Home Office due to the Corona Virus Outbreak 2020

Last update: Oct 20, 2020

On October 19, 2020, due to exceeding the local 7-day incidence rate of 100, the rectorate asked all institutes to reimplement home office solutions where possible again, as was the case earlier in March. Following this request, here are our guidelines for implementing this at our lab during the Corona outbreak. I am updating these as we go.

  • All staff are asked to work in home office unless physical presence at the lab is necessary, e.g., for access to test setups or special machines.
  • During your work hours, be available online via Slack (green dot) and monitor Slack for new messages. This is the equivalent of answering someone knocking on your door. If you go for a break, have focus work or meetings, set your status accordingly, with an expiration time. Going offline indicates you've gone home.
  • Forward your desk phone so you can be reached at your home office. You can do this from anywhere: Open the TK Portal, log on with your Single Sign-On ID, click on the wheel next to "Forwardings", and forward all calls to your iPhone. While you are in your office, you can disable it quickly using your desk phone, but remember to turn it back on before you leave.
  • Our central lab hours remain the same. Your work hours should include the core lab hours and beyond that cover your weekly contractual RWTH time.
  • Install the Zoom client on your MacBook, iPhone, and iPad, and check for updates when opening it the first time each day. Use your free RWTH Zoom account; see the CLS page for details.

Beyond that, here are a few tips to make your home office more effective:

  • Claim a separate room for your work away from your living room where possible, or at least a desk in a remote corner away from the family. Clean it up, remove home-related distractions, and set up a desk, chair, and your computer so that you can focus, be productive, and enjoy working there.
  • Take your office monitor home or at least prop your MacBook up on a stand, and use an external mouse and keyboard, to be nice to your back. With external monitors, use an i10 webcam so you are looking at people straight on.
  • Avoid home-related distractions. Keep a to-do list nearby to note down all the home-related tasks that pop in your head while you're working at home (there'll be more than at the office), and get to them after you sign off from work.
  • Let private calls go to voicemail, and leave private text messages to deal with later, during your break or after you sign off from work. (Use that to-do list to remind you.)
  • If you're prone to getting distracted while working, check out some blocking software to help you stay focused. This danger is higher at home than at the office (especially if you're not alone). Use timers (I use BeFocused) and the pomodoro technique to help you pace your work and include short breaks.
  • Working at home involves less walking around than at the office. Use your breaks to get up, and take a short walk outside, e.g., during your lunch break.
  • Email and Slack are very thin communication channels prone to misunderstandings. Instead, use videoconferencing for any sensitive, controversial or emotional topics with colleagues and students. In home office you have no chance to use face-to-face meetings as the best, richest communication channel with the least room for misunderstandings, so be aware of these issues.
  • Make use of informal Zoom calls, e.g., at the start of Research Breakfast or by chatting in smaller groups, whether you are new at the lab or an oldtimer. They help as social glue to keep us connected, to have time for unplanned discussions and exchanges of ideas, and to help new colleagues get on board.
  • Home office significantly impacts our ability to do top research: the chances to bounce research ideas off each other, to run into someone with a cool prototype in hand and start a discussion, to be reminded by seeing a colleague that you read a paper s/he would find interesting, and of course to run user studies. Reach out more often than you normally would, and look for remote HCI research suggestions online (e.g., on remote user research in this shared Google Doc).

Further reading: Why home office is challenging for us

Regarding the challenges of home office for a research lab like ours in general (outside of Corona), here are three aspects from an earlier Slack post that I care about:

(1) There are parts of our daily tasks that are like a "normal" job. But research at our level, aiming for world-class results, is an intellectual high-performance team sport, not a solo activity, and certainly not an ordinary job. Working remotely, we are missing out on the highest-bandwidth channel for quick-turnaround discussions, inspirations, and interactions for this, which significantly caps our performance potential.

(2) When we discussed our home office experiences during research breakfast the other day, several mentioned enjoying not being interrupted, but at the same time missing the opportunity to get quick, personal feedback on a problem (which, of course, frequently means an interruption for the other person). Everybody will be on one or the other side of this situation at different times, depending on your phase in your PhD (you may have many questions as you start out, then become more of a go-to person for answers as you become more senior), and what you are currently working on. Remote working throttles the channel for such interruptions. But serving interruptions from coworkers, project partners, or students is part of our job. It can be managed smartly, e.g., by agreeing on focus hours and response times for different communication channels and priorities, but it would be a dangerous assumption to imagine it could be largely reduced or defined away. For an extreme example, just imagine for a moment you were a new member supposed to join our lab and become part of the team without meeting anybody in person.

(3) Remote communication is unsuitable for emotional or adverse topics, again because of its severely limited channel bandwidth. Body language, detailed mimics and the finer details of voice are lost, beginning to speak simultaneously tends to lead to a complete communication breakdown that requires an awkward social reboot, network issues continue to interrupt discussions, looking at many tiny faces in Zoom is subtly different (and more stressful) than focusing on one person at a time in a meeting, etc. The limited channel makes it harder to communicate one’s true intent carefully and precisely, and makes it harder to receive and interpret that intent as precisely. It’s not the sender’s or receiver’s fault, but this makes misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts more likely (few of the people fighting flame wars in online forums would be as aggressive if they were in a room talking to the other person).

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