The ABC of home-based scientific and medical writing in COVID-19 times

Raquel Pinto
Mar 30 · 9 min read

The warmth of your home library, living room, or even your bed, paired with wearing pajamas until 11 am, or possibly the whole day, might sound extremely attractive to many. However, making sure that we stay safe and productive working from home is priority number one for all of us with the quarantine or self-isolation recently imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, we find ourselves now joggling with home and family tasks, plus the usual workload from the office, without any separation or boundaries between them.

After seeing the challenges that our company has been facing these past few weeks, with offices both in Portugal and the United States transitioning into a work-from-home regime, I feel that it is a good idea to share our insights on this different work paradigm. doDOC’s vision has always been to help teams collaborate on documents in real-time as if they were in the same room. Arguably there has never been a better time for scientific and medical writers to master their remote working skills, so here I go with our take on it.

A. Office mode ON — Home mode OFF

In his “Make Your Bed” commencement speech to the graduates of The University of Texas at Austin in 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven shared the 10 lessons he learned from basic SEAL training. The first lesson, in his own words, was that “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.

Well, I won’t tell you to start making your bed because I’ve never made mine, and the COVID-19 outbreak hasn’t changed that. However, this same concept of starting with a small task applies to the idea of entering the Office mode. If we think about it, we turn the Office mode ON when we get in the car or train to go to the office, when we say hi to the receptionist or when we finally sit at our office desk. Now that we are all working from home, we need to create and respect new triggers for turning the Office mode ON.

At our company, we’ve recently decided that the best way to turn our Office mode ON was to have our daily update meetings first in the morning. Back when we were at the office, we held these meetings at our convenience, some while having mid-morning coffee or a mid-afternoon snack, others right after lunch, and some at the end of the day. This change makes us start the day on our toes, presenting what we achieved the day before and what we will be working on that day — thinking, talking, and listening.

If you choose to have a call as your ON switch for the Office mode, allow me a few recommendations here:

1. Videoconference calls are the best thing since sliced bread. With everybody at home, the stand-up meetings (and pretty much any other meeting or discussion) can keep going on a videoconference call, where everybody participates as if they were in the same room.

2. Define and share an agenda for the meeting. Without an agenda, most people feel that there are no clear outcomes at the end of the meeting, but with a clear set of points to cover, defined in advance, and shared with everyone, all attendees understand the objectives of the meeting and easily prevent it from derailing.

3. Define a meeting leader beforehand. Especially in meetings with many people, without a leader, nobody knows when to move between different topics or even when a topic has been completely addressed. The leader is responsible for keeping the agenda covered, driving the conversation forward, and highlighting the outcomes of each discussion.

4. Turn on your camera! Not everybody can speak at the same time on video calls, and being able to see each other’s faces increases engagement and the natural flow of interaction.

5. Get a headset! Good sound is crucial for online meetings to flow smoothly. Test that your headset works well and get feedback from someone that they can hear you clearly. When you have found one that works, stick with it!

6. Turn off your microphone!! The occasional barking of a dog, meowing of a cat, chirping of a canary or the hissing of a snake (yes, we are a very pet-friendly company!) can be distracting for the one talking. Unless you want to say something, keep your mic on mute.

7. Turn on your microphone!! Every rule has an exception, and the previous one is not an exception to this rule (yes, a paradox!). When you are in a meeting in person, people can see your face conveying expressions of acknowledgment every time a point is made. When you are in a videoconference call, even if your camera is on, it helps the flow of the conversation if a few words are said out loud by the people listening to the main speaker. A “yes”, “I agree”, “um hum” or a short laughter when someone cracks a joke, goes a long way. Without those words, the speaker feels like she’s talking to an empty room and it can even feel a little hostile.

8. Write minutes of the meeting and share them right after. This is not necessarily different from in-person meetings, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. During virtual meetings, people should take turns taking notes of what is being discussed. At doDOC, we eat our own dog food. Since doDOC enables several people to be editing and reviewing the same document, whoever is writing the minutes shares this document with the rest of the team, so everybody has a chance to leave a comment or flag something missing on the fly. Whatever platform you use, make sure that notes are taken because they become both the assessment of the previous day and the commitment for the current one.

B. Communication is important, but collaboration is crucial

Comparing the last month with any other period in the previous years, I could not find as many internal meetings as I see now in my calendar. I confess that I have been struggling to find time to complete all my tasks and to keep up with preparing for these meetings to be meaningful. However, I feel that the company has never been better informed about what is going on at all levels. And I don’t speak just for myself. Company-wide, the same full-calendar phenomenon has been replicated.

For people used to working at the office, it’s only natural to get up from their desk, walk over to a colleague and ask a question, or share an update. But with everybody working remotely, now folks need to schedule these meetings so they have an opportunity to communicate needs, updates, discuss strategy, and even have small talk. That is collaboration!

Collaboration goes beyond calls and meetings. To support our work before, during, and after these meetings, everyone at our company has chosen to use real-time collaborative software. A few examples and recommendations for collaborative tools:

1. We create, review and manage all of our documents with the doDOC real-time collaboration software, because it enables us to work together during the conception of any part of a document, making the process of writing and reviewing completely straightforward. Once again, dog food for lunch!

2. Most writers and reviewers use Datavision for managing their workflow and tasks. They also use other task management solutions, such as Jira from Atlassian or Trello, to define and update tasks in real-time. If you can see what other people are doing, how they are progressing, and they can see what you do, it reinforces the idea of visibility and transparency within a team, which is super important if you are not in the office. In other words, it validates that you are actually working and not binging the 25 seasons of Law and Order.

3. We use Slack for communicating any virtual event, sharing ideas, posts, readings, and pretty much any information that doesn’t fit the other platforms. Whatever media you use, make sure that then you can search through the messages to find important conversations you’ve had.

As I mentioned before, real-time collaboration with documents is our vision at doDOC, not just because we think that working with documents deserves that level of interaction between team members, but also because we strongly believe that all work should be done that way. When you collaborate in real-time, you seamlessly communicate, strategize together and come up with better ideas. The alternative? Sending emails or files back and forth, compiling and consolidating input and feedback, waiting in the dark not knowing if your colleague has even started his or her own tasks. Once again, this is not just about documents. Real-time collaboration is a must for us now that we are home-based.

Important notice: having a common repository is not the same as real-time collaboration! You might have to sequentially wait for ten people to finish what they have to do to take your turn at doing something while having a common repository, whereas the ten people and you can work on the same project with real-time collaboration. This is more like potato tomahto… they are not the same!

C. Let’s be nine-to-fivers for once

Or at least nine-to-sixers, please! The same way that you turned ON the Office mode in the morning, now you need to turn it OFF. Since now you can’t “leave work at the door” because it’s already at home with you, you need to also create and respect other triggers. It’s not only that life is more than work, but you need to recharge batteries to come back the next day in order to feel motivated to keep working. So, the big question is: where do we draw the line and shut down our collaboration tools, our laptop and the work side of our brain, and get ready to go for a jog or pour a glass of wine?

Writers are continuously under pressure to deliver a manuscript for a certain deadline, realistic or not. Truth is, most of the time we have known about the deadline, and willingly or not, we have waited until the last minute to dedicate attention to the task. To be able to deliver on time, we must be able to do two things right first:

1. Plan work to have enough time to execute it.

2. Execute work in phases, so progress happens naturally and noticeably before the deadline.

Yeah, I know it is obvious. What is not so obvious is that unless you register what you spend your time on, it’s really difficult to understand why if you have been working non-stop, things are still not done. If you register the time you spend on every activity, you will become better at planning work because you will know how long it actually takes you and your team to deliver something. And if you register thoroughly, you will notice when a phase has not been completed and will be able to act on it timely.

Let me tell you that if you have to register hours like a construction worker in 1928, there is something wrong. I mentioned that real-time collaboration is crucial for us at doDOC because it enables people to participate hands-on on a task and actually co-create things. Most real-time collaboration applications register every action executed by everyone, which enables us to understand how much time we actually spent doing something.

A few days ago, one of our clients said “when I’m reviewing a scientific article, I need to know how much time I spent working on it before I plan my next review cycle”, and that she loves doDOC because she has “finally found a way to understand how to plan my activities in a document and assign tasks” without the overhead of an Excel registry.

Once again, real-time collaboration comes to the rescue! These platforms have been conceived from the ground-up to provide the tools for working on a project with many people, while providing transparency and accountability of time and efforts. In other words, they are our best friends when the clock strikes 5–6 pm. In this way, the trigger for turning OFF the Office mode becomes when you have completed the tasks that you have planned for the day, or when the collaborative platforms show you that you have already been working enough.

And after COVID-19?

This virus and the crisis that it brought will eventually go away. Unfortunately, many people will lose loved ones and many more will be affected by the financial aftershocks. But it’s our duty as human beings to learn from tough times and change so that we are better prepared for the future. We will certainly do that.

As for working from home, very few will be able to claim that “they’ve never done it before” after this situation. Hopefully, we will learn a few tricks that are going to make us even more productive when we are able to go back to the office. Until then, please let me know if you find a real-time collaboration platform for virtually hanging out by the coffee machine… I really miss it.

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This article was originally published on April 29, 2020, at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/abc-home-based-scientific-medical-writing-covid-19-times-pinto/?trackingId=91KO50%2FDKaT8677oE4PLOg%3D%3D

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