After about five years of working remotely full time, I’ve learned a few things, and would like to share them with the community. As the COVID-19 virus begins to spread through communities in the US, many companies are experimenting with keeping a large portion of their workforce home, at least temporarily. This means that many more people will get the opportunity to try out this “work from home gig,” and will likely experience a bit of a learning curve. Some of the things I cover below may just be “tips,” but some things may actually even help improve your mental and physical health.
When I first started working remotely, I made a decision to maintain my existing routine as much as possible. This meant waking up at the same time, following the same morning routine, and sitting down at my desk at the same “normal” time…in spite of the fact that I was one of only two people in the company NOT in California. Because I was (and still am) on the East Coast, I was a full three hours ahead of the rest of the company. This turned out to be a huge advantage as I was able to set my own priorities, and essentially had the rest of the company reacting to me. Coming from ~20 years in and around DoD, I was disciplined enough to maintain this routine for the nine or so months I was with that company, and then well into my first year or so with GE, where I still am today.
Then something weird happened. I don’t fully recall the circumstances that lead up to it…I may have been traveling a lot, or been sick, or on vacation, but my routine and discipline were thoroughly disrupted. I began to simply roll out of bed, make a cup of coffee, and zombie-shuffle straight to my desk. I wouldn’t shower until lunch time. It was a terrible habit, to say the least. I don’t recall exactly how long I continued this, but it may have been a month or so; maybe more. Looking back on it, however, I think the bad habit was just a symptom of the actual problem: my health was failing. I had to get myself back together quickly, and snapping back into my routine helped a lot. I’m fine now :)
There’s actual psychological science behind this, too. Athletes call it the “look good, feel good, play good” theory. “Enclothed Cognition” essentially describes the relationship between appearance and performance. If you get up, get dressed, and feel like you look good when you sit down to work, you’re likely to perform at a higher level. Think about it…you’re treated differently when you’re wearing a business suit, than when you’re wearing jeans and a hoodie. People judge based on clothing, including ourselves. Here’s another reference if you’re still not convinced.
So my advice is this: establish a routine, and stick with it. Use your calendar to block off time for things that are important to you. Be ruthless with your prioritization and time management, because if you don’t, someone else will do it for you. And look good, even if you don’t plan to leave the house!
Sitting at the kitchen table with your laptop will not work, unless you live alone. Even then I would advise against it. You need to set aside a place that is strictly for work (during your normal working hours). If space is an issue, you don’t necessarily need a second desk, but you do need to find a place that is only used for work and is appropriate for conference or video calls. Ideally, this desk is in a separate room where you can close the door. I use the closed door to indicate that I’m on the phone, but what it really means is that I do not want to be disturbed at the moment. This usually results in text messages from outside the door, but at least they’re not showing up on camera with me! Aside from the inadvertent cameo (in the video below), this is actually a great example of a professional-looking home office setup. Maybe just add a locking doorknob for those really important calls.
I think having a designated work space also helps signal to your brain that you’re now in “work mode.” When you sit down at your “only-for-work” desk at your normal “start-working-now” time, your brain will transition out of “home mode” much more easily, at least in my experience. The opposite is also true: stepping away from that desk and turning off the lights in that room helps me transition back into “home mode” and start to relax with my family.
This is on you, now. You don’t get to complain about the worn out chair or the harsh lighting anymore. It’s up to you to take care of yourself, and if you’re spending ~8 hours per day in that work space, you need to make sure it’s comfortable and efficient. This checklist will help guide you, and I’ve shared some of my experiences below. You don’t have to spend a fortune to start working from home, but know that these things will become an issue eventually.
- Office Chair: About a year after I started working from home, I started to develop some back pain. After a while I realized my old, cheap desk chair was the culprit, and replaced it with a very nice chair. My pain went away almost overnight! Don’t skimp on your chair…spend as much as you can afford. Better yet, set yourself up right from the beginning with a way to raise and lower your desk, so you can spend some time standing instead. I didn’t buy an adjustable desk, but I’m starting to wish I did.
- Monitor(s): If you’re lucky, you can get your employer to help with this. You will be staring at this screen for ~8 hours per day, so make sure it’s as nice as possible. Eye strain is a real hazard in this profession, and better monitors make a huge difference. Your requirements may vary depending on your role (coding vs. spreadsheets or something), but I’ve been very pleased with the large, curved 4K monitors from Dell. Also pay attention to ergonomics…the monitor(s) need to be the correct height, distance, angle, color, and brightness.
- Audio: This is extra credit, but after spending countless hours on video and conference calls, I got tired of really poor audio from my bluetooth speakerphone. I splurged a bit on a nice podcast-quality microphone and some in-ear monitors. I’m told that my audio sounds great…but nobody else upgraded their audio, so the improvements were fun but limited on my end. My music sounds great now, though!
Technology / Infrastructure
I’ve already touched on audio and video, but this section is about bandwidth, both into and within your home. If you are making a living working from home, you depend on your internet connection. This is another area where you should get the best that you can afford. If you can afford to get a 1Gbps fiber line, you definitely should. If you can afford to get two of them, from different providers, do it (and then invite me over!). You’ll need hardware that can handle two fat connections, though, which brings me to my next point: your old Linksys 802.11b/g/n router running openWRT just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Consider all of the other people that live with you, how many wifi-enabled devices they use, and what they are using those devices for (i.e. Hulu, Netflix, Disney+, etc.). Now consider the enterprise applications (VPN? SSH? Video calls?) you’re probably going to be using, all at the same time. That’s a lot of bits flying around! You will need to start thinking about moving up to “pro-sumer” or small-business class networking gear. I’ve had great results with Ubiquiti Unifi gear, but others have not, depending on their setup/use cases. Pay careful attention to the wireless specs (e.g. 802.11ac), as well. Not all of them play nicely together, and one older device can bog down the entire network.
The point here is that we’re professionals, and real professionals invest in the best tools available to help them do their jobs. For us, that means rock-solid internet and wifi.
Relax, be creative
Stay with me here…this is arguably the most important point. Working from home can be incredibly isolating. In an office environment, you can swing by someone’s desk to chat and catch up, invite a coworker out to lunch, get pulled into after-work office functions, etc. You will experience exactly none of that while working from home. Therefore, you have to make a conscious effort to go be social. Social media and chat platforms become incredibly important, as they are your link to the outside world. You have to be constantly present in those mediums with your friends so that you can take advantage of spur-of-the-moment meetups or dinner plans. But this will only get you so far, as it’s not likely that they also work from home, and they are probably going to be happy to just go home and chill at their place for a while. So…you need another outlet.
Be creative. We all have something not-entirely-work-related that we’re good at that allows us to express ourselves. The challenge is in finding that thing, and then making time to do it. Block your calendar if you have to. But trust me, you’ll feel better if you do. You don’t have to share it with anyone, but if it’s something that you’re excited about, then by all means do! It’s a different sense of pride and accomplishment, and it’s incredibly healthy.
Working from home is not for everybody. Some people simply do better in a normal office setting, and that’s perfectly fine. But if you do think you want to try it, or maybe you already do work from home, hopefully you will find this helpful. As always, if you have comments or suggestions, ping me on twitter!