6 productivity tips for scientists working from home

Photo courtesy of Valentine Svensson

by Zheng-Shan Chong

Has your lab been shut due to the recent circuit-breaker measures for coping with the Covid-19 outbreak? Are you a wet lab scientist or biotech wondering how you can still further your research and development during the next couple of weeks? Luckily, there’s still a ton of useful things you can do outside the lab, from analysing data to writing that grant or review, networking to grow your business, catching up on literature or even picking up a new skill. Working from home comes with its own distractions and challenges so whether you’re a PhD student, postdoc, industry scientist or team leader, here are some tips to help you be more effective whilst working from home.

  1. List and prioritise what you want to get done. Listing specific tasks that you can work on and prioritising them by how they contribute to your project can help focus your energies on key tasks that further your research. If you’re a group leader, discussing specific home-based tasks with every member of your team can help define concrete goals that they can work towards during this period. Visualisations like Gantt charts or Kanban boards facilitate planning and keeping track of progress, and are useful even out of the circuit-breaker context. Gantt charts are a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule, whilst a Kanban board depicts what stage a project or task is at. Being able to see what you’ve accomplished at the end also makes it less likely that you will go back to the lab feeling like you’ve wasted your time.

Dr Jennifer Whitesell, a scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, uses a Kanban board to keep track of paper writing tasks and visualize work-in-progress.

 

  1. Set up a comfortable workspace. As much as we would like to bring our pipettes and biosafety cabinets home with us, computers will have to do for now. To avoid repetitive strain injury, it’s important to set up a comfortable workspace that allows you to sit in the same place for long periods of time. The NIH recommends adjusting your chair to allow a neutral sitting position with your lower back supported and feet touching the floor, having the keyboard and mouse at elbow-height, and your screen directly in front of you, an arm’s length away from your face. Prolonged screen time can also cause blurred vision and difficulty focusing, and MOH recommends taking eye breaks every 15-20 minutes to avoid this. Printing papers out to read or brainstorming using pen and paper can also help ease eye strain.

A comfortable workstation makes it easier to get the day’s work done. Adapted from an image by Marcel Kollmar shared under CC-BY.

 

  1. Keep your regular schedule on working days. It’s true that even during normal times, scientists rarely adhere to the hours of a regular working day. Timepoints don’t happen from 9-5, and mice have to be taken care of even on weekends! However, the removal of structures in our day that usually define our working hours, such as the commute to and from work, can easily lead to days and weeks melding together and either the feeling that we should be productive all the time (which increases the risk of burnout), or the opposite – feeling unmotivated to do anything at all. Therefore, sticking to the same routine as much as possible can help avoid drift and keep a sense of normalcy. Define a start and end time for work that you’re comfortable with, exercise at the same time you normally would, schedule the same weekly meetings, and wear something comfortable but also presentable (not your pyjamas!) during the day.

Dr Kirstie Whitaker, a research fellow at Cambridge University and the Turing Institute, has a daily Zoom coffee with colleagues based on her usual train timings before starting her day so that she starts work connected, inspired, and at 8 am sharp.

 

  1. Minimise distractions by separating work and leisure areas. Setting up a dedicated workspace as you would in the office can help create a conducive environment to focus when working from home. If you have school-age children, think about setting up a ‘workspace’ for your child as well to do their home-based learning, as this research fellow has done. Whilst it might not be possible to fully separate home life from work in this context, having a fixed working area can help you both focus on your respective tasks, and make it clear when ‘work’ is over and play or family time begins. It also helps to plan your schedules together so that everyone gets some time to focus on their individual tasks for the day. If your spouse is also working from home, plan and agree on the schedules with them so you can both take turns to manage the children.

 

  1. Check in with your team/co-workers regularly. Science is a team effort, and connecting with our co-workers and collaborators can be more beneficial than ever now as you review ongoing projects and plan new ones. Your team benefits from bouncing ideas off of each other on normal days, so be sure to create a channel for them to do so even whilst working from home. Tools like WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, Zoom or Microsoft Teams can be used for informal chats with your colleagues about science (and life) to keep everyone motivated and engaged. Scheduling events like a weekly Zoom lunch with the rest of the team, or a virtual ‘cocktail hour’ to wind down at the end of the week like this lab in Italy can also facilitate communication.

For businesses, it is also important to continue networking and engaging with the community through online meetings and webinars even if you can’t meet face to face. Take the initiative to check in with your collaborators, acquaintances and new contacts to maintain and grow your network during this time. Keep an eye out for interesting events through online platforms like Linkedin and Eventbrite. Some initiatives like Meet your Match, organised by KK Fund and supported by Plug and Play APAC, have been specially organised in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Biotech Connection Singapore is also continuing to organise networking events and talks that can be attended remotely, so do join our mailing list to stay updated about the latest events happening in the biotech and medtech community in Singapore. 


Meet your Match Singapore is an initiative for local startups to meet with regional top-tier investors. It was organised to support the startup ecosystem in response to the uncertainty brought about by the Covid-19 outbreak.

 

  1. Pick up a new skill (if you have the time). Some projects might happen to be in the experimental phase with very little to do by way of writing or reading. If you are in this situation, it would be a great time now to pick up a new skill that can help you professionally (or personally). Online learning platforms like Coursera, Udemy, edX and the more programming-focused General Assembly provide a plethora of courses to choose from, some of which are offered for free from now until the 31st of May. Even top universities like Harvard have jumped on the bandwagon, and are offering more than 60 online courses for no charge. It helps to have a ‘buddy’ to do the same course with to discuss lessons and keep you both motivated and on track. For wet lab biologists looking specifically to expand their bioinformatics knowledge, a guide to get started can be found here, complete with links to tools, tutorials and biological datasets. 

 

Finally, it’s also important to recognise and accept that working from home poses challenges to productivity for everyone, especially if you have children. So don’t feel too stressed if you’re not being 100% productive (and don’t expect that of your employees either). Instead, focus on the positives like appreciating the extra time you get to spend with your family during this period of uncertainty. The ability to work from home is a privilege, and hopefully these tips will help you make the most out of it. To our colleagues who are continuing their Covid-19 related research: all the best!

 

References

  1. Su, L. My lab is closed to me because of the coronavirus. Here’s how I’m planning to stay productive. Nature (2020) doi:10.1038/d41586-020-00986-6.
  2. Wen, T. An astronaut’s guide to surviving isolation. BBC.
  3. Bardelli, A. Coronavirus lockdown: What I learnt when I shut my cancer lab in 48 hours. Nature (2020) doi:10.1038/d41586-020-00826-7.
  4. How to Science at Home. Twitter. Available online at: twitter.com/i/events/1248303238576660480
  5. Computer Station Work Assessment, NIH Office of Research Services. Available online at: https://www.ors.od.nih.gov/sr/dohs/HealthAndWellness/Ergonomics/Pages/evaluation.aspx
  6. Leach, J. & Robinson, S. Here is why you might be feeling tired while on lockdown. The Conversation (2020).

Biotech Connection Singapore (BCS) is part of an international network of non-profit organizations, that aims to promote the transfer of ideas from theory to real world applications by providing a platform for fostering interaction between academia, industry and businesses.

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