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Tools and tips for working remotely

April 15, 2020 — 

It’s a substantial transition from days spent on campus to setting up an office in your dining room, but with the right technology and some inventive workarounds, doing your job from home can be a successful, even enjoyable, experience.

Working from home became the only option for the vast majority of UM employees after in-person classes ended March 18 and campus buildings were locked on March 23 because of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.

Arlana Vadnais says the early days of working from home have come with some adjustments. Vadnais is the Employee Wellness Specialist for UM Human Resources and the Campus Mental Health facilitator.

“It’s been a lot of figuring out the actual logistics—getting technology to work from home if you haven’t already done that, and figuring out the different tools that we can use,” she said.

“Even just the time it takes to get yourself set up and used to it puts you potentially a little bit behind.

“We’re just really encouraging managers to recognize that everybody’s going through this transition and to be flexible and provide support through that,” she says.

Thankfully, UM has a wide range of supports in place.

Tech tools for working remotely

UM IST Service can help you set up a remote VPN system, install software, use WebEx and access Office 365. Visit their Tools for working remotely, or contact IST Service Desk at ServiceDesk [at] Umanitoba [dot] ca.

For UM instructors, the Centre for Advancement of Teaching and Learning offers frequent online workshops on a wide variety of topics through Cisco WebEx. Topics include UM Learn content, quizzes, assignments, discussions, Gradebook, and communication tools.

Some workshops include entering grades in UM Learn (including the spreadsheet view), presenting content using WebEx, and creating groups and setting up a group assignment submission folder in UM Learn.

Setting up a daily work schedule

Technology is not the only challenge employees are facing as we adjust to working from home. Vadnais stresses that maintaining a regular schedule helps with self-care and good mental health.

“Keep to as much of a regular schedule as you can,” she says.

“Some people I’ve talked to find it really important to get up and shower every day, just like they used to or to engage in whatever health practices they normally do.”

Vadnais takes regular breaks at home, but shortens her lunch hour to 30 minutes. She’s flexible, but keeps to a work schedule similar to what she’d normally do on campus.

For parents or people worrying about the health of their own aging parents, work demands may compete with supporting dependants. Vadnais says she buys herself some extra time by getting up early and working while the rest of the household is still asleep.

“It’s a balancing act of the demands that we have on us. We have the need to be flexible about things at the same time as needing to continue day-to-day operations as much as possible.”

For additional tips on maintaining a schedule and preserving your mental health in the coming months, see UM Today, “Stay mentally healthy while staying at home.”

Stay connected to colleagues, employees

While many of us enjoy connecting with family and friends, Vadnais says managers also need to stay in touch with their employees through Microsoft Teams or other similar technology.

“There are studies that say getting a text is nowhere near as helpful emotionally as hearing somebody’s voice or seeing somebody’s face by video,” Vadnais said.

“For managers, some of that will be instead of just emailing, schedule a time where you can have that kind of water cooler chat and just connect with each other, the way we normally would in an office environment.”

Other options for video chatting include Zoom and Google Hangouts and CiscoWebEx.

UM employee assistance, when you need it

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember UM employees can connect with a counsellor any time of the day or night, Vadnais says.

She says all UM employees, even casual and part-time employees, have access to the Employee and Family Assistance Program through Morneau Shepell, a company that provides HR services including mental health counselling.

UM Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) plan members and their dependents can contact Lifeworks by Morneau Shepell at 1-800-387-4765 (English) or 1-800-361-5676 (French).

“It’s a free, confidential resource available 24/seven to all faculty and staff, and there are options for online counselling, as well as phone counselling,” Vadnais said. “They also have a video chat option.”

Before COVID-19, there was a face-to-face option as well, she said.

Good ergonomics in home work spaces

Heather Morris says adjusting to working from home has presented some significant challenges for her and her team. Morris is director of Student Advocacy and Case Management.

She has two daughters, aged four and eight. Her husband is an engineer who is now also working from home. They’ve hired a young teen to babysit regularly, so it’s easier to get work done.

As the director of student advocacy and case management, Morris and her staff arrange meetings with students about disciplinary investigations or academic appeal hearings. Social workers address many other student concerns.

“The faculties have had to adjust,” Morris says. “How can we continue on with these important meetings with students but in a way that is not in person?”

A challenge that Morris says she had to address early on was a physical one.

“I started using my dining room table and I was getting some lower back pain. I had to find a better chair; had to be able to stand for a bit,” she said.

Judy Shields says working at home can be difficult because chairs and tables at home may not be adjustable. Shields is Occupational Health Coordinator with UM Health and Safety as well as an occupational health nurse.

“When setting up an office at home, the most important thing is the angle at which you work. There should be a 90 degree angle at your hips and it’s lovely if you have lumbar support with an additional small pillow in the L5 curve (in the spinal column of the lower back) and 90 degrees at the elbows for data entry,” she says.

Shields says your chin should be in a neutral position; you shouldn’t be looking up or down at the monitor. Both feet should be on the floor, and she says it’s a good idea to use a foot stool too, or improvise with a crate.

“It’s really important to stretch and take more breaks, even if they’re a minute or two when you get up to reheat your coffee,” Shields says.

“Roll your shoulders. A minute is all it takes to reboot your circulation, but you need to move!”

UM Recreation Services is also offering free home workout videos on YouTube.

Health Canada has recommendations for adjusting and adapting your computer workstation. These resources are available through the UM Environmental Health and Safety.

Arlana Vadnais says one of the positive aspects of working from home is the reallocation of time. Not having to commute, she says, gives her unexpected time for her husband and their two children.

“I took a half hour for lunch and we actually went out for a family walk in order to get outside. That was really refreshing and energizing. So it allows for us to do some of the healthy things we might not necessarily do if we were at work.”

Despite the challenges to working from home, Vadnais adds, it also presents an opportunity to do things in a different way.

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