(This is the one version of the "Shirking or Working from Home" blog
I wrote as the Executive Director of Research for VitalSmarts).
Working from home is one of the 5,000 great benefits of being an academic. But it can also turn into too much of a good thing.
Before the coronavirus, a lot of places were hesitant to let people work from home. “Working from home” rhymes too closely with “Shirking from home.” It includes surfing, posting, grazing, running errands, crushing Candy Crush, calling your brother “just because,” rereading online stories about the coronavirus, updating your LinkedIn resume, spacing out on conference calls, and telling your boss, “I’m still waiting for Bob to get it to me so I can work on it.”
But what if working from home looked different? What if working from home made you 13% more productive, made you feel more satisfied with your job, and made you half as likely to send your vita off to another school?
This is exactly what was found in a 2015 Stanford study of a large Chinese travel firm called CTrip. Researchers randomly split 249 call center employees from Shanghai into two groups. For nine months, half of them kept working at their desks as usual, and the other half were told to work from home four days a week (one day a week they came into the office). Then the researchers measured everything from the number of calls they made, to job satisfaction, to breaks taken, to sick days… everything but Facebook Likes and Candy Crush scores.
One conclusion: Working from home can make people more productive.
But wait. Before you try to sell the conference table on eBay, there’s a huge caveat from this study (aside from country, culture, and industry): These workers had very specific measures of productivity—phone calls per minute and the amount of time spent on the phone.
Since working at home requires a discipline muscle that many of us need to strengthen, it’s easy to let our first days or weeks at home be structured by meetings and not our mission. That is, we might view the phone or web meetings on our calendar as the “Big rocks” of our day instead of seeing our biggest projects as our biggest rocks. After you conduct a weekly review of the projects that are most pressing, these suggestions might help.
• Identify the three biggest project tasks you need to complete each day (not including meetings).
• Make a promise to complete these tasks and deliver results to another person (boss or coworker).
• Check in for a follow-up after making the delivery.
This is the productivity side of working at home. But there’s another side to working at home that has been widely ignored. It’s the human side.
There’s a story of three people who find themselves stranded on an uncharted desert island. Sort of like Gilligan’s Island, but without commercials. After years of learning how to smoothly work together to survive, the trio one day finds a bottle with a genie in it. The genie grants each person a wish. The first wishes to be back home in California, and—poof—she’s gone. The second wishes to be reunited with his family in Texas, and—poof—he’s gone. The third person looks around the empty island and says to the genie, “You know, I miss my two friends. I wish they were back.”
Here’s the rest of the story about the Chinese workers.
After nine months of working at home, the study was over. The workers were told they could continue working from home four days a week or they could come back and grind it out in-office for the full five. Slightly more than half of these workers wanted to come back and work in the office. They reported they were too “lonely.”
There’s a human side to working at home. We can use our VitalSmarts tools to strengthen our communication muscle and our productivity muscle, but we might still feel like something is missing.
Leaning in (versus spacing out) during meetings might help, and checking in or following up after finishing a project piece might help. But this human solution will need some personal thought and personal tailoring for each of us. If we’re feeling restless after 4 days at home, the human side is where we might want to look.
And maybe call your brother “just because.”
If you’re a PhD student, you are in great company. But "being in great company" has a very special meaning that's important not to overlook -- it means you are not alone. Your bumpy PhD experience is surprisingly universal across different schools and different programs. If you’re a PhD student in microbiology, you have more in common with a PhD student in history than someone in medical school. If you’re a PhD student in economics, you have more in common with a PhD student in physics than with an MBA student.
Despite this universal experience, many, many PhD students feel very alone. They feel anxious about their uncertain future, anxious about their abilities, and anxious about a personal life that seems to be passing them by.
Having been an informal confident to many PhD students in different majors or with different advisors, I’ve found that many of their real concerns are difficult for them to talk about. This further magnifies their feeling of isolation because they don’t realize how many other people have faced and often conquered a similar problem. There’s power in knowing someone else found a path out of the same woods you feel you’re in.
For about 20 years I taught an interdisciplinary PhD course at the University of Illinois and then at Cornell. Aside from the academic objectives, one of my personal objectives of this course was to help students begin to conquer these anxieties. One way we tried to tackle this was by asking students if they wanted to volunteer to write a short description about a “friend” who was facing a troubling problem. Many weeks we would discuss one of these anonymously written “case studies” for 10-15 minutes during class.
Two good things happened almost every week. First, the 8-16 students in the class all realized that they weren’t alone in some of the problems they faced. Second, they heard a wide range of rational (non-emotional) solutions and perspectives to each problem they probably wouldn’t have heard from an officemate or a partner.
There are three examples of PhD Student Case Studies in the downloadable pdf, and they can be used in a number of different ways.
There’s power in knowing there are a lot of different ways a PhD student can get out of the woods.
There are 100 things on your mental To-Do list. There are daily duties (like email and office time) and pre-scheduled stuff (like classes and committee meetings). But what still remains at the end of the day are the things that are easy to put off because they don’t have hard or immediate deadlines – things like writing an intro to a paper, submitting an IRB proposal, drafting a grant, completing some analysis tables, and so on. At the end of the year, having finished all of these might be what makes the difference between an exceptional year and another “OK” one.
But these projects are also the easiest things to put off or to only push ahead 1 inch each week. If you push 100 projects ahead 1 inch each week, you’ve made 100 inches of progress at the end of the week, but your desk is still full and you’re feeling frustratingly resigned to always be behind. This is an incremental approach.
A different approach would be to push a 50-inch project ahead until it is finished and falls off the desk; then you could push a 40-inch project ahead until it falls off; and then you can spend the last of your time and energy pushing a small 10-inch project off your desk. This is the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach.
Both approaches take 100-inches of work. However, the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach changes how you think and feel. You still have 97 things left to do, but you can see you made tangible progress. For about 12 years, I tried a number of different systems to do this – to finish up what was most important for the week. Each of them eventually ended up being too complicated or too constraining for me to stick with.
Eventually I stopped looking for a magic system. Instead, at the end of every week, I simply listed the projects or project pieces I was most grateful to have totally finished. Super simple. It kept me focused on finishing things, and it gave me a specific direction for next week (the next things to finish). It’s since evolved into something I call a “3-3-3 Weekly Recap.”
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
If you work with PhD students or Postdocs, it could help them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of a “Polish this for 3 years until it's perfect” mentality. It’s also useful as a starting point for 1-on-1 weekly meetings. If they get in the habit of emailing their 3-3-3 Recap to you each Friday, you can share any feedback and perhaps help speed up whatever it is they are waiting for. Especially if it’s something on your desk. Ouch.
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done. I hope you find this helps.
In 2017-19, about 18 of my research articles were retracted. These retractions offer some useful lessons to scholars, and they also offer some useful next steps to those who want to publish in the social sciences. Two of these steps include 1) Choose a publishable topic, and 2) have a rough mental roadmap of what the finished paper might look. That is, what’s the positioning, the study, and the possible contribution.
The topics I’ve described here offer one set of roadmaps that could be useful. First, they were of interest to journals in medicine, behavioral economics, marketing, nutrition, psychology, health, and consumer behavior. Second, they each show what a finished paper might look like. They show the positioning, relevant background research, methodological tips, and key implications.
Table 1 and Appendix A lay out an estimate of how much effort it might take to do studies on these topics, and I’ve also estimated what I think the practical impact each research project might have. These are my own subjective estimates, but you might find them a useful starting point if you’re looking for a tie-breaker between two different topics.
I would strongly encourage anyone who’s interested in publishing in these areas to closely follow principles of open science, from preregistration of hypotheses and analytic strategies to open materials and open data. Making specific hypotheses and testing them by following open science principles will be the best next way forward. A good introduction to these principles, along with hands-on advice, is this: Klein, O., Hardwicke, T. E., Aust, F., Breuer, J., Danielsson, H., Hofelich Mohr, A., … Frank, M. C. (2018). A practical guide for transparency in psychological science. Collabra: Psychology, 4(1), 20. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.158
Academia can be a tremendously rewarding career both you and for the people who benefit from you research. Best wishes in moving topics like these forward, and best wishes on a great career.
• Non-native English speakers and shy students have a hard time participating in large classes. Class Previews help them. An hour before each class, I hold a Class Preview that tells people the discussion questions I’ll be asking that day, and then we discuss them ahead of time. Anyone’s welcome to show up.
• For large classes, try to have TA office hours every day (or M-Th)
• Try to be super specific about what you expect for an A assignment, and what your policy is on late assignments and missed classes.
• Rather than having both the final exam and their project due at the end of the semester, I frontload the course with the most work and move their project up to the half-way point.
• Letting students drop their lowest scoring assignment reduces their anxiety and the pressure they feel.
• By having students turn in two copies of their project (one to grade and one to file), it helps ensure the same projects don’t show up year after year.
• I have a screen-down, no-laptop policy. If people say they are taking notes, I ask them to send me the notes after class to see if what I’m teaching is coming across like I hope.
• Class insight cards can give class contribution points to well-prepared, but shy students.
• Extra credit opportunities are great. They help reduce student anxiety.
• If your course is cross-listed with both undergrads and grads, the graduate students will need to do something more (usually about 20-25% more). I also have four specialized class sessions (and a dinner) only for them.
• I try to organize the course into very discrete sections. This way I can frequently review each section in class before I start a new one. This way it very discretely shows how the parts of the course build on each other.
• The Final Project was renamed “Integrative Assignment” and moved to the middle of the semester. They have to work a lot harder early on in the course, but the quality goes up, and their Finals Week stress level goes down.
• You can get the most from a guest speaker’s visit if – before class -- you require students to read something written and published about the guest speaker. (It also makes the guest speaker more of a celebrity). On the day they speak, I will usually show a short Youtube clip of them before introducing them.
• I want the last class session of the semester to be valuable. After they turn in their exam and their course evaluations, I give them the option to leave. For those who stay, I tell them stories of two big lessons I learned in life (the hard way), and how they can deal with challenges in the future. It’s an unusual way to end the class, but it always ends it on a high and memorable note.
Good luck writing a great syllabus, having a great course, and having a triple-great semester.
How to graduate, get a job, get tenure, solve problems, and make fewer mistakes.