Study Technique: Planning for perfect online working


Students – top tip for learning online. Use this approach to plan your day and make the most of your time.

Digital, connected technologies allow you to be connected to systems, resources and people at anytime, and almost in any place. However, in order to achieve your goals, you need to be conscious of how different patterns of interaction are suited to different types of work, and how to organise those different types of working into your daily and weekly plans. This will also help you to be more flexible, switching quickly between different modes as required.

When planning your time, choose a mode of interaction that suits what you need to achieve. You might want to get into a rhythm, switching between them, and also remembering to switch off to refresh yourself.

Collaboration tools and platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, allow you to manage your connectivity. You can set your “status” showing other people whether you are available, busy, or not-to-be-disturbed. You can control how you are notified about other people mentioning you in discussions, or wanting to contact you for a discussion.

Let’s consider each mode, and how you might make it work for you using the settings in Teams (there’s information on how to do that at the end of the article). The same principles apply if you are using different software, you just have to work out how to control notifications and status.

Before we go into the 4 modes, there are some Golden Rules you should always follow. To get the most out of collaboration tools, you need to think about how other people want you to work with them: the etiquette of online learning and working.

The Golden Rules of Communication and Collaboration

  1. When you need help from your department, a teacher, or a university support service, first look at any online guidance that may be available. Then if that doesn’t help, find out how they want you to contact them. They will most likely have a specified contact point and means of communication, so use it to guarantee that you get the response you need quickly.
  2. Be very conscious of interrupting other people inappropriately, especially members of staff. Don’t assume that it is OK to contact them even if their status is set to “available”. In some cases, staff will set virtual office hours for students, so stick to them. For support services, find out how they want you to contact them, and use that approach. Alternatively, if you are not already collaborating with someone in Teams, send them an email – don’t just start a chat or “meet now” with them out of the blue (that’s just rude).
  3. Choose the right tools for the types of collaboration you will be using. If you think you will be writing documents together, videoconferencing, having text-based discussions, and working with a small group of people for more than just one session, use a full collaboration platform in which you can set up a team space (e.g. Microsoft Teams).
  4. Try to limit the number of places in which you are communicating with people. If you are collaborating together in Microsoft Teams, don’t stray off into communicating in email or Facebook. If your module uses Moodle, and there is a discussion forum, use that, so that none of your fellow students are excluded from the discussion, and your teacher can get a sense of what activity is going on (if you were working in a physical classroom, you wouldn’t walk off to a different place to have a discussion with your friends).
  5. When responding to messages from other people, read the whole message! We know that when reading online people are much less diligent. Cognitive biases have a powerful and distorting on how we understand information on screen. This can lead to misinterpreting messages, and sometimes to unnecessary arguments. Be caring, conscientious and sensitive to the person behind the message, even if you don’t know much about them.
  6. When writing messages, try to be as clear as possible. If you are saying something complicated, write in a least two “passes”: first write what you want to communicate, then re-read it, simplify and if possible, put a summary of your message at the start. Many people will ignore the advice in 5 above, and not actually read the whole message. In some systems (such as Teams) you can give every message a title – if you are introducing a new idea, a question, or saying something different, always do this.

The Five Modes

Now let’s consider the different ways in which you might be working. Plan your time to include each of these as appropriate. Most online workers would agree that it is important for your productivity and for for your wellbeing to get a good balance.

1. Scheduled synchronous collaboration – let’s meet up and work together 🤝

Synchronous means “at the same time”. Organise a meeting with selected people at a specified time using the Calendar in Teams (which syncs with Outlook). In Teams you can meet with videoconferencing, or just using text chat. You could plan to work on a shared document (for example a Word document shared in a Teams channel or through some other means). Or you could do a presentation or demo, sharing your screen so that other participants can see it. Your status will automatically be set to “busy” while you are in the meeting.

2. Asynchronous collaboration – I’m working on our stuff at my own pace 👩‍💻

Asynchronous means “at different times”. You work together, but in your own time when you want to. Join in a discussion in a channel, with text-based posts. Read other people’s posts. Indicate that you have read them using emojis. Reply. And start your own discussion threads. Or make a contribution to a shared document. It’s good practice to report back to your collaborators on what you have been doing. When working like this, you might want to set your status to “busy” or even “do not disturb” (which blocks all chat and meeting requests). You can also switch off banner notifications (the messages that pop-up when someone mentions you or your team in a message).

3. Open synchronous collaboration – i’m free, call me! 🤗

Taking advantage of the always-on, always-connected nature of the internet, schedule time during which your status is set to “available”. Enable banner notifications. Keep your calendar clear, and enable banner notifications for chat and team messages that mention you. Tell your friends that you are going to be available at that time, and invite them to use the “meet now” feature if they want to do an impromptu video conference.

4. Independent working – please do not disturb 🤐

Schedule time for just working on things on your own. Set your availability to “do not disturb”. You might even close Teams (if you are using it on your computer) to make sure you can keep your focus. Switch your phone to silent. And focus.

5. Switched off but not tuned out 📻

Also remember to plan in time when you are not online at all, and perhaps doing something completely different. You could read a book. Or go for a walk. We have found that listening to podcasts, audiobooks, and the radio are good things to do, accompanied by some simple physical activity, if you want to keep productive. Listening to intelligent audio stimulates your mind and keeps it in good condition! We recommend to teachers that they provide some content in a portable audio format for you to use in this way. Keep a notebook nearby, so that when inspiration suddenly strikes you can write down your genius idea.

Controlling your status and notifications

Note that your status is also connected to events in your Outlook calendar. If you are in a scheduled meeting, your status will be set to “busy” (or you can set it to “do not disturb”).

Microsoft Teams desktop app or browser version

Click on your initials or portrait in the top right hand corner. You can then set your status.

On the same menu, select Settings, and then Notifications to configure how you want to receive notifications.

Microsoft Teams tablet and phone apps

Access the status and settings using the “hamburger” icon (usually in the top left of the screen).

Then you can set your availability, or click on the link to notifications to configure them. You can also configure “quiet hours”.

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

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