So you find yourself working from home... post

March 23rd, 2020

So, you've found yourself suddenly working from home as part of the massive upheaval CORVID-19 has caused worldwide. I have worked from home for the past 13 years for a variety of companies so I feel like I have the "work from home" process working correctly.

Even long-time remote workers like myself are struggling to stay on track and focussed on work. It's okay to feel overwhelmed. This is not a normal situation. As always, take care of your mental health and physical health.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that what I am going to talk about works for me under my particular set of circumstances. Lots of this advice will likely work for you too.

Location

A dedicated work space is the best thing you can do to build what I think is the tripod that will support you -- comfort, convenience, and discipline. When I first started working from home, I worked from a desk in my unfinished basement. Once I got tired of being cold all the time, I relocated to my dining room table. We then got our basement renovated to include a home office, and I worked from there for 10 years until we moved to our current location. Where I live right now I have a home office on the main floor.

Now, I realize that this is not viable for everyone. You probably lack the space for a separate room. If you can't get dedicated space with a door you can close when you need to concentrate, I suggest picking a spot where you living and make that where you will work. When not working, try not to be in that spot unless you have to. Harder to do if you are not using a laptop, I know.

One of the key coping mechanisms is making sure you can put a clear separation between work life and home life. Being at home constantly can make it feel like you never get a break from work, especially if you are prone to overworking/workaholic tendencies.

Equipment

There is no special set of equipment that will make you more productive when working from home. I mean, here is my list of what I use every day:

  • Late 2016 13" MacBook Pro (run closed and connected to display)
  • Logitech MX Master 2S (with an Apple Magic Mouse as backup)
  • Advantage2 LF Kinesis keyboard (to stay out in front of RSI)
  • Dell P2715Q display
  • Logitech web cam
  • Blue Yeti Mic
  • Senheiser HD 558 headphones

I think the bare minimum you need for working from home is:

  • web cam (built-in is good enough, don't kid yourself)
  • headphones

Everything else depends on budget and the context of where you are working.

I work from an IKEA desk using a Herman Miller Aeron chair for Large Humans that I bought in 2014, both of them adjusted at the correct height for my particular ergonomics. I am an Old Man Using A Computer (I turn 49 tomorrow) so I also have fairly large font sized and the monitor at a height to not make me strain my neck or my back.

I am one of those people who have never been able to get comfortable working on a couch or laying in bed. I encourage you to make a choice that is both comfortable and does not lead to long-term injuries due to poor posture and having your wrists at an angle that is not good for it.

It took me maybe six months to get back to my normal typing speed when I got my ergonomic keyboard.

Communication

This is the hardest part of working remotely. I have worked at places that have done this well (Mozilla is the best so far) and lots of places where it was not done well. In my experience, the key to good communication with a remote workforce is that everyone uses the same communication channels. This means, at minimum

  • email
  • text-based chat
  • video conferencing

Effort also needs to be made to document what was discussed so anyone who could not be present for anything in those three communication channels can be brought up to speed.

Every place that I have worked where the decisions made by people caused lots of friction where because they were made outside of the "company" channels. Making key decisions during cigarette breaks or after-work dinners is a sure way to make a large number of your employees angry at your choices.

Discipline

To be very blunt -- people can find just as many ways to screw around and waste time in a centrally-located work environment as they can working remotely. If you screw around long enough in any work environment, you are likely to get fired.

My suggestion is to try and stay focussed on the tasks at hand, and allow yourself to blow off steam whenever you have completed one of those tasks. Learning how to decide what needs to be done for any task is a critical skill you will need, since remote work is often asynchronous and lacking in real-time answers.

Again, there are no silver bullets or special tools to handle this. Over the years I have found the book "The Mikado Method" to be very helpful.

Social Interaction

Again, to be blunt, you are as socially isolated as you want to be when working remotely. Under normal circumstances you can always go out and maybe work from a coffee shop or go to a co-working space. In our current COVID-19 situation, those are not options that you can choose. I stay in touch with my friends via text chats (both group ones online and individual ones) and video chats. I deliberately choose hobbies that have a very large social part to them. All of this is to ensure I do not end up feeling isolated and lacking in human contact. Working from home also allows me to spend time with my family, and that contact goes a long way towards making sure my mind is focussed on the important things in my life.

In other words, stay in touch with the people in your life who are important to you. Even a phone call to a friend can do wonders for your mood at times where you feel isolated and ignored.

Make The Right Choices

Obviously during this time you really have no choice -- it's work from home or don't work at all. Working remotely is not for everyone but it has been a great fit for me.