and the sidebar chat is a great way to get all participants engaged, even during something normally as one-sided as a keynote; hundreds can participate in the chat!
Naturally, I look to Google Drive for collaborative Documents, Spreadsheets, Slides, and Drawings (not to mention Forms). I love being able to manage sharing easily, edit simultaneously, publish to the web, and have a revision history of all the changes made to a document. But these primarily text based productivity tools aren’t the limit of these features on the web today. Using apps like Soundtrap and WeVideo, you can even collaboratively edit audio and video, working together to create music, podcasts, and movies. Using these tools I’m never worried about a damaged or lost device (or which particular device I have handy at the moment) because all of these store my work in the cloud and work cross-platform (Chrome OS, MacOS, Windows, and Linus), and even mobile on Android and iOS. In today’s world of remote work and remote learning, there is no reason to work in isolation or risk losing your saved files. (Many of these cloud-based services even now have the option of working offline when you don’t have internet access, and syncing up right away once you do.)
I hope sharing this series of tips might be helpful to others just now working, teaching, and learning from home for the first time. I’d also love to hear your tips and your experiences in the comments. Please share below, or find me and the team on twitter.
Formerly a high school English teacher, Dr. Mark Wagner has since served as an educational technology coordinator at the site, district, and county levels. He now serves as President and CEO of the EdTechTeam, a global network of educational technologists which provides professional development and consulting services to learning institutions, non-profits, and for-profit education companies. The EdTechTeam is a California Benefit Corporation with a mission to improve the world’s education systems using the best technology and pedagogy available. They aim to inspire and empower other educators to do the same. They also work with education leaders to address their most difficult problems and reach their highest goals. EdTechTeam was recognized in March 2019 as the Google for Education Partner of The Year.
Mark Wagner has a Ph.D. in Educational Technology and a master’s degree in cross-cultural education. His doctoral research focused on the use of video games in education, and specifically on the potential applications of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) as constructivist learning environments. He is the author of More Now: A Message from The Future for The Educators of Today (2018).