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Expert Offers Tips on Staying Productive, Keeping Morale High While Working Remotely

In this stressful time, workers should have extra latitude, clear goals and normal routines, Dr. Newman advises

minute read

Written by Shawna Matthews on March 26, 2020

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, more people than ever are working from home. What are the best practices for working remotely? Should you get dressed in at least semi-presentable work clothes, for instance?

In this episode of CU Anschutz 360, we consult with Dr. Lee Newman, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. He offers a host of recommendations that will help keep you productive, and hopefully in mostly good spirits, during this stressful time.

Dr. Newman will co-lead a webinar on "Leadership Skills for Managing Worker Stress and Fatigue Through COVID-19" at 11 a.m. on Monday, March 30. Register for the online session here.





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Episode Transcript


Shawna Matthews Welcome to CU Anschutz 360, a podcast about the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. We feature faculty, staff, students and their interesting and innovative work. I'm Shawna Matthews, a contributor in the Office of Communications at CU Anschutz. Like most of you, I'm working from home. So, if there are any sound quality issues or barking dogs or ringing doorbells, please forgive the disruption. We're all kind of figuring this out together. 

So, to that end, today I'm talking with Dr. Lee Newman. Dr. Newman is a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, as well as a professor of medicine [Music fades] in the Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine at CU Anschutz.

He's the founding director for the Center for Health, Work and Environment as well as the Mountain and Plains Education and Research Center. He co-founded Health Links and the Certificate Program in Total Worker Health through the Colorado School of Public Health. He was also the founding President and CEO of Axion Health Incorporated. Dr. Newman, thank you for joining me.

Lee Newman Thank you. Happy to be here.

Shawna Matthews So, when we first chatted you said that you were busy setting up your team to work remotely. Can you tell me a little bit about what that process has looked like?

Lee Newman Yeah, you know, it was an abrupt transition, like many of us. We were fortunate in that we had a number of our team who were already on a flex work policy, where they were working from home at least a day a week. And some people have been working remotely for a number of years and just to remind everybody: this is not a new concept. People have been working from home offices for a long time. But now we're all thrust into this environment whether we liked it or not.

The process has been, because of the speed with which we've had to do it, has been messy. But, we benefited from having people who have done it for a while, who have done it in previous jobs, who were able to help others to cope with it.

Shawna Matthews That makes sense. So, not to put you on the spot but we were hoping you could show us around your office so we could kind of get a glimpse of maybe tips on how to improve our office ergonomics a little bit.

Lee Newman Sure. I'd be happy to. I should tell you though, that part of this is about your office ergonomics, but there's a whole lot more to it, which I'm sure we'll get into, but since you asked, I'll just take you on a little, mini tour and tell me if you can see what's going on. So, it's pretty simple. I have a desk here. I've got myself a large monitor, which I'm able to adjust to the height that's right for me.

And if you, if you look at my height in relation to this I want to be having my eyes set so that I'm looking at about the top third of that screen. I've got a place where I can hold up my documents. I've got a keyboard tray.I have an ergonomic chair, which is adjustable as well. And, I've got my lighting set so that - you know, the other thing that people often overlook is that they may be in a space that has too much glare. And so, you actually want more diffused light and not a lot of glare.

So, even though there's a window behind me, I keep the shade down on that. So, some of the principles of an ergonomic office set up with a computer workstation, I just described to you. And so the fiscal considerations are: getting the chair right; getting the height of your keyboard right; getting the right kind of monitor and the monitor height, so that you don't get the back strained, the neck strained and the wrist repetitive motion problems. Just as a few pointers.

Shawna Matthews Yeah. Those are all really good tips. So, you direct one of the CDC six total health centers of excellence. So, that kind of sounds like something that we could all use right now, Total Worker Health. Can you tell me about that and how you can apply that to working remotely?

Lee Newman Sure. So, Total Worker Health. It's a pretty simple concept that's been around for about the last decade. And as one of the centers of excellence, our focus has been on having people understand that: having people safe on the job is number one, but at the same time, your job can be set up in a way that it promotes better health overall. So, it's about keeping you safe on your job. So, like we just described the office ergonomics, but it's also about considering the other health factors that impact our ability to do our work well and also to lead the rest of our lives well.

Lee Newman We think about wellness programs, for example, that's one component of a Total Worker Health approach in the workplace. As well as having a safety program that allows us to get the ergonomics right, et cetera. A lot of our interest there has been on addressing what most employers and most employees would say are the most pressing issues. Which are around, workplace stress and other stressors in their life, mental health, behavioral health issues in the workplace - are a significant issue. And there are things that we as employers can do as leaders, as managers can do, to help ourselves and also help our coworkers and their employees.

Shawna Matthews That's really great, kind of making sure that you are able to do the work and that you enjoy the work at the same time. That you need to have both, both pieces in place. 

So, I have several friends in academia, and it seems, right now that there's kind of a sense, everyone feels like they should be incredibly productive right now, finally writing the paper, working on figures, getting their next grant together. And at the same time, there's kind of a sense of paralysis. So, what can you say about that?

Lee Newman Yeah...the most important thing I can say is give yourself a break. We're at a time right now of probably unprecedented in most of our lives, unprecedented stress. And we know that our cognitive abilities, our ability to, to focus and think clearly, is impaired when we're experiencing stress. And that's applying to us as individuals, as well as to the rest of our teams. So, the first thing that you can do is to not make those kinds of assumptions that, "Oh boy, now I can really crank it out."

Shawna Matthews Sure.

Lee Newman Because in fact, we're all living with a level of chaos, distraction and uncertainty that is really unprecedented for most of us. And we have this tendency to think that, "Oh, well, we're tough and we can do this." And in fact, this is a setting where, that's not even the message that you should be conveying to your coworkers or to the people who report to you. This is a time to be kind to ourselves, being kind to each other, work with as high a level of empathy as possible.

Getting the morale right in a group, right now is much more important than getting the productivity right. The productivity will follow.

Shawna Matthews So, speaking of chaos, distraction and uncertainty, do you have any tips for working from home when kids are around?

Lee Newman Well, I don't have to personally cope with that anymore. I have the distraction of having kids who are grown and right now are both doctors working in ICUs taken care of COVID patients. That's my distraction. But many of the people in our group, we have 30 people in our center who are all now working from home and I'm interacting with them every day with their kids, and their dogs and their plants and everything else in the background. And sometimes they're not in the background. Yesterday we had one of our many Zoom meetings and I saw Spider-Man. You know, that's just the new normal (Shawna laughs) is that, you have to understand that people have their kids, that was a four-year-old Spider-Man running around in the background.

My observations are: first of all, give people more latitude than you might be used to. People, especially who are working from home with kids, they're already experiencing a lot of other stressors in their lives and they need to be in employment situations where we're prepared to say, "We understand that you may not be able to focus 100% on what you're doing here and now on the job, you may not have the childcare. You may not have the space, the arrangements to be able to act like you're on the job, without having kids in the background." We cope with a lot of other distractions in our jobs every day when we're in the office, we have a new set of challenges when we have our kids at home.

What I'm seeing people do is having more, giving them more flexible work hours. So, I have a couple of people who say, "You know what? During the usual business hours, I have trouble with being available to work on projects, but the kids go down for a nap and that's my prime time. And in the evenings I can work all through the evening. I can get up early." 

So giving people the latitude that they need to work with their situation. As an employer, technically I can't, you know, HR will tell you, "I can't ask you, what's going on in the background, how are you, how are you coping with your kids, etc?" But what I can do-

Shawna Matthews Like when Spider-Man darts past. (Laughs)

Lee Newman Right, but until Spider-Man goes through. (Laughs) But what I can do is to ask, "Well, what kind of accommodations do we need to make for you to be able to be productive at home?" And that's the start of the conversation. So being empathetic and being open to people, coming up with their different arrangements. And I also think about setting realistic goals with very specific check-ins. So, people aren't going to make all their goals, but we're going to need to be clear about setting goals. Having clear vision and clear direction for people at this time is probably really important.

Lee Newman And then having them work with you to figure out how they're going to be able to accomplish those.Or modify them, because of the demands they have with kids in the background for example.

Shawna Matthews Sure. So, now that we're limited to electronic interactions: how do we stay feeling connected with our teams when this is as close to face-to-face as you can get for the moment?

Lee Newman You know, I think that there are different ways of doing that and we're seeing some very creative solutions being used. One of them is exactly what we're doing now. We are getting some face-to-face time. It's not the same as if I were in the room with you in person. In some ways it's better, in some ways it's worse. But it's what it is for now.

I just want to mention that we're not at this point prohibited from seeing people in person. We would have to be six feet apart, at least, for now. And we can be out in a public space, such as a park or in a parkway.

So, if you're in proximity to people, you still can actually see people. You just can't get any closer than that. A phone might, in some cases, be a better option when we're starting to have eye fatigue from staring at computers all day. But I think that for now what I'm seeing people do if they are home alone and very isolated, they're opting to do more Zoom meetings or other kinds of video platform meetings.

Just having some of their coworkers on the screen with them is helping. Using instant apps like Slack, for example, where people can on the side be having a chat going on projects that they're working on together during the day. Those kinds of tools can be really helpful for helping to reduce some of the distance.

Shawna Matthews So, you mentioned all these platforms, Zoom and others. When we video conference in a work setting, do we need to wear pants? I feel like this is a really burning question.

Lee Newman (Laughs) Here's my, here's my suggestion: it depends on your job description I suppose (laughs), but this is a good time to maintain routines. And if your routine is to get up in the morning, exercise, shower, put on your work clothes, and go to work: that is a pattern that I strongly encourage people to maintain. It's not a time to be working in your PJ's. It's a time to continue to focus on having a structured day to the extent you can.

Lee Newman Now, we already talked about how it has to be structured differently because you have maybe kids running around, et cetera. But for the time that you're focused on work, it's better for you to dress like you're going to work. And I think it's just a good habit.

Shawna Matthews Sure. So, pants then is your consent?

Lee Newman Short answer is, yeah. Probably dress the way that you would if you're going into the office. By the way, shoes are good too, because I want you getting up and moving around.

Shawna Matthews Right.

Lee Newman Don't just sit there and stare at the screen. You can take a meeting on a phone and go for a walk on the nearest parkway or the nearest park. Or even standing outside a little bit, getting that sunshine, getting up on your feet. Changing positions is really important.

Shawna Matthews All right. Pants and shoes. You drive a hard bargain (laughs).

Lee Newman (Laughs) Okay.

Shawna Matthews Yeah. There's also been a very rapid switch for educators who are trying to very quickly convert to virtual learning. So, what advice do you have for them? And do you feel that this is going to make a permanent impact, kind of a turning point on how higher education is delivered into the future?

Lee Newman Yeah. I've been teaching in the Colorado School of Public Health for 15 years and I taught in the School of Medicine before that. And we've been gradually already moving to more e-learning, more online learning, which has its strengths and its weaknesses for sure. Is it here to stay? Absolutely. We were already having an increased demand for that from our students, because they want the flexibility that they get from e-learning. Do we get the same quality of education? That's an arguable point.

The strategies though that I think improve the odds of people getting a good educational experience with e-learning is for those of us who are educators to become really facile with the tools that are out there. And there are a lot of people who can teach you. There's a lot of online tutorials. This is a time where many professors I know have had to switch over pretty quickly. But taking the time after this to settle into what are the best tools for you to use to be the best educator.

This is a time to accept that this is the way of the future and to get good at it. And there are a lot of tools out there and a lot of ways of learning that. I like going to my colleagues who I think are good at it and learning from them. (Shawna laughs) And I've been doing online education for about a decade and every day there's some new way of improving your engagement with your students. It's working pretty well, but it definitely takes a lot of practice and takes some time.

Shawna Matthews Sure. So, my last question for you is: something I've noticed when I work from home is that it's really easy to let your workday bleed into your home life.You know, finish dinner, pick up your laptop and just keep going. So, there's not much of a division, right? When work happens at home: work and home become kind of intermingled. So, how do you maintain healthy boundaries there?

Lee Newman Yeah, I think everybody has their own strategies for how to do that. And I know a lot of people who aren't very good at it, but I'll tell you some general recommendations. One is to prioritize your downtime. You need the recharge. You may think that you can keep going and that it's okay to have work inserting itself into the rest of your life all the time. But in fact, the quality of your work suffers when you do that. And that's before we had a COVID epidemic. People's level of distraction by work intruding on their off time was already a problem.

So prioritizing downtime. Setting boundaries. If you have family members, if you have a spouse or kids - having schedules and then having them help you hold to those is really another way that you can do that. If you can set work hours, set work hours. I strongly advise against emailing and texting people in off hours and discouraging them from doing the same. Yes, there are deadline pressures sometimes and you have to do that, but having other people respect boundaries is also very helpful.

I want to mention that in 2016 Cal Newport who's a professor at Georgetown, published a really excellent book called Deep Work. If you haven't read that - or if you have read it, reread it. Because it's a book that lays out the strategies for us being able to structure our time so that there's the shallow work that we think we have to do. That's answering the emails, that's responding to the texts. All that sort of small incremental work that we do all day long. And then there's the deep work: the stuff that requires concentration and really taking focused cognitive energy and getting something really significant done.

Maybe it's writing the proposal and writing the grant. Or writing a manuscript or editing a journal. Whatever that might be in your job. You know, what the ‘deep work’ is you need to do. Right now, we're so distracted and we're so chopped up. Whether in our "off time" or our "on the clock time," that the deep work is not getting done. So I really recommend that book to people and to think about how you can be creating blocks of time that are protected for deep work and the blocks of time that you sacrifice to the shallow work, which is really not very productive work. Answering emails should not be considered a measure of productivity.

Shawna Matthews (Laughs)

Lee Newman And if you choose to do it during the night, because during the day you now have to have kid responsibilities because of the epidemic: wherever you do that, setting yourself a schedule where you set aside the blocks that it takes to do the deep, important cognitive load work that you were meant to do.

Shawna Matthews Definitely. Well, I think that's all I have for you. Dr. Newman, next Monday is recording a webinar aimed at educating workers on managing stress and fatigue in the time of COVID-19. So, we'll put the link in the podcast page. So, Dr. Newman, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today.

Lee Newman Shawna, thanks for inviting me. I'm happy to do this with you.

Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. It may contain minor differences from the audio, including some edits for clarity in print. Please check the recording and with the Communications team before quoting in print.