Your experiential learning adventure starts here

Your experiential learning adventure starts here.

As you start your experiential learning placement in a time of social distancing, you may have questions and concerns about working remotely.

The following FAQs answer some of the most common questions students have about remote placements. As other questions come up, please reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning/Education for support. They’re eager to make sure you have a positive and rewarding experience.

Note: The FAQ content is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind.

GETTING SET UP FOR REMOTE WORK

1What equipment will I need to work from home?

At a minimum, you’ll need these items:

  • Computer with a webcam–Your employer will let you know whether you’ll need to supply your own computer or whether they will provide one. Depending on the status of social distancing restrictions, they may need to courier or mail you a device.
  • Phone–If you’ll be using your own phone, find out how many calls the employer expects you to make. If your current voice plan won’t cover the expected usage, you may need to ask your employer to upgrade it for the duration of your work placement. Or perhaps your employer could set you up with a Skype number.
  • Reliable Internet connection–If you can hardwire your computer into the modem, that’s the ideal setup as video conferencing requires a lot of bandwidth.
  • Dedicated, comfortable work space–If you don’t have the ability to set up your home office in a separate room, try carving out a dedicated corner in your bedroom or living room. Tidying the space at the end of your workday will help make it feel separate from the rest of your living area.

Depending on the nature of your work, you may also need a printer-scanner. If you don’t own one of these, it would be good to check on your employer’s expectations.

If your employer isn’t able to supply you with the equipment you need to do your job remotely, your university may be able to help. Contact your Office of Experiential Learning/Education to find out.

2How can I set up my work space so it’s ergonomic?

Since you’ll be spending a lot of time at your computer, you’ll want to make sure your work station is set up in a way that’s comfortable and safe for you. Here are a few ergonomic basics to keep in mind:

  • Work at a desk or table, not from a sofa or bed.
  • If you’re using a laptop, raise it up so you don’t have to tilt your head down to look at the screen. This setup requires an external keyboard and mouse. (Your employer may be able to provide these.) If you can connect your laptop to a monitor, that’s the ideal.
  • Get the height right. When you’re seated at your work station, your feet should be flat on the floor. As you type, your shoulders should feel relaxed, and your elbows should be bent at 90 degrees.
  • Support your arms. Make sure you can pull yourself close enough to the keyboard that your forearms are supported, either by armrests or by the work surface.
  • Support your lower back. If you don’t have an office chair, you can support your lower back by rolling up a towel and placing it between your lower back and the chair.
  • Use a speakerphone or headset for calls. Avoid cradling your phone between your neck and shoulder.
  • Proper ergonomics are essential for remote work as they keep you energized and reduce the risk of injury to your back, neck, shoulders, and wrists. If you have any concerns about your work station setup, ask your manager to help you troubleshoot the situation. Or reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning/Education.

3What questions should I ask on my first day?

Here’s a checklist to get you started. During your first week on the job, you may want to keep a running list of questions as they come up so you can pose them to your supervisor whenever you have their ear.

  • What technology will I need to do the tasks I’m assigned? How will I access it (e.g., do I download an application or access it online)? Do I need login credentials?
  • Whom do I contact for help with technology?
  • What are the working hours?
  • Are there any company documents I should read to help me learn about the culture and policies?
  • Will I receive any training? If so, when will it take place?
  • Who will my supervisor be? How often and by which communication channel (e.g., phone, email, video call) will I report to them?
  • Which communication channel(s) should I use to communicate with co-workers?
  • Which colleagues will I be working closely with?
  • Whom can I contact if I have questions about doing my work?
  • How will my performance be evaluated?
  • What should I do if I’m sick and unable to work?
  • What will I be working on this week? What should I focus on today?
4What do I do if I encounter technology issues?

Don’t you mean when you encounter technology issues? As a remote worker, you’ll inevitably run into “technical difficulties” from time to time (usually at the worst possible time).

Here are some things you can do to prepare for those situations:

  • If your workplace has an IT help desk, write down the phone number and email and keep it somewhere visible.
  • If you don’t have a help desk, ask your supervisor whom to contact when you experience a tech issue. (There may be different contacts for different kinds of issues.)
  • Invest time in learning any technology you’re required to use. (Yes, you should do this even if it’s not an explicit assignment from your supervisor.)
  • Download or bookmark user guides so you’ll have them handy when you need them.

When a technical issue does crop up, do your best to resolve it yourself before reaching out to a colleague for help. Search the Internet for video tutorials and other online resources, such as technical support forums. You may be surprised to discover how many technical glitches you can fix on your own.

5My employer says I can have “flexible work hours.” What does that mean?

Great question—and one only your employer can answer. Sounds like you need to ask for clarification to make sure you and your employer are on the same page.

Here are a few specific questions you might want to ask:

  • Are there specific periods of time during which you’re expected to be available to do work?
  • Do you need to let your supervisor and/or colleagues know when you’re at your desk?
  • Are you expected to track your time? If so, are you required to use any particular tool, such as an Excel spreadsheet or Toggl (an online time-tracker)?
  • During which time periods are phone or video meetings most likely to take place?
  • When is your supervisor typically available by phone, email, and other channels (e.g., Slack)?
  • Are there specific times when you’re expected to report in to your supervisor?

STAYING PRODUCTIVE

1How should I structure my work day for maximum productivity?

You’ll need to do some experimenting to figure out the work-from-home rhythm that works best for you. Here are some suggestions to try:

  • Create rituals for starting and ending your day. For instance, you might mark the beginning of each work day by making yourself a cup of coffee, checking a news feed related to the industry you’re working in, and turning on whatever communication tools you’ll need to stay in touch with colleagues. At the end of each day, you might clear out your email inbox, spend a few minutes reviewing what you’ve accomplished, and create a to-do list for the next day.
  • Follow a consistent schedule. Give yourself fixed times to start work, break for lunch, and wrap up for the day. Set reminders in your electronic calendar or alarms on your phone to keep you accountable to the rhythm you establish.
  • Arrange a regular daily check-in. If your supervisor doesn’t suggest this, you might raise the idea. For instance, you might say something like this: “I want to make sure I’m staying as focused and productive as possible. Do you think we could have a 10-minute meeting every morning/afternoon so I’m clear about what I need to get done?”

    If your supervisor has an erratic schedule and can’t manage a daily check-in by phone or Zoom, maybe an email exchange at the end of each day would work. Or perhaps could touch base with a colleague at the same time each day. The two of you could become accountability partners for each other.

  • Respect your natural energy cycles. Are you a morning person or night owl? Which kinds of tasks do you prefer to do in the morning versus the afternoon? If you have the freedom to set the order in which you tackle the day’s work, consider how you can best align your tasks with the natural ebb and flow of your energy.
  • Separate busy work from deep work. Most job roles include a range of different kinds of tasks, some requiring little thought and some requiring deep thought. To keep your energy and motivation high, block off time for “deep work,” tasks that require concentrated intellectual effort. These might include research, writing, planning, or producing some kind of a creative artifact. Many people find it helpful to take care of quick tasks in the morning and spend the afternoon on more substantial tasks.

Creating the work structure that works for you will likely take some experimenting. As you try some of the strategies listed above, observe what happens to your energy, your mood, and your productivity. You may want to spend a few minutes at the end of each day journaling about how the day has gone so you can consider tweaks to make to your routine for the next day.

2How do I keep myself motivated when I’m working on my own?

When you’re working remotely, motivation doesn’t just happen—you have to make it happen.

Here are some positive habits you could develop to keep yourself at the top of your game:

  • Create a daily routine with set working hours and breaks.
  • Start your day with an activity that energizes you, such as listening to a peppy piece of music or exercising.
  • Dress as if you were going into the office.
  • Keep a to-do list and check off tasks as you complete them. (There’s more than one fun app for that.)
  • Get visual. Use a white board or a visual planning app, such as Trello, to keep track of your assignments and achievements.
  • Keep your workspace tidy. Physical clutter creates mental clutter.
  • Set small, daily goals, and reward yourself when you hit them. Here are some examples of ways to treat yourself for your achievements:
    • Make a cup of coffee
    • Do a short crossword puzzle
    • Take a 10-minute social media break
    • Do a 10-minute yoga routine
    • Read a chapter in a novel or an article in a magazine
    • Walk around the block
    • Dance to a favorite piece of music
    • Play a tune on a musical instrument
    • Make a delicious snack
3How can I combat eye strain and fatigue?

The human body wasn’t made to sit in front of a computer, more or less motionless, for long periods of time. Those who thrive doing remote work prioritize self-care.

Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Stay hydrated. With no conversation happening around the water cooler, it can be easy to forget to drink. Dehydration causes headaches and fatigues, so refill your glass or mug frequently, before you become thirsty.
  • Remember to eat—away from your desk. When you’re caught up in a task that requires a lot of concentration, it can be easy to let lunchtime slide. Set a reminder on your phone for your lunch break, and be sure to take it away from your desk because your digestive system works properly only when it’s in relaxed mode.
  • Plan breaks. Besides scheduling your lunch break, plan mini breaks throughout your day. Apps such as these can help remind you to give your eyes a rest from the computer screen:
    • Time Out (Mac only) replaces what’s on your computer screen with a break-time image of your choice.
    • Awareness plays the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl after every hour you’ve been using the computer.
    • Break Timer provides a visual count-down to your next break.
  • Move around. Get up and get active for a few minutes every hour. That might mean taking a stretch break, walking the dog around the block, or simply going to the kitchen to get a glass of water.

WORKING WITH OTHERS

1My supervisor is too busy to take phone calls. How can I make sure I have enough guidance to do my tasks?

Ask your supervisor about the best way to contact them. If phone isn’t the best option, here are some other possibilities the two of you might explore:

  • Email (perhaps with a special subject line to indicate an urgent question)
  • Direct messaging app, such as Slack or Google Chat
  • Daily meeting(s) at a fixed time
  • Delegated colleague who can respond to questions when your supervisor isn’t available

It will take some time for your supervisor and you to get to know one another and figure out how to communicate effectively. You can take a proactive role to help this process along, and that will make working life easier for both of you.

2How do I figure out the best way to communicate with my supervisor?

Just ask. You might say something as direct as this: “What’s the best way for me to reach you when I have a question?”

You might also ask: “What’s the easiest way for you to communicate with me?”

If your supervisor hesitates to give you a straight answer to either question, you might also ask whether there’s someone else you can contact when you have a question.

3How can I clarify instructions without looking stupid?

Supervisors tend to be busy people, so they may not always give thorough instructions. They’ll expect you to fill in the information gaps and to reach out for help as needed. (In the workplace, asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s called being proactive and is a much-valued skill.)

One simple way to clarify instructions is to follow up on a meeting by sending a confirmation email or direct message summarizing your understanding of the assigned tasks. Here’s an example of such a message:

SUBJECT: Action items from today’s meeting

Johanna,

Regarding the next steps on the Hamilton bid, I understand that you’d like me to take care of these three action items by end of day tomorrow:

  • Compile all the data from the Forsythe proposal into an Excel spreadsheet
  • Set up a bid template in Word
  • Create a bid brief for Wednesday’s team meeting

Do you have a template I should use for the bid brief?

If there’s anything else you need for tomorrow, please let me know.

Robbie

4How do I handle myself professionally during a conference call?

Etiquette during a conference call mirrors etiquette for in-person meetings, with a few technical additions:

  • Show up a few minutes early. This is especially important for video calls. Depending on the application, you may need some time to download and install an app on your computer. It’s always a good idea to test your audio quality as well.
  • Come with the right equipment. For video calls, you’ll need a working webcam, and you should be seated in a well-lit space. A headset may provide better audio quality than your computer speakers.
  • Introduce yourself. As you log into the audio or video call, let people know you’ve arrived in the virtual space. You might say something like, “Hi there! It’s Wendy” or “Hello, Wendy has joined.”
  • Mute your microphone when you’re not speaking. Background noise, including typing, can be distracting to everyone on the call, so turn your mic off until you need it.
  • Bring your most energetic self. While meetings always require energy, phone and video meetings require you to up the ante. Try smiling while you speak, even if you can’t see the other meeting participants, so that you come across as cheerful and confident.
  • Be mindful of your non-verbal communication. As in face-to-face meetings, much of what you “say” in a video call comes across through your vocal tones, your facial expressions, and your body language.
5How can I get to know my colleagues when I’m working remotely?

If your workplace doesn’t hold a lot of meetings, it can be challenging to get a healthy dose of social interaction during the day. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Invite a colleague to grab a “virtual coffee” via Zoom or Google Hangouts.
  • FaceTime with a colleague while you’re both eating lunch.
  • Suggest kicking off a new task or project with a quick group brainstorm via video conferencing.
  • Propose a working meeting (via video conferencing) to complete a task you and a colleague are working on together.
  • If you’re collaborating on creating a document, suggest a live review session rather than an exchange of comments by email.
  • If your workplace uses Slack and has a channel for sharing interesting news items or other information, take advantage of that opportunity to engage in purposeful small talk.

HELPFUL TECH TOOLS

1What productivity and communication tools will I need to use on the job?

Here are links to tutorials orienting you to some of the tools your employer might expect you to use:

  • Zoom—For video calls. Requires you to download an app to your computer or phone.
  • Google Meet—Also for video calls as well as voice calls and group chats.
  • Google Docs and Google Sheets—For real-time collaboration on documents and spreadsheets.
  • Slack—Direct messaging for collaborating on team projects; also enables file sharing, voice and video calls, and screen sharing.
  • Microsoft Teams—For file sharing, direct messaging, scheduling, and video calls.
  • Trello—For sharing project plans, tasks, and files.
  • Asana—For coordinating team activities on various projects.
  • Toggl—For tracking your time, via a timer or manual data entry.
2What productivity tools can help me stay focused?

When you’re working at home, it’s easy to get distracted. Check out these apps to help you stay laser-focused on the task at hand:

  • Focus Keeper—Helps you use the Pomodoro productivity method, which alternates 25-minute periods of intense focus with 5-minute breaks.
  • Freedom—Blocks, across all your devices, websites you might be tempted to visit, such as social media sites.
  • Coffitivity—Creates the ambient noise of a coffee shop.
  • myNoise—Provides a soundtrack of white noise.
  • Evernote—Enables you to take notes, store web clippings, and store and annotate PDFs.
  • Miro—Allows you to create online whiteboards for group brainstorming sessions.
3How do I communicate effectively by email?

That depends. Different organizations use email in different ways, and organizational culture influences communication style and habits.

Start by asking your supervisor for guidance about email practices in the organization. Here are some specific questions to ask:

  • How often should I check my email?
  • What’s the expected response time to messages?
  • What’s the primary communication channel within the organization? With external audiences, such as customers and clients?
  • Are there any standard subject lines I should use to make it easy for you to spot and respond to my messages?
  • What tone should I aim for in my internal emails?
  • Can you share examples of emails so I can get an idea of the form and style that people are used to?
  • What best practices do you recommend I adopt to make my messages effective?
4How can I get more efficient at email writing?

Start with a clear goal in mind and work backward from there.

Each email you write should aim to produce a specific result. For instance, if you’re writing to ask a colleague for a piece of information, then the intended result is your receiving the information. If you’re writing to get your supervisor’s sign-off on a document, then the outcome you want is the approval.

Once you’re clear about what you want to happen, craft your email to drive toward that end. Here’s a simple structure to help you write a basic email request, which is one of the most common kinds of emails you’ll likely be writing:

  1. Statement of purpose—Open by stating who you are and why you’re writing. Bear in mind that many email readers never get past the first paragraph. If you don’t indicate up front why your message is worth paying attention to, it will likely sink to the bottom of the inbox.
  2. Minimal background—Include just enough information to enable the reader to understand the significance and urgency of what you’re contacting them about. Keep your sentences short and use bulleted lists and headings to make long chunks of content easy to skim.
  3. What you need—Ask directly for what you need. For example, if you need your supervisor to approve a report before you send it to a client, you could say something like this: “Is this report ready to go to the client now, or does it need further tweaks?”
  4. Motivational close—Provide a timeline for a response and a motivating reason to meet the timeline. Keep in mind that a rationale that makes sense to you may not carry much weight with your reader. The key is to find a reason that appeals to your reader’s interests. For instance, here’s how you might close the email asking your supervisor to approve your report: “Cassandra wants to release the report by Tuesday so the client will have it in hand for her site visit on Wednesday. If you could get back to me by noon tomorrow, that should work great.”

For help with getting a handle on how to craft emails and other kinds of business writing, check out Be a Brilliant Business Writer by Jane Curry and Diana Young.

5How do I communicate effectively by Slack and other collaboration tools?

The best practice is to lurk before you leap.

Before you dive into the online conversation, take some time to check out existing messages so you can get a sense of the communication conventions (customs) your colleagues are following.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • What tone do your colleagues use when communicating via the tool? How does it compare with the tone they use in emails?
  • What kinds of topics do your colleagues discuss via the tool? What kinds of topics do they NOT discuss via the tool?
  • How are different threads of conversation arranged within the tool? (In Slack, for instance, conversations on different topics take place in different “channels.”)
  • How does a new conversation start? Who can start a new conversation?
  • Are attachments appended to messages? If so, how do people refer to them?
  • How do people use the direct messaging function?
  • Do people indicate whether or not they’re online?
  • What’s the expected response time? Are you expected to respond to notifications during business hours or at other times as well?

If you’re unsure about the communication conventions for a certain tool, ask your supervisor to spell them out for you so you can collaborate effectively with your colleagues.

SPECIAL CONCERNS

1How do I discuss health concerns (physical or mental) with my supervisor?

Start by asking for a meeting. You might do that by saying something like this: “There’s something I’d like to chat with you about. Could we meet for 15 minutes sometime in the next few days?”

Most supervisors will readily accommodate your request. If, however, your supervisor says they’re too busy to meet any time soon, you might restate your question. For instance, you could say something along these lines: “I understand you’re really busy, and this won’t take long. But there’s a personal matter I need to discuss with you. When would be a good time for us to talk?”

When you meet with your supervisor, here’s how you might structure that conversation:

  1. Begin on a positive note. Thank your supervisor for taking the time to meet and share what you enjoy about working with the team.
  2. State that you have a personal matter to bring to their attention. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone, describe your health concern. Explain the extent to which it affects your ability to work.
  3. Describe how you are managing the concern. If there are any situations in which you might require support on the job, describe the symptoms that might show up and how your supervisor or colleagues could help you.
  4. Give your supervisor an opportunity to respond and ask questions. Thank them for taking the time to meet with you.

If you feel nervous about having a conversation like this, keep in mind that most managers appreciate any insight that helps them better manage their employees. By sharing your health concern, you’re simply helping them understand how to help you perform to the top of your ability.

Your Office of Experiential Learning/Education is a great resource to help you navigate personal conversations with your employer. Remember that they’re just an email or phone call away!

2How do I cope with a feeling of being overwhelmed?

Many people find working from home stressful, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that you’re not alone.

Then reach out for help. You have several options:

  • If you’ve been assigned a mentor at work, mention your concerns to them. Chances are they’ve stood in your shoes at some point and have some wisdom to pass on.
  • Your supervisor may be able to help tweak the way you’re structuring your day and prioritizing tasks. They may also be able to identify any areas where you could use help building up skills.
  • If your workplace has an HR (Human Resources) staff member or department, then they may have suggestions to help with stress management and time management. They may also have access to external resources that could help.
  • Staff in your Office of Experiential Learning/Education are available to talk through any kind of concern you’re facing on the job.
  • Your university’s health and wellness centre can direct you to a variety of resources, including one-on-one counselling.
  • The Chimo Helpline is a crisis phone line open 24/7. If the sense of overwhelm is causing you severe emotional distress, they are standing by to help.

Remember: whenever you have any concerns related to your experiential learning placement, you can reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning/Education.

3How do I get my work done with children at home?

Working remotely is tough, and it gets a lot tougher when you add small children as office mates.

Here are a few tips to help:

  • Share your parenting situation with your supervisor. Work collaboratively with your manager to brainstorm creative solutions to the challenge of caring for children while on the job.
  • Rethink the standard work day. Some work-from-home parents split their work day so they can be productive before their children wake up and while they’re napping. Others split child care with a partner, with one partner taking an early shift and one taking a late shift.
  • Sync your task list with your children’s schedule. As you consider your tasks for the day, group them into tasks that require focused attention and those you can do with some distraction. Plan your focus tasks for times when you know you’re children are most likely to be sleeping or engaged in quiet play.
  • Establish expectations for phone and video calls. Both your children and your employer need to understand what they can reasonably expect from you during meetings. Talk with your employer about how you’ll handle interruptions, which will inevitably happen.
  • Strengthen connections with your team. Cultivate supportive relationships. Be a true “team player,” someone who pitches in cheerfully whenever and wherever they’re needed. With that kind of attitude, you’ll likely find that team members will happily help you out when you find yourself caught in a parenting jam just when you’re facing a deadline.

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