We Might Be Working From Home for Awhile

Here are a few tips to make it go a bit more smoothly

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Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Here we are, in full social distancing mode in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S., and elsewhere around the world, many non-essential businesses have either temporarily closed, or have asked their employees to stay at home if at all possible.

This means that as tech workers— software engineer/manager, product manager, designer, or any related role —we’ve been suddenly thrust into the “work-at-home” lifestyle. Furthermore, with school closures and other similar events, many of us will be working at home under far-less-than-ideal circumstances.

Before going any further, we should pause to recognize that we are lucky to even be able to work from home. For too many folks in lines of work where telecommuting isn’t possible, their near-term financial outlook is uncertain at best.

So with that, let’s buck up and figure out how to make the best of it. Below are a few thoughts and tips on how to most effectively work from home. This applies to telecommuting in general; we can expect that remote work may see a sharp increase even after the current crisis settles down. It also recognizes issues that are specific to our current situation; namely, working parents whose kids are also stuck at home.

Starting your day

Keep your basic routines

With everything we have to deal with, it’s tempting to simply let our routine slide. But any experienced teleworker will tell you that it’s important to keep your daily routines. First, it’s vital to keep a sense of normalcy in these times. Second, many of our routines — particularly our morning routines — help us to transition out of a “home” mindset and into a “work” mindset.

For starters, one of the most common daily routines we all share is getting dressed in the morning. So forget hanging out in pajamas and slippers all day. Changing into day clothes is one of the most important things to do to allow us to slip into our work selves. Besides, many of us will be involved in teleconferences throughout the day (more on that later). So while you don’t necessarily need to show up online in your best clothes, you should show up in, well, clothes.

If you typically shower in the morning, don’t skip that in order to sit in front of your computer a few minutes earlier. Have you been exercising before work in the morning? Keep doing that (even if the exercising regime itself needs to change). Eat a proper breakfast. Eat a proper lunch (assuming that’s something you’d typically do). Stop working and eat a proper dinner — even if your crazy new schedule means that you’ll later need to hop on for a few nighttime hours of work.

If you have kids that are now at home with you, the same goes for them. Their school may be closed, but they still need to get up at the same time, get dressed, and be ready to do some learning. Just like you shouldn’t slip out of your workday routine, neither should they shed their schoolday routines.

Teleconferencing

While the number of meetings we attend might drop a little bit, we’ll still need to meet and collaborate with others. While we’re all working at home, these meetings will happen online, via Google Hangouts Meet, Slack, Zoom, or other videoconference solutions.

Provide instructions within the meeting invite

Many videoconference minutes have been wasted in trying to get all of the invitees into the meeting. Incorrect links get passed around, instant messages ask “Am I supposed to be calling you, or are you calling me?”, etc.

Instead, when creating a meeting, be sure to provide videoconference instructions. This can be done in a number of ways, depending on the actual software being used. For example, when creating a meeting via Google Calendar, it’s easy to simply add a link to a Hangouts Meet conference right within the meeting invite. On the other hand, if you’ve used something as simple as email to invite folks to an online meeting, you might need to type instructions in the email.

But however you do it, be sure it’s clear to all invitees how to join the meeting from the outset. You’ll save a lot of time.

Use headphones with a microphone

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Photo by Tomasz Gawłowski on Unsplash

Rather than using your computer’s built-in audio, get yourself a decent pair of headphones with a microphone built-in. The microphone itself is the important part. If you’re working from home, you can’t be sure of what ambient noises might crop up around you as you’re talking. This is particular true for those of us who will have children at home. Using a microphone helps to limit the sounds on your end— other than your own voice — that everyone else will hear.

When it comes to headphones, many people recommend noise-canceling headphones. I disagree, for the same reason as above. You never know what other noises will suddenly appear within your home. Rather than blocking them out, you’ll want to be able to hear them yourself so that you can mute your microphone… before they start distracting everyone else online.

Keep video on and sound (mostly) muted

Nearly all videoconferencing software allows you to turn your camera off, and to mute your microphone. Many people disable their cameras (leaving their likeness on others’ screens to be depicted by an avatar of some sort) while leaving their mics on.

Instead, do the opposite. Leave your camera on. And unless you’ll be talking soon, mute your mic.

Why keep the camera on? Keeping video enabled increases engagement, both perceived engagement and actual engagement. If someone is talking to a mere avatar, there is no indication that the person on the other end is paying attention… or for that matter, that they’re actually even on the other end. Instead, seeing a person on the screen lets you know that they’re there, and actively listening to you.

Likewise, keeping your video enabled keeps you honest. If you know that the person on the other end can’t see you, it is far too easy to become distracted. They won’t notice that you’re responding to an email, or glancing at your phone. Heck, you could probably sneak into the kitchen for a snack without their noticing! With your video on, however, you’re forced to pay attention to what the other person is saying. Which… is the point of the conference in the first place.

In addition, it’s likely that we won’t see our colleagues in person for awhile. Seeing them online during these meetings is important to maintain our relationships, and to help decrease the sense of isolation that is apt to set in the more we work from home.

On the other hand, keeping our mics muted when we’re not talking helps address the issue of ambient noises. We won’t be caught broadcasting sudden noises, such as our kids bursting into the room, screaming like they were on a rollercoaster.

Plan out your location

If you’re lucky enough to have an actual home office, that’s great. If not, try to create one for yourself. First, if you can, choose a location in your home that you don’t typically hang out in. You’ll want to separate your work life from the rest of life as much as possible.

If your family will be at home, consider where they’ll likely be spending the day. You don’t want to be working and calling from the same room in which the kids will be playing video games. Likewise, the kitchen is usually a bad location, unless you’re either living alone, or living with people that don’t eat during the day.

All of this might mean simply carving out a corner and setting up a “desk” (which could be something like a card table, repurposed side table, or something similar). While you’re at it, be sure that you’ve got a notebook and some pens at your new desk, along with anything else you’d become accustomed to at your office desk.

Regardless of whether you’ll be working out of a dedicated office, or in some corner in your house, be aware of what your colleagues will see behind you during video calls. Make sure there’s nothing controversial or embarrassing there. For example, if there is a bookshelf behind you, make darned sure you’re aware of each and every book title on display. Be sure that there are no bills or any other visible papers that you wouldn’t want everyone to see. And of course, just be sure that your backdrop aren’t a bunch of piles of mess.

At the same time, try to avoid plain beige walls. Decorate your office or corner with, say, a painting or a plant on display. You don’t want to give the impression that you’re chaotic or messy, but you also don’t want to scream “I’m hopelessly boring!”

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Photo by Aashish on Unsplash

Speaking of walls, try to ensure that your background consists of a wall and not, say, a door. If you have other people at home with you — particularly your school-less children — you don’t know who might burst through at an inopportune moment.

Finally, pay attention to lighting. The point of videoconferencing is so that people can see each other. If your area is poorly lit, or if your lighting source is behind you (thus causing you to be backlit) then your face may not be visible. Be sure that your main source of lighting is either overhead, or facing you.

Screensharing

For many of us, a common part of videoconferencing involves sharing screens. We might need to present a text document or a spreadsheet, or step through a slideshow presentation. Programmers sometimes need to walk other programmers through their code, and perhaps even remotely pair program. Designers need to show mocks.

If you’re going to share your screen, then prepare for it beforehand. Most of us do nearly all of our work on our computers and, as a result, we tend to have a lot of information out on display. If we’re not careful, we could wind up showing our co-workers things like the following (all of which I’ve actually seen other people unwittingly display while sharing their screens):

  • Notes detailing all of the one-on-one conversations a manager recently had with their direct reports
  • Slack notifications from a different co-worker, which clearly indicated that the presenter was engaged in a derogatory conversation about a colleague
  • A browser window with other tabs open, whose titles indicated that the presenter was visiting a, well, not-safe-for-work website

While you might not be engaged in any nefarious activity, it’s hard to say what could come across as embarrassing, or what semi-confidential information might actually be visible.

So, you should we prepare, then, if you’ll be sharing our screens?

For starters, close — or at least minimize — any other window that you don’t need. If you’re planning to share a web page, make sure that page is in its own window, and not buried among a multitude of browser tabs. If you’re planning on sharing multiple web pages, then keep each of those web pages as tabs in a single window… and of course, close or minimize all of your other windows.

What else might you need to do while screensharing? If you’re displaying a browser window, you might need to make an impromptu detour to another page. Which might mean visiting your Bookmarks or History menus. So beforehand, check those menus for any embarrassing, or just overly-personal, websites. Best would be to clear our your browser history entirely, just to be sure. As for your Bookmarks, store any non-work-related bookmarks in a single nondescript folder.

And of course, you should shut off notifications. Here’s how to do it on a Mac, and here’s how to do it in Windows.

Scheduling your day

It’s extremely important that you schedule your days, rather than just trying to wing it. You’ll already be under a lot of stress. Don’t add to it by forcing yourself to try to figure out what you should be doing at any given moment.

Work time

First of all, establish your work hours. Under normal circumstances, your work hours might be something like:

  • 8:30–12:30
  • 1:30–5:30

These, of course, are not normal circumstances. So you might need to start early in the morning — and/or go late into the night — with gaps during the day as you attend to other things.

Home-school time

If you have children at home due to school closures, you also need to schedule time to — essentially — teach them. As you plan out your home-school hours, be sure to plan out the time for each subject as well. In other words, don’t just block off four hours for “teaching”, but rather establish a daily schedule such as:

  • 9:00–9:30: Math
  • 9:30–10:00: History
  • 10:00–10:15: Snack/break
  • 10:15–10:45: English
  • 10:45–11:15: Alternate between art / music
  • …etc…

Engage your children in creating that schedule. And don’t forget to include breaks, lunch, and physical education!

If you have a spouse or partner who also will be working from home and sharing in the home-schooling, you could try to divvy up the home-schooling time between you. For example, they teach the first two hours while you teach the last two. Keep in mind, though, that 1. if you have more than one child and 2. depending on your children and their age differences, it can prove difficult for one parent to simultaneously work with two kids.

Personal time

You’ll need to take breaks as well. As part of your schedule, make sure you include things like exercise, meditation, and simple sanity breaks, where you’re not working and you’re not home-schooling. If you don’t schedule them in, you’re likely not to take them, or to feel guilty when you do.

Publishing your hours

If you think you’ll be able to rigidly adhere to your schedule, you might want to publish them (for example, on your company’s calendar). On the other hand, if you want to stay flexible (for example, if home-schooling sometimes takes longer than expected) then another option is to tell your co-workers your rough schedule, and then to clearly indicate when you are offline (for example, by setting your Slack status to “Away”).

Maintaining a balance between impersonal and too personal

When we’re in the office, we’re surrounded by our work environment. Most of us try to bring a little of our personal life — in the form of family photos, a drawing that our child made, etc — in to help us get through the day with a smile.

But now that we’re working from home, we’re surrounded by our personal life. For some of us, it’s tempting to draw our videoconferencing co-workers in to our personal lives as well. While it’s fine to share a little of our personal lives, we want to be conscious about going overboard and crossing the line of being unprofessional.

So for example:

  • Telling a funny story about teaching math to our kids at the start of a video call is fine; others in the meeting can probably relate. Putting our kids on camera and making them say hi to everyone is probably overboard.
  • Having your favorite musical instrument on a stand behind you in your home office is generally fine; it adds a bit of visual interest to your call, and subtly tells your co-workers a bit about your hobbies. Playing the instrument as you’re logging into the videoconference is probably not fine.
  • Bringing a cup of coffee that you’d made in your kitchen out to sip on during a video call is probably fine; surely most of your other co-workers are relying on caffeine these days as well. Bringing your laptop in to the kitchen so your videoconferencing coworkers can watch you cook while you’re talking is probably a bad idea.

Consider setting up non-work video calls

With that being said, many of our co-workers may also be your friends. And surely, while in the office, we’ve had conversations with them that were wholly unrelated to work. Can’t we maintain that sort of camaraderie even while everyone is working remotely?

In this case, consider setting up meetings with the sole purpose of talking about non-work things. Maybe you and your co-workers have met each others kids, and would love to say hi to them. Set up a quick video chat between the two of you to do that. Or maybe you and a few colleagues are all musicians. Set up a video chat to try playing together remotely. Perhaps you and some of your workmates share a love of cooking. Set up a lunchtime (or evening) call so that you can all try cooking the same recipe together.

Of course, double-check with your company if you have any doubts as to whether this use of the company’s videoconference tools is acceptable. Odds are, most companies would allow and even encourage this social engagement between employees. But even if not, it’s easy enough to set up a private Slack workspace and host your own.

We’re all in this 2gether

The other morning, my family and I were on our regularly-scheduled 8:30 walk around the neighborhood. Down one block, I saw that someone had chalked into the sidewalk

We’re all in this 2gether

Above all, keep this in mind. You’re going to be less productive for awhile. So will your colleagues. So go easy on yourself, and go easy on your co-workers. And while you’re at it, go easy on those kids who you’re suddenly needing to homeschool. Odds are, they’re just as stressed out as you are.

Be kind to each other, and remember: we’re all in this together, and we’ll get through it together.

Software architect, engineering leader, musician, husband, dad

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