Some Advice For Working From Home
The other day I posted a short video of my WFH setup (and here's a May 1st upgrade). Today I have some general advice for WFH for people who are new to it.
I've been doing it randomly for the past 5 years, usually just one or two days a week here and there. Now it's a full-time thing for the duration of the coronavirus. So some of this wanders afield a bit, settling in for the long haul.
Some of it is based on things I've built up over years. It's unreasonable to expect that you can follow all of it at the flip of a switch. Some things you may say, "Sure, that's great for you, but it's just not gonna fly for me." And your approach to life may be totally different from mine.
Much of my approach can be summed up in a few things that drive this:
- I like to have plans, backup plans, and backup plans for the backup plans. No plan survives contact with reality.
- One of my favorite quotes is "Fortune favors the prepared mind," from Louis Pasteur, an appropriate mentor for these circumstances.
- The Boy Scout Motto restates that simply: "Be prepared."
- Another is "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," from George Santayana.
- And finally, care about others.
(See My Guiding Principles As An Engineer for a complete list.)
I hope there are a few nuggets here you can use.
Gratitude, Compassion, and Social Responsibility
But first I want to acknowledge how fortunate we are to even have this option. Many people don't. Many of them are being thrown into instant dire financial consequences, wondering how to make the rent and pay for food. This is a luxury they don't have.
I'm thankful for the employers who make it available. It's not necessarily a no-brainer for them. They have to have invested in infrastructure to make it possible. They have to have a willingness to allow it and trust their employees.
That includes working through the frustrations of getting things operating at some reasonable level of efficiency, and being willing to take the financial hit of the loss in efficiency and productivity in the meantime.
I'm also thankful for the network, infrastructure, and cloud service providers who have made this technically possible and keep it running. That's been a significant long-term investment and rollout. Would we have been able to do this on such a wide scale as recently as 10 years ago? Maybe not. 20 years ago? Probably not.
But now we can. All that investment is paying off. So part of the social responsibility we have is to keep the world and the economy running, not just for ourselves and our families, but for everyone else as well.
WFH means we can adapt and maintain a fairly normal standard of living. It means salary continuance for us directly. But it also means social continuance for now and for the recovery to come.
Think about all the things in your community you want to keep, your favorite restaurants and small businesses. Think about the things you rely on every day, municipal services, utilities, and businesses that keep things normal. Think about the things you've depended on when things went wrong, from the furnace breaking down to the check-engine light coming on in the car to the power failing in a storm.
Think of all the infrastructure and all the people that make it up. This is about supply chain, and all of the people it involves. This is about community chain. The people who run the large and small businesses. The people who keep them running, from the visible staff to the hidden staff and all the support people, and all their suppliers. The cashiers, cooks, servers, equipment operators, drivers, cleaners, maintenance and repair people.
These are the people who make up our world, whether we notice them or not. We are in a position to help them through this.
For restaurants, we can use their takeout options and buy gift certificates if we're not locked down. Similarly for businesses who can provide curbside pickup of their goods. That helps keep their staff and their suppliers going. And their staff and suppliers. The social and community chains run long, rippling down the line.
That's harder for other businesses. Takeout and curbside services aren't an option for them. But we can help them through direct small donations and donations to charitable organizations who provide direct emergency services to their people.
That's what I'll be doing with my Amazon affiliate payments for the next 6 months. So if you order anything through an Amazon link on any of my blog posts, whatever I get from it will go directly into my local community (which isn't saying much, but I can augment that with other donations).
This is all important to me because I want to live in a society where everybody gets to enjoy the benefits, not just a privileged few at the top. I want a healthy society, not winner take all.
There will inevitably be stratification. But I want to see all strata able to live a stable life. I want to be part of the rising tide that lifts all boats, including the ones stuck in the mud.
No One Size Fits All
It's important to realize that each person's situation is going to be different. While office life tends to make things more uniform across individuals, home life is totally individualized, depending on age, living accommodations, and financial, marital, and family status.
I'm fortunate in several ways:
- We're empty-nesters. Our kids are grown, out on their own, so we don't have the added complexity of children at home all day needing direct care, entertainment, and education.
- We have a house with a spare room that I've been able to set aside as a dedicated work space, as well as exercise and hobby spaces.
- I've been able to build up my WFH setup over several years, not having to throw it together at a moment's notice.
- The communications infrastructure at home, in my area, and at my work are all well-established, with procedures in place to provide and maintain secure remote access. I'm sure they're being stressed to their limits, and failure of this infrastructure is one of the biggest risks in keeping this practical.
Pick and choose and adapt my advice according to what you think will work for you. Flexibility and a willingness to try and fail until you succeed will be your greatest assets.
Having kids at home is the biggest challenge, and will render some of this advice useless.
Maintain Your Regular Work Schedule
Maintain your regular schedule, just as it was when you went into the office. You've built your life around that schedule. It's what your body is used to, and what you'll return to. It's what your coworkers who coordinate with you expect.
That means starting the work day at the usual time, and ending it at the usual time. When the day starts, you're working. When the day ends, you're done working. When you're working, you're working, you're not available for more household errands.
Your work schedule includes breaks and meals. Make sure you take them. Get up and stretch every once in a while, walk around the room, shake it out like an Olympic swimmer preparing for a race. Take the time to prepare and eat your lunch. Break times also defocus your mind, and can actually allow useful thoughts that have been crowded out to come to the fore.
There are several risks here. First is that you let the start of your day slide later and later, reducing the time you'll be productive. Second is that you let more errands disrupt your work, though special circumstances with more people at home means this is unavoidable to some degree. Third is that the workday keeps going on forever, eating into your personal time.
So this requires self-discipline. It also requires discipline on the part of your employer and your coworkers, respecting your personal time. Time boundaries are important.
Make Sure Everyone Else In The House Knows When You're Working
Make a clear indication to everyone else that you're working. If possible, close yourself behind a door.
Make sure everyone else understands that during work time, you are not to be disturbed, or at least are to be disturbed as little as possible. That's going to be difficult in some cases, and will require time to be effective. You may need to go through a training phase for everybody.
This is also related to your employer and coworkers respecting your schedule. If your family knows that you'll be available at the end of the day, just like when you were coming home from the office, they may be more amenable to leaving you undisturbed.
That's also something to think about before you contact coworkers. Respect their time boundaries.
Setup A Workspace
Ideally, set aside a spot you can setup as a semi-permanent workspace. The worst choice is the dining table, because you'll need to convert it between eating and working constantly. But if that's your only option, that'll do.
Equip the space with the things you need to do the job so you don't have to waste time looking for them constantly, making sure you have enough power outlets, plug strips, chargers, USB hubs, cables, and adapters. To manage the growing rat's nest of cables, coil them loosely and secure the coils with twist-ties. Keep it all to a minimum if you're having to share the space with other uses.
You might prefer to set it up as a full-blown office. That might help you discipline yourself to the mental shift of moving in and out of work mode. That might also help with the rest of the family in respecting your work time and space. Physical separation can be good.
I found it very useful to have a separate monitor, mouse, and keyboard. I can plug these into my laptop for a more usable work setup, similar to the office. Sometimes I need a USB hub in order to make all the connections needed.
Make sure you have good network access. You might have to move the WiFi router around for better signal, or move the work space nearer to the router. You might do better with an Ethernet cable plugged into it (assuming your computer has an Ethernet socket; you might need an Ethernet dongle adapter). I've successfully used these Ethernet powerline adapters at two different locations to provide wired connections directly to the router over the house wiring.
If your regular home WiFi or Internet connection is having problems, a backup option is to use your smartphone as a hotspot. That turns it into a WiFi router, shifting your Internet access from the wireline network (cable or telephone provider) to the wireless network (cellular provider). Not all phones support this, and it depends on the type and quality of the cellular connection, which might also depend on your location in the building. Make sure your cellular data plan allows it, and that you won't owe huge additional charges as a result of using it. A similar option is to use a mobile hotspot device available from cellular providers.
Download and disconnect when you can, using the downloaded stuff offline. That reduces your dependency on the network, and reduces your load on it. Then reconnect and upload your changes if you have some. This is one of the ways distributed software development takes place, using tools like git, GitHub, and BitBucket.
Try to avoid a work style that requires you to be fully connected and online constantly. If you must, logout of things and use a single channel as the notification mechanism. Then you can login to other things as needed and logoff.
Does everyone really need to be connected via Hipchat and Slack and Zoom and Webex and Facetime and Hangouts and email for hours at a time? While these have generally been engineered to minimize load when idle, it might be useful to designate a single one as the always-on connection.
Maybe use the smartphone app version as much as possible, including forwarding work email to personal email that can be accessed on the phone. Just be aware of company policies regarding content on the phone. Some don't care, some have very specific security requirements.
Realize that the network hasn't really been built for this. Most residential network infrastructure is engineered with a certain capacity based on statistical assumptions about how many people will be using it at the same time, for what purpose, and for how long.
In this respect, the information superhighway is exactly like physical highways. Highways are built assuming a certain number of cars traveling on them at once, assuming some percentage of people in the area will need to be traveling on them at given times. Also assuming that people will get off them, not sit parked on them all day blocking lanes.
The good news is that the networks have lots of "lanes," and each lane can handle a lot of load. But everyone working from home (and all the school kids and college students at home doing online classes) is an enormous unplanned load for the networks. This will test the infrastructure and everyone's patience.
Video streaming is a heavy load, because it's a long-term connection using large amounts of data. That's like a car getting on the highway and parking in the middle of a lane, occupying it for a long time.
Email is a very light load, because messages are relatively small amounts of data that travel in a quick burst and then get off the network. That's like a motorcycle shooting onto an on-ramp, down the highway, and off an off-ramp. That's a download-and-disconnect type of operation.
Web pages can be like email, but they can also be like video streaming. Unfortunately, some pages are so overloaded with photos, videos, and ads, that the actual page content is dwarfed by all the other stuff. That's like sucking up 5 lanes so the motorcycle can race down one of them.
I think auto-play videos are a huge waste of network capacity, and I really wish websites would stop doing that. The network really isn't engineered for everyone looking at pages that fire up multiple auto-play streams (that weren't what the person actually wanted to see anyway).
This is clearly easier said than done, but is part of the self-discipline. There are all kinds of household distractions. Some of them are going to be unavoidable. Physical separation can help tone them down.
There are also all kinds of online distractions. Again, physical separation in a dedicated space can help with the mental shift, reminding you that this is work time, not browsing time. Some company-issued equipment may have usage restrictions and monitoring software installed.
If you wouldn't do it when working at the office, don't do it when WFH. When the thought arises, take a moment to assess it and decide if it really is something you should do in the context of your work, or if it is a distraction from work.
Worried about forgetting something important that popped into your mind? Write it down on a to-do list for after work. That gets it out of the way and removes it as a distraction, safely set aside to deal with later. I use the notes app on my phone to do that all the time, both in and out of the office.
This also works the other way, when a work-related thought pops into your mind when you're not working. As part of maintaining that separation between work and not-work, add it to a to-do list for next time at work.
Have Reasonable Expectations
When it's an individual thing, I find that WFH actually improves my productivity. But when suddenly everyone you work with is reliant on remote work technology, many inefficiencies creep in, and there are inevitably going to be glitches.
- Someone's computer or network is balky, or someone forgot to get onto the video conference. Somebody got locked out of their account by the security system.
- A server back in the office went down, and you have to wait for IT to get it going again. The cloud service subscription expired, and the person who administers it is in the hospital. This thing you need to do only works on the office network and isn't setup for remote access.
- The email sent to everybody wasn't clear, and set off a flurry of questions and clarifications. Everything requires more careful, detailed, time-consuming communications and acknowledgement.
- Critical items necessary for the job are still at the office. Maybe they can be retrieved from there, maybe they can't.
There are organizations who already function in a fully-distributed, remote manner. But you can be sure they didn't get there overnight. They had to put in a lot of effort and deal with a lot of issues to get things working that way.
Now your organization is getting to learn all of those things at once. Hopefully they've already learned some from the experiences of others and have prepared for them.
This will impact productivity and schedules. It will be frustrating. It will be stressful. Everyone needs to be patient and have reasonable expectation about what they can accomplish.
Certainly it will be more than zero, more than shutting down operations completely, but it will not be full, peak capacity. The margin for problems needs to be much bigger.
Over time things should improve as everyone works through the problems and mistakes. That's adaptation. It's not free.
That also means the company needs to have the financial resources to cover that adaptation, and possibly interruption of revenue stream. Financial margins will be drawn down.
Pay Attention To Cybersecurity
These are the kinds of circumstances that scammers and cyberthreats of various types like to take advantage of. Be extra cautious about emails you receive and websites you visit.
Make sure you're following all your company's policies on cybersecurity. Learn about the various types of threats to expect and jargon like "phishing", "social engineering", "two-factor authentication", etc.
If your company doesn't have any policies (unusual, but might be the case for a small company that hasn't yet thought about it), lookup information on good cybersecurity practices and hygiene from reliable sources.
Remember that no legitimate organization will contact you by email or phone and ask you for account or financial information. Don't click on login links built into emails. Well-crafted phishing emails can be very convincing and will convey a sense of urgency that you need to click on their link because of an important issue.
If a legitimate organization is dumb enough to send you emails like that or call you, go back to their website and lookup contact information (web links, email addresses, and phone numbers) and use that information to contact them. The only exception to this is if they send you an email (or call you back) in response to a request that you initiated. Confirmation emails with odd-looking links are a common occurrence when doing account or password recovery.
If you're a software developer, think about the security of what you're building. You can read my thoughts on this subject at We Need To Build Security In.
Stuff Will Break And Stay That Way
Things will break down over time, and they won't get fixed until life is back to normal. That includes physical things, virtual things, and regular services that you're paying for.
They won't get fixed right away because of disruptions in supply chains, limited staff availability, or offices being closed, with no one to take your calls. This will build a backlog that will take some time to work through later.
This will be annoying and might cost you some money, but in the grand scheme of things, let it go. Even as problems accumulate, remember that you're still working, still getting paid, and still in a good position for when things do recover.
Keep that in perspective. A few unaddressed problems and wasted expenses for a few months are nothing compared to what some people are going through.
Maintain Personal Hygiene
This is part of maintaining a regular schedule. Keep up all your regular personal hygiene habits. That's an important part of your personal health regimen, keeping you healthy to fight off sickness.
Like the schedule, it's easy to let things slide. And that can be ok up to a point, but keep it under control. Because again, that's what you'll be returning to. For instance, instead of shaving everyday, I let it go a few days. But I maintain regular bathing and dental care.
That also helps maintain a sense of normalcy, so it contributes to your mental hygiene as well.
Maintain Physical Fitness
Or maybe start if you haven't been already! This is another facet of health maintenance. But it also helps with stress management.
Being stuck at home all the time, maybe spending way more time with other household members than you're used to, dealing with the frustrations of trying to accomplish something useful with everyone else WFH, and all the added worries about the coronavirus, piles a lot of mental stress on the body. That can start to manifest as physical stress.
A good way to combat all that stress is to do some kind of exercise. There's a whole range of things you can do, from very simple and light, to very heavy and intense. Much will depend on your living circumstances.
But focusing your mind on a physical activity takes it away from the stressors. It helps you to establish some discipline among the chaos. The physical activity itself can actually influence brain chemicals that improve your sense of well-being.
This is one of those areas where I have decades of things I've built up to take advantage of. You can read about my regimen at Physical Fitness Program 2020-03 and Physical Fitness Principles.
Even if you have no dedicated space, you can use simple setups like a yoga mat, a few hand weights (improvised if necessary), or simple portable fitness equipment you can order online.
One of my absolute favorites, especially if you have limited space or funds, is the TRX Suspension Training system (I have the TRX Go).
It's portable, can be used anywhere you can anchor it in a closed door with a few feet of space, affordable, quiet, great for everyone from beginners through experienced athletes at a range of different intensity levels, and can be used for a variety of aerobic and strength workouts (there are plenty of YouTube workouts with it). I really appreciate its versatility.
There are cheap knockoffs available as well, but I always prefer to buy things from their original creators when I can.
This does for the mind what physical fitness does for the body. It can also influence your brain chemistry to improve your sense of well-being.
Meditation can be a very simple thing. It doesn't require years of training or a lot of mumbo-jumbo. It can be effective right from the start, even for a beginner. Just have reasonable expectations about it along with everything else.
All it takes is a comfortable place to sit. Focus on your breathing. Slow it, steady it, regulate it. Allow all the sounds around you (even the jarring and disruptive ones) to come in and pass through you, simply acknowledging them and then forgetting them.
Close your eyes. Count your breaths, 1 (in), 2 (out), 3 (in), 4 (out)...up to 10. Then start again. When your mind wanders, simply pull it back. Don't scold yourself. Don't worry about where you left off. Just start counting again.
After 5 or 10 or 15 minutes of repeating this, open your eyes. Continue to focus on your breathing. Then decide to be done when you're ready.
That's it. A whole beginner's meditation session. There are helpful apps like Headspace that do exactly that, and then build on the experience. But it's sufficient to stick with that. There are also YouTube videos.
By practicing this regularly, once or twice a day, it becomes a useful way to settle your mind. It's not a magic pill, it doesn't change anything about the world around you, but it helps you live in it. It helps you be the calm in the storm, anywhere, any time.
Have A Hobby
This is another stress manager. It helps to have a hobby to take your mind off things. Here I mean something that gives you simple pleasure just in doing it. Obviously this has to be tempered by the practicality of doing it at home under these circumstances.
One important characteristic of a hobby is that no one else has to care about it. It can be something you do just for you, as long as it doesn't cause problems for those around you. Sinking large amounts of money into it is a potential problem, so now's not the time to do that.
I like creative hobbies. Mine are woodworking and embedded systems (yes, I like to do my work as a hobby, but remember, the hobby part means I'm doing it for myself, it just happens to benefit my career as well). You can read about woodworking at CloseGrain.com or in my book, Hand Tool Basics, and about embedded systems at So You Want To Be An Embedded Systems Developer.
Don't let the hobby become a stressor of its own. Keep simple expectations. If you can accomplish something useful with it, that's a nice side benefit, but don't plan on it.
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On the security front, don't forget VPNs. The company I work for has one, so when I'm on VPN the network looks the same as if I'm in the office.
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