Author: Jeremy Cohen

Remote working for researchers and developers

This post was compiled by Mark Woodbridge, Jeremy Cohen and Tony Yang of Imperial College’s Research Software Community.

As COVID-19 drives us into uncharted territory, many of us at Imperial will be having our first ever experience of working off-campus for an extended period of time. It, of course, depends on our role, but many members of the College community will be no stranger to mobile working – pitching up at one of the many campus cafes, breakout spaces or a coffee shop, getting out our laptop or mobile device and switching very quickly into a state of focused work. Maybe finishing those next couple of paragraphs of a paper or report, fixing that annoying bug in our scientific code that someone just reported, or responding to an urgent technical query from a collaborator. Sometimes a change of space or environment provides just that little shift in perspective that you need to help solve that challenging technical problem, or get the right wording for that difficult section of the paper, much more quickly than if you’d sat in your office staring at your screen for hours!

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be facing a rather different reality of remote working which is likely to involve spending a significant amount of time working in one space, without the flexibility that comes from being on a large campus. While our primary concern is going to be for the health and safety of our family, friends and colleagues, many of us will also have concerns about how we’ll manage to work effectively in these difficult times. We may have worries about feeling isolated, about maintaining our research efficiency and quality, about meeting deadlines, or more generally about how things will change in our day-to-day working lives as our routines are uprooted completely!

Within Imperial’s Research Software Community, many of us are software developers (Research Software Engineers) or academics/researchers who spend a significant amount of time writing software. The software developer community has embraced remote working over recent years and there are now many examples of companies that operate an entirely remote model with individual developers distributed around the world. If you’re a developer with a laptop and a good internet connection, location is no longer a barrier. In the research community, things are a little different and while many of us will be aware of cases where individuals spend the bulk of their time working remotely, discussion, collaboration and the opportunities posed by ad hoc meetings in the common room make working in a campus environment important and beneficial. Nonetheless, one huge benefit of the wide-ranging use of remote working in the software community is the wealth of tools, advice and examples now out there that make lone, remote working much easier.

A few members of Imperial’s research software community have come together (remotely!) to provide some tips, examples and advice that we hope might be helpful if you’re working remotely. There are many similar articles online but here we’ve tried to provide some thoughts and examples from our own experiences and we hope that these will be particularly relevant to members of the College and its research community. We’ve marked resources only accessible to Imperial members with an asterisk.

1) Communicating with colleagues

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be the most outgoing person, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of communication with colleagues or collaborators when you’re working alone. If we’re on campus most of the time, we probably have many informal chats with others in our office, people we bump into in the corridor or coffee room, etc.

Think about perhaps scheduling at least one 30 minute catch up with one or two colleagues each day. It doesn’t need to be time wasted through unstructured chat, although even this sort of meeting can be really valuable in helping you to feel connected and ultimately helping to improve your wellbeing. The College recommends and supports the use of Teams but many other solutions are available.

Some other suggestions:

  • Deliberately check in with others and ask how they are – especially if you know they are isolated.
  • Video calling, however uncomfortable to start with, can go some way towards replicating the interactions we’re used to in the campus environment.
  • Celebrate and share achievements, however large or small – from bug-fixes to new releases of your code!
  • Try remote pair programming or debugging: e.g. Live Share
  • Take part in an online community. Our local Research Software Community is on Slack*. There is a new Remote Working Wellbeing* group on Yammer. Outside Imperial many Meetup groups and other events (e.g. CW20) are now going online.
  • Reach out to others: whether housemates, or your local community via Facebook or other virtual groups. Consider volunteering where it is appropriate to do so.
  • Contribute to an open source project. Open source projects (such as The Turing Way) tend to have an established and inviting online community. If it is complementary to your work, and you have the capacity to do so, then making a contribution – even fixing a typo – can be a very fulfilling experience and introduce you to a broader community.

2) Maximising focus

Some people will be used to working from home for at least one day a week – perhaps in an environment that enables us to concentrate at least as well as in the office. But many of us won’t have anything resembling a home-office (or even a desk!) and may have caring or other responsibilities that are difficult to combine with sustained focused work. Generic advice is therefore almost impossible to provide, but here are some ideas:

    • When working in isolation without scheduled meetings or other engagements it can be easy to confuse time spent working with actual productive hours. Try setting alarms or using a timer for focused periods.
    • Messaging apps are great for keeping in touch but can also provide a stream of interruptions. Decide when you’ll be online and offline and set/indicate your status appropriately. And conversely, be mindful about how and when you contact others.
    • If you’re able to control your hours and environment then take advantage: work when you’re most productive, listen to music for programming, ambient sounds… or simply concentrate in potentially unfamiliar (but welcome!) peace and quiet.
  • Delineate your working day (and your workspace) – consciously decide when you’re working and when you’re not, and somehow communicate this to those around you.
  • You may need to be especially creative if you do have caring responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to adopt a working pattern or shifts different to those of your colleagues – as long everyone is aware and can continue to communicate effectively. You may find these Parent Scheme resources helpful.
  • Take breaks, rehydrate, try to eat healthily (especially considering the reduced physical activity you may be getting), and try to get some fresh air. Imperial has a virtual running club if you’re looking for some motivation!
  • Take advantage of the time saved by not commuting: perhaps by taking up a new hobby – ideally something that exercises a different part of your brain! Consider trying meditation: the College Chaplaincy is offering remote sessions and there is also a Mindfulness group* on Yammer.

3) Working comfortably

Without a home office and the availability of the usual alternatives such as libraries, shared workspaces or even coffee shops it can be difficult to find a comfortable place to work for prolonged periods. Ideally find more than one place where you can work and then alternate – even if one is the sofa! Experiment: improvise a standing desk (maybe putting your stockpile to good use…). Take breaks to relieve any tension and give your body a break by stretching or trying some beginner’s yoga. However, if you feel that your health and/or productivity is affected then don’t hesitate to talk to your supervisor or to Occupational Health, who have published some tips for remote working.

A new way of working

We hope that some of these ideas can ease the transition that will undoubtedly be challenging for some of us. But it’s also an opportunity to reassess how we work and how it fits around the rest of our lives. So try to establish clear boundaries between work and relaxation time and spaces, make yourself comfortable, and connect with colleagues, friends and family where you can. Also remember to take enough time off and do not work for prolonged periods without breaks in order to avoid burnout. Transitioning into remote working is a process and a reduction in productivity initially can be expected to happen. Aim to develop a routine, but in the meantime be patient and experiment. Don’t worry, you will soon learn how you work most productively, and hopefully pick up some good habits for the longer term! But if you do struggle then be sure to communicate, take advantage of the many resources out there that can provide help, and ask for advice and assistance if necessary.

Keep safe and we wish you lots of productive (remote) coding, paper writing or research!

Further reading

Did we miss any useful resources? Join the discussion on Slack* or let us know @ImperialRSE!

* As a post targeted primarily at members of the Imperial College London community, this article includes some links that will be accessible only to members of the College. These are marked with an asterisk. Nonetheless, we have included many publicly accessible links and if you are not a member of the College community, we hope you’ve found the content interesting and helpful.

 

The content of this blog post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence.

RSEConUK 2019

September 2019 saw the 4th Conference of Research Software Engineering (RSEConUK 2019) take place in Birmingham, UK. From the 17th-19th September over 350 RSEs, software engineers, researchers and people with a wide range of related roles came to the University of Birmingham to participate in the largest Research Software Engineering conference yet.

RSE19 conference photograph
RSE19 conference photograph courtesy @RSEConUK

While the majority of the attendees were from the UK and Europe, the conference attracted people from around the world.

The conference has been growing each year and this time there was a packed schedule including two keynotes, a series of parallel sessions with talks and panels, a day of workshops and some additional special sessions such as RSE Worldwide.

Imperial was well represented with 11 members of the College attending the conference at various times during the week and getting involved by volunteering, giving talks, joining panels, running workshops and presenting posters:

It was fantastic to see so much participation from Imperial and representatives from many different departments across the College. This provides a great example of how Research Software Engineering at Imperial is such a vital element of the College’s research output and we look forward to seeing an even greater presence from Imperial at next year’s conference.

Research Software London Software Carpentry

On the 9th and 10th July 2019 the Research Software London community ran its first regional Software Carpentry workshop. The event was jointly organised by Imperial, UCL and Queen Mary with Queen Mary hosting the workshop at their Mile End Campus. Several Imperial software carpentry volunteers and members of the Imperial research software community were involved in organising and running the event along with organisers, instructors and helpers from UCL and Queen Mary. The workshop covered a standard Software Carpentry syllabus with the attendees being taught the basics of the Unix shell and git on the first day of the workshop with an introduction to Python on the second day.

The majority of attendees were from Queen Mary, UCL and Imperial but spaces were also made available to the wider RSLondon community. This provided a great opportunity for newcomers to the research software field from institutions that don’t currently run carpentry workshops to attend and learn some core computing and software development skills. More than 30 people registered for the workshop and we received significant positive feedback as well as helpful suggestions on possible enhancements for future workshops.

Software Carpentry lesson
Image courtesy of David Pérez-Suárez

Building on the success of this event, RSLondon are planning to run further such workshops and are looking at other areas covered by The Carpentries for future sessions, in addition to Software Carpentry. If you have contacts at other institutions in London and the South East region who you think would be interested in hosting or attending an RSLondon Carpentry workshop later in 2019, get in touch with Jeremy Cohen

Imperial College RSE Team members Chris Cave-Ayland (instructor) and Mayeul d’Avezac (helper) assisted at this workshop.