By: Josie Lindsey-Robbins,
Congressional Affairs Specialist,
NOAA OAR CARD
This fellowship year has been unlike years past, with the majority of fellows in my cohort exclusively teleworking since March 2020. For some Knauss Fellows, their fellowship experience may be their first job outside of academia. For most fellows, this is probably their first time working from home on a semi-permanent basis. And for all future fellows, here are five things I think you need in order to have a successful virtual fellowship.
1. A Strong Connection
Besides having a good internet connection, you will need to prioritize communication in order to connect with your new co-workers. The best advice I have received is to learn and match the culture of your new office, including learning some of their “unspoken rules”. Many teams have communication norms that everyone follows but they don’t really talk about.
One of your first discussions with your new team should be about these unspoken rules. This is also a great opportunity to set clear expectations and priorities for communication. Some topics to consider are:
> Keeping your calendar up-to-date. Make sure to include meetings, events, and even personal or “busy” time.
> Setting your working hours. Talk with your supervisor to make sure you are working the agreed-upon amount of time, and make sure those hours work with your team’s schedule.
> Using messaging tools. Google chat, Slack, and other messaging tools are great ways to keep in touch or discuss projects.
> Encouraging the use of settings like “Available” and “Away” on communication platforms. These settings give visibility into whether or not you are available to communicate.
> Limiting the number of emails sent. Many people are likely overwhelmed by inboxes overflowing with content of varying importance, especially during virtual work. Make sure you are sending emails that warrant attention, and only “reply all” when absolutely necessary!
2. A Defined Workspace
It can be easy to sit on the sofa with your laptop and expect to get work done. But in reality, it can become difficult to focus or feel motivated when curled up in a place where we are used to relaxing. We are creatures of habit and most of us are used to lounging with our laptops to read the news, watch TV, play games, or chat with friends and family. It will help you maintain focus on work when in a defined workspace. Establishing a separate place for work sends your brain a cue that it is time for work and not play.
If you’re able to, set up a home office, preferably in a quiet, distraction-free area of your living space. It doesn’t have to be fancy! The basic home office should include:
> A desk: Some fellows have used dining room tables or folding tables while others have purchased official office desks.
> A comfortable chair: For a while, I used my wooden, dining chairs. But after some time, my back was crying out for more support, and I purchased an ergonomic desk chair.
> An external monitor: When teleworking, fellows are typically provided with a government-issued laptop for completing work tasks. For those jobs where you have multiple tabs open, an extra monitor helps to see more of your work at once.
> An external keyboard and mouse: Working across two screens is much easier with a centralized keyboard and mouse, separate from your laptop.
> A laptop-raiser: While definitely not necessary, I find that a standing desk allows me to change positions often enough that I don’t get uncomfortable. It also helps to do some knee-raises or other leg exercises during those long meetings!
By creating a comfortable, designated space for work, I have found it easier to maintain my concentration on work-related tasks despite being at home.
3. A Support System
Perhaps the most important advice I can offer a future fellow is to find a mentor or person you feel comfortable reaching out to with questions. Is there a past-fellow from your host office, or a co-worker that you feel especially connected to? Reach out to them with a quick message to see if they are willing to chat for a couple of minutes about a question you have. Most of the time, they will be more than willing to help. But make sure to keep in mind their schedule and how long you anticipate to be chatting.
I also suggest finding support outside of your office that can help with fellowship-related questions. This fellowship is built to challenge your knowledge of federal policy and marine science. You will likely find other fellows struggling or triumphing just like you throughout the year. Your cohort is a great resource for job leads, professional development ideas and federal agency knowledge.
Lastly, finding someone to connect with outside of the fellowship and your host office is a must. This can be a family member or a long-time friend that you can vent to or brag about your work!
4. A “Kudos” Folder
Working from home can sometimes mean feeling isolated from your co-workers. Email communication often lacks tone and emotions, which can mean negative feedback or critiques may come across as harsh, or praise might seem insincere. All of that can lead to feeling like your work doesn’t matter.
I experienced a flare-up of “Imposter Syndrome”, a psychological pattern in which I doubted my skills and accomplishments. This pattern of thinking can get worse during telework, especially when feeling disconnected from your organization or team.
In order to better visualize my hard work and accomplishments, I started to keep a “kudos” folder. Over the course of my fellowship, I saved a variety of things that I felt proud of in a folder, including:
> Projects in which I played a large role.
> Taskers of which I was in charge.
> “Good Job” emails from coworkers.
> Certifications from trainings or courses that I completed.
> Notes from volunteer activities in which I participated.
At the end of your fellowship, you can go back through this folder and use it to form an accomplishments list or add items to your resume or CV. I often find myself looking through this folder to remind myself of how much I have actually accomplished this year, and it helps to refocus my energy on my daily work.
5. A Way to Escape
These days, work-life and personal life all take place within the same 1000 square feet (or more if you’re lucky). So we need to find ways to keep the balance. Here are a few strategies I have followed:
> Mute notifications. This means turning off your work cell phone or laptop, outside of work hours, and silencing any calendar alarms and chat notifications.
> Resist the urge to check emails at night. This can be tricky, especially when you want to get a head start for the morning. But tracking emails in the evening can make it hard to fully turn-off your work-brain and relax.
> Plan an activity that signals the end of the workday and the beginning of your personal time. For me, this has been a long walk with Millie (my dog) around 4:30 or 5 pm every day. I have trained myself to know that after that walk, I am done with work.
> Make weekend plans! Having plans on the weekend, even if they are small, can give you something to look forward to and break up a monotonous work schedule. During the pandemic, I have primarily planned weekend hikes in the D.C./Silver Spring area. Some of my favorites are Rock Creek Park, Sligo Creek Trail, Black Hill Regional Park and Rock Creek Regional Park.
These five things have really helped me make the most of my virtual fellowship experience. Whether working virtually or in-person, I hope this advice can help future fellows succeed!