Like many Master’s students, I took advantage of the opportunity to take a co-op semester to gain work experience, make connections, and develop new skills. Unlike most Master’s students who came before me, however, I did my co-op term remotely. The pandemic has disrupted everyone’s plans, and these days we are all learning how to work all types of jobs remotely. This meant my co-op wasn’t only an opportunity for a new job, but also to gain the skills to work from home successfully.
While there are some disadvantages, there are also several surprise benefits a remote co-op position offered me and could offer other students as well. So, if you’re considering a remote position, here are some potential pros and cons to keep in mind, as well as some tips to make the most out of an at-home co-op.
I did my co-op work term at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in the Admissibility Branch. I was a member of the Identity Management team and often worked on research projects and creating resources for informed policy making around identity management and biometrics for Canada’s immigration system. My branch was located in Ottawa, but with remote work I was able to apply, interview, and accept a position all from my apartment in Vancouver. This meant an opportunity that would normally have required me to move for several months across the country from BC to Ontario, was now much more accessible. So, the first major positive to remote co-ops is the expansion of possible opportunities: when your office is your living room couch you can apply and work anywhere.
Working for the Government of Canada has many benefits, and one is the huge amount of opportunities for learning and professional development. During my summer co-op term, I was able to complete all the valuable IRCC training activities, as well as sign up for additional training and learning events on Gender-Based Analysis Plus, Information management, Indigenous reconciliation, and so much more. I also could attend virtual events such as special guest speakers and citizenship ceremonies, without worrying about where the event was located or how much extra time out of my workday it would take. Since attending a training session or event was as easy as logging in to Microsoft Teams or Zoom, I was able to attend more of these events from within and outside of my department.
The motivation, discipline, and concentration required to work independently can all be challenges of working from home, but it also is an opportunity to strengthen these valuable skills that you will need throughout your entire career. In addition to gaining these skills, the independence of being able to work from home could mean more flexible schedules. Of course you should discuss with your supervisor, but many employers are more open to flexible timing as long as you are attending meetings and completing your hours for the week. For example, my home in Vancouver has a 3 hour time difference from Ottawa, so I was able to work later hours than my coworkers (instead of starting work at 5 or 6am my time to start with them). Plus, working from home means your commute is no longer than the walk from your bed to your desk—adding potentially hours of stress-free productive time to your day that would otherwise be spent in traffic. No commute, more independence, and a flexible schedule are all pros to working remotely.
Like all things in life, remote work is a two-sided coin and has some disadvantages as well as advantages. However, being aware of common problems and mistakes can help you to avoid them if you find yourself in a remote position. A common problem with online working is doing too much, forgetting to take breaks, or staying late at work. When your home needs to be a place to relax and a place to be productive, the lines can begin to blur and you could find yourself working longer days. It is important to set boundaries so you can rest in between work hours. Taking regular breaks also will help you recharge throughout the day to avoid stress and burnout and allow you to feel more productive and rested.
When you are not taking breaks in the lunchroom and walking around your coworkers’ cubicles all day, it can be surprisingly easy to let a whole day (or two) slip by without any social interactions at work. This can make it difficult to feel connected to your workplace and to build your network, especially when you are only at the company for a short co-op term. Getting past the initial awkwardness of building casual conversations into your workday can be difficult, but I find it much more energizing and feel more connected when I do create the space for “water cooler talk”. One way to do this is to spend the first or last few minutes of meetings socializing and to make use of your office’s chat or IM feature to talk about your day and get to know your coworkers.
We often underestimate how productive and helpful casual conversations in the office can be. When working remotely, you could feel as though you have no idea what your coworkers are working on and that can lead to feeling siloed in your own projects. Also, it is harder to have an impromptu brainstorming session over a coffee break, since most meetings will have to be scheduled in advance. I find the best way to overcome this is to facilitate round-table discussions with your team members when you see them to ask what they are up to, and to not be shy about reaching out for a quick discussion about a project. If you are feeling like an island, others may be too, and they will likely be grateful for your initiative in reaching out to chat or collaborate.
Looking back at my semester of co-op, I have summarized my 3 top tips for working remotely to capitalize on these pros and overcome the cons:
When working from home, one of the most difficult things is staying in communication with your team. In a remote environment, it is up to you to over-communicate with coworkers, collaborators, and supervisors. If you need to push back a deadline, if you have questions, if you’re unsure what tasks you should be prioritizing, the only way to know is to communicate with your team. Since no one is physically in the same space, it’s easy for your supervisors and coworkers to get focused on their work, so the onus to keep the line of communication open is on you.
Some good ways to keep communication flowing are:
Schedule a weekly meeting with your supervisor/project leads to discuss progress, ask questions, and brainstorm solutions. This is also a time to discuss how you are doing, if you need more tasks, if you need to push back deadlines, etc. Plus it’s a good chance for some socializing/networking!
Each morning or at the beginning of the week, send an email/instant message to your supervisor or coworkers on what you will be doing that day, and ask what they are working on. This has multiple benefits: it will keep you accountable, keep you in the loop on what your team is working on, and open lines of communication for collaboration.
It is also a good idea to schedule check-ins for projects mid-way through to ensure you are on the right track and create an opportunity to discuss possible ways forward and ask any questions.
When given a new task by your manager/team members, review the project and prepare to ask questions. Some examples are:
What is the timeline for this task? Is this task part of a larger project?
Who should I consult if I have questions?
What would a successful outcome for this task look like? Are there any examples (past reports, papers, programs) that I can refer to?
Working from home can blur the lines between your professional and personal life, especially when you are a student. Here are some of the tactics I found helpful for creating healthy boundaries:
Designate a workspace that you can physically leave at the end of the day. Make this area, whether it be a desk, or even a specific chair at your kitchen table, an area to focus on work and eliminate all distractions. The rest of your home will be the place where you can be “out of office” and not think about work in your downtime, and your workspace will be clear of distractions. I even recommend leaving your work chair when you take your breaks or eat lunch, making it a spot only for working and focusing, and leaving the rest of your home for relaxing.
Make sure you are taking your breaks. At my co-op with the government, I received a 30-minute lunch break and two 15 minute breaks. Making sure that you are actually taking this time to recharge will make you more productive throughout the day. Try to get outside for these breaks as often as you can for some fresh air!
Log off at the end of the day and if at all possible, do not check your work email or work on projects when you are off work. It can be all too easy to check in on work when your laptop is always at your fingerprints. But, studies show that taking time off to recharge will make you more productive at work the next day, and will make you more rested, happy, and less likely to burn out.
Creating a routine for your work schedule can be really helpful for productivity and for making boundaries at work. Working from home means there is no commute, but that doesn’t mean you need to roll out of bed and go directly to your computer. Taking some time to have a coffee, wash your face, go for a walk, or play with your pet in the morning are all good ways to make a morning routine to ease your way into the day. A suggestion I’ve tried is simulating a work commute to create a routine and some separation in my day by going for a short walk before and after my workday—like a walk “to” and “from” work.
It is also helpful to make a to-do list at the beginning of each day to stay on task and get the list from your head and on paper. I recommend creating 3 top tasks for the day that are most important and then listing any smaller items you would like to complete (emails, extra reading or training, side-of-desk projects, etc.).
When planning out your daily routine and to do list, make sure you adjust to suit your needs and life. Working from home provides extra flexibility, and you should take advantage of this! For example, if you have most of your energy early in the day, prioritize working on larger projects that require the most focus right when you start work, and respond to emails or other smaller projects in the afternoons instead. If you find that meetings are taking up a lot of your day and only leaving stop-and-start breaks for your projects, try blocking off “Do Not Disturb” time in your calendar each day for more focused work.
Co-op is an extremely valuable opportunity that provides work experience and a chance to gain connections and build your skills. Working from home is a different co-op experience, but there are certainly still benefits to this type of work! You will develop strong communication skills, have more flexibility and independence, and learn about how you work and what type of work you want to do. Plus, so many more opportunities are available to you when the whole country (or world) of jobs can be right in your home!
I hope reading this blog has helped you in deciding if a remote job is right for you, and I hope you will consider a co-op experience, wherever you decide to do it!