While teleworking, remote positions, and working from home might have been rare in the past, it has become more common as companies and education centers around the world have adjusted to the current coronavirus pandemic. Ever thought about transiting your STEM career to a virtual platform? Or wondered how you’ll balance work and family life?
We sat down with three STEM professionals for a round table discussion to learn how they make it work, their favorite tips for success, and finding balance on the home front.
SMSS Members can continue the discussion, share their successes and questions on the SMSS member’s portal forum for Virtual, Remote, & Telework Careers. We hope to “see” you there!
Note: These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity, length, and space requirements.
Anjoleen Himes – Assistant Program Manager/Sr Systems Engineer
Jacki LaFevers – Mechanical Facilities Engineer
Melissa M. – Manager Post Market Surveillance
Q: How have you found ways to balance your work and home life?
Anjoleen: As soon as we arrived at our new home, we set up a designated office space. And its whole purpose is to meet my work needs and the telework agreements with my company. I actually had 3 job offers in my new area but I didn’t want to go out and deal with commuting and travel for positions that paid less. And then with the COVID transition, my role was renewed a year.
Melissa: It’s been a challenge; I’ve been working from home since May 2010 and have been full time remote for 10 years now. I have a personal cell phone and work cell phone which stays in office when I leave for the day. It’s been a huge thing, initially, I carried both around with me. But because I was in a different time zone work was always calling. We’ve moved 4 times in 4 years and I always have a separate space at home for work.
Jacki: I transitioned to mostly remote working in mid-March due to COVID-19. Since then, I have still been predominantly working at home. However, due to the nature of my job as a facilities engineer, I go into my work facility about 1-2 times per week for projects at times that I choose. I have LOVED this transition. It took a little getting used to but once I had my space and routine set up, I have really liked working remotely.
Anjoleen: I now have 6-month reviews and performance check-ins. For us, we get up at 5:30 to walk the dogs before it gets too hot in Texas, and then I get to work. The office is cut off from the rest of the house and home. For most of the day, I live in the office so it’s not much different from being in the office in the Navy yard. This afternoon [on] a conference call and someone mentioned that they put on their badge to associate it with work time and it allows them to concentrate more. They take the badge off when they take a break or for lunch.
Melissa: The biggest thing is self-care. You need to take care of your emotional and physical health and don’t feel guilty about going to the grocery store at noon. Just because your home doesn’t mean you can’t take care of the home as well, you just need to [ensure you do] get the job done. You have chores at home- mow the lawn, chaperone kids, groceries, dishes to do all these things that need to get done. And if everyone the office gets a lunch hour; I get that too and I can use that time for whatever I want to do.
Jacki: For me, the keys to success have been setting up a nice workspace and getting into a routine. I spend my work hours in my home office so I can keep in work-mode. My husband and I already had our own desks in our room that we designated as our home office. But I upgraded my chair to a more comfortable one. I also got a switch since I am using my large home monitor as my second work monitor. So I can easily click the button to utilize my monitor/mouse/keyboard for work and then click back to use them for my personal computer at the end of the day.
Anjoleen: My husband says the Navy gets more time out of me than usual because I actually track my hours worked as “in” and “out.” And I’ll end “work time” for my son’s calls and this ensures I get in actual hours. It’s funny. I feel I’m getting in more time and work because I’m not distracted by chit-chatting with coworkers, long walks to the bathroom, or chow hall. I keep hours log for records if anyone ever wants to see my hours. Doesn’t happen this way at the Navy yard a lot of times work-related conversations change to personal conversations about family and plans when you’re at work you’re “at work” and you don’t count this personal conversation as personal time. So here at home, I only count the time I’m actually working.
Melissa: Realize if you are new to working from home it’s likely your managers are also. I used to have managers monitoring my every move on my link and skype accounts. Some managers don’t know how to manage employees they can’t see working, so talk with them, engage, and tell them what you’re doing. Say “I’m going to get this amount of work at this time.” Set those boundaries with your managers so they understand. Whether [a project] takes 6 hours or 9. That way they are aware and can step in and help out when needed.
Q: Was there anything you wished you knew before transitioning your STEM career to teleworking/virtual/work from home space?
Jacki: For my routine, I incorporated walking my dogs at lunch followed up a quick strength workout, and then eating lunch. It’s nice to recharge at midday and take some time for me. I take a slightly longer lunch break at home than I did in the office since now I don’t have to end my day at the perfect time to avoid traffic during my commute. I also love not having to prepare and pack a lunch, I can instead have fresh ingredients here at home and decide that day what I want! Plus I can get a little more sleep now without sacrificing my evenings with my family since I don’t have to get up as early to commute in.
Melissa: It’s so important to set out expectations with your company before you begin. From 2010-2015, I had 7 managers in 5 years, and in fact, I had 9 in 7 years total. So, it’s important to set expectations when you have a revolving door of staff. I was here so long so I had the tribal knowledge on tap and I [became] irreplaceable. Working from home changes the dynamics in the workforce. I tell my team to become a subject matter expert at something. Become the person who knows everything about a topic because it makes you irreplaceable. How do you protect yourself? You have to become the subject matter expert so find that one thing and know it better than anyone else out there.
Anjoleen: For me, I’m at an advantage because I’ve done it before. When I was an Air Force civilian, I wanted to live in Georgia to be with my husband. If we can’t live together, my husband and I usually geo-bach. My company allowed me to telework under the condition that I would travel back every three months. At that time, the Air Force did not have telework guideline so I pulled the Navy guidelines and proposed a tweaked version to come up with a telework contract. The first thing I’d recommend would be to ensure the agency or company has telework policies and check them out. In my case, you have to have your own internet, you can’t bill the government for that, or your own work phone line, so know the processes ahead of time. Find out if you must buy your own office supplies, printer, etc. so do some research so you know what to expect. As a military spouse, you have to figure out how you pay your taxes too. Be sure to know your tax laws for where you live and where you work.
Jacki: Since I have a few dogs, it forces me to take breaks every 1-2 hours so I can pet them or let them outside, which has been great for helping me to avoid staring at the computer too long. It’s hard to get stressed when you have furry dogs lying next to you! So, I feel like working at home has really brought my stress levels down. Not to mention, I don’t have my distracting office-mates anymore! I can control the level of noise around me which has been great. And staying in more comfortable clothes and flip flops is hard to beat!
Melissa: It’s isolating when you lose your work social network. You are absolutely alone so you have to redefine yourself. Because you’re not going to the office every day, you miss that contact with people. I’ve been remote 10 years and I recently took my 6-member team to work remotely because their office was closing. As a remote manager, I was able to save their positions by transitioning them all to working remotely. Back in November, we had a team zoom team meeting to discuss vulnerabilities, skills, and the pros and cons of working remotely. Everyone said they were worried about that loss of identity. I went through the same thing 10 years ago and I didn’t have anyone to compare it to or the words to describe it at the time. But with a team, it was interesting to see their “pros and cons” of working remotely. None of the employees are military spouses but they felt that same loss. I was on my own when I started, it was unheard of to work remote 10 years ago. I’ve been remote with my company longer than my spouse has been in the military.
Q: What are your favorite tips or best practices for STEM professionals interested in working from home or who are now working from home due to the current pandemic?
Jacki: Apart from personal wins, I have found working remotely great professionally too. I feel more productive during my work hours for the reasons discussed above. With great communication tools like Microsoft Teams and cell phones, it’s been very easy to stay in touch with colleagues and my supervisor. Staying actively involved in team discussions and meeting and exceeding expectations are important to staying in touch.
Melissa: Invest in your workspace. If you are not comfortable working from home you won’t be successful working from home. I have a standing desk two 30 inch monitors on boom extendable arms so I can move them wherever I want them. I have a third screen that I just run email from that’s been my latest adjustment. So with the third screen with emails, I can monitor every time a new email comes in.
Anjoleen: Youtube has music to listen to while you read, I’m one of those people who can’t have outside noise while reading which is really bad since I review and read contracts and regulatory papers. The whole time my husband was home he played video games and I would hear all the noises. I found videos of classical music it was 45-50 minutes of a Youtube stream and I played it in the background and I was able to read and do my work.
Jacki: I have used the time at home with fewer meetings to charge ahead in my training and make leaps in my CAD skills, which has really impressed my manager and managers that I do projects for, which has been really rewarding!
Melissa: It’s just about slowly investing in your home office over the years. I also stand on a balance board so I can fidget and that helps keeps me engaged. One of my team members has a bicycle and they spin on it all day and that what works for her. For Christmas, I got everyone in my team with a second monitor and they can work with.
Anjoleen: You have to come up with creative ways to stay focused. The other thing I do is I have my desk facing out of the window so I see life out there. It’s hard when you don’t leave home much and it helps me to see the outside, even when we walk the dogs at 5 am there are not many people out.
Q: Did you learn anything new about yourself?
Anjoleen: For me, I top out at extreme extrovert on the Myers-Brig. I feed off a lot of other people so it was interesting to see that my normal thought process before was that I couldn’t thrive alone. I always had noise going around, the TV on, or people around in the office, but I’ve transitioned well to being alone in a home workplace. I am on telecons all day, so I do get to talk to people. It wasn’t as difficult as I might have thought. When I was younger, you couldn’t tell me to stay home. I was always out finding things to do. I couldn’t just stay home and craft or read a book. I’m always the extrovert, out with people, but now I have been able to slow down a little bit.
Melissa: You need to know when to walk away. Because you work from home and you live at home you are always at work. If your management is in a different time zone they don’t always understand when work starts and finishes. You do have to be very strict and say “I’m done with work for today.” Emails are going to come in 24/7. I manage people all over the world, so I come in to have early morning emails with Europe and late nights with Japan. I work 8-4 and 7:30-10 pm. So, I don’t work a [traditional] full 8 hours. I work 6 and a half and then work in the evening after the kids get dinner, bath, and bed. I can ensure mom’s always there for breakfast and dinner. I can’t control when dads there because the Army owns him, but for my kids, I can control when mom’s there. Set your schedule and be honest. Do your housework and the job work that needs to be done but realize you can ask for that flexibility to do what works for your family. Not everyone can but a lot of people can. I manage 15 people and have two special needs kids and I have to work around that. Me working from home is the only way I can do that. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering and I would be unemployed otherwise and the fact that I can work from home and take care of my kids and their needs is important.
Jacki: As for something new I learned about myself, I was actually considering remote work as a future option for future PCS moves. But I had never done it before so I wasn’t sure if I should really try for it. Now that I’ve been able to test it out for a few months, I realized I like it way more than I thought I would! I am extroverted so I was afraid I would miss the human interaction but with video calls, talking on the phone, and the life balance I’ve found from working remotely, I am a lot happier with it than I thought I would be.
Join the Society of Military Spouses in STEM and keep the discussion on Work-From-Home tips going with our members’ forum on Virtual, Remote, & Telework Careers. Check out our new SMSS Member-to-Member Support Group event on November 18th at 7 pm EST. Log into the SMSS portal to learn more about the program, our participation guidelines, and register.
- Military One Source has several “Tips for Teleworking” as well as resources for mental health, MWR Digital Library resources for K-12, and more.
- Check out “7+7 Strategies for Working from Home During COVID-19” article on PsychologyToday
- Parenting and working from home? Take a look at Parent’s Magazine article “How to Master Working From Home—While Under Quarantine With Kids” for family-friendly tips.
- Become a SMSS student, professional, or corporate member at smsstem.org.