For many, the ability to work remotely has long been a perk of academic research. Others, whose research involves hands-on work in a wet lab or with patients, remain tethered to the traditional hospital or university settings. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly made working from home a more significant part of the lives of all UHN trainees, regardless of their familiarity with such an environment.
While the change in setting may be jarring for newcomers, all researchers can benefit from working from home if they welcome the opportunity. There are two keys to doing so: first, one must critically assess what tasks can be accomplished from home; and second, one must embrace a non-traditional work schedule.
At first glance, it is easier to determine what cannot be done from home than what can. Being conscious of these limitations and setting aside such pursuits are pivotal: just as one would not be productive in lab if they were constantly worrying about the next experiment, one cannot expect to successfully work from home while pining for the familiarity of lab work. To work productively anywhere, one should focus on what can be practically accomplished.
What might such tasks be? The most obvious is writing, a chore that often elicits creative procrastination from researchers across disciplines. However, working from home represents an ideal opportunity to articulate one’s thoughts without distraction. Importantly, one’s writing needs not be restricted to full manuscripts. By formally writing up the methods, results and conclusions involved in experiments contemporaneously, an entire paper becomes a more manageable task down the line. This is just one task that is easier to do from home, removed from opportunities to procrastinate in a lab or office; others include data analysis or computational simulations performed remotely.
Embracing a non-traditional schedule is also critical for success. While working from home uninterrupted can be difficult, such interruptions can, perhaps counter-intuitively, provide a productivity boost. Consider the benefits of taking frequent breaks: one can hyper-focus on writing one section of a manuscript or a particular block of code, then refresh by taking the dog for a walk or spending time with one’s partner. While this may not be suited for a traditional eight-hour, “9-to-5” workday, taking breaks has been shown to boost productivity(link is external). The ability to set and accomplish clear, short-term goals can also boost one’s sense of accomplishment and correspondingly, their mental health(link is external).
The COVID-19 pandemic is stressful both personally and professionally, and is changing the way that academic research is performed. The most monumental of these changes may be that all UHN trainees are now working from home to some degree, whether or not this was previously a part of their routine. However, this presents an opportunity to make the proverbial lemonade out of lemons by reaping the unique benefits of working from home. By leaving behind the limits of a traditional workday and focusing on specific goals, working from home can be a part of a productive research schedule for all researchers.